On Writing: The Reluctant Biographer

Photo: © Stephane Cocke. All rights reserved.

“My God, how does one write a biography?”
Virginia Woolf

I was never a particular fan of biographies, believing them to be long-winded impenetrable tomes. I admired Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, and Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury but they seemed more like biographies of ideas, sort of genius-cluster stories, than what I have since learned to call “group” biographies. And, until a few years ago, I never contemplated writing a biography. I am not a historian, I am not a critic, nor am I a literary theorist. I am a storyteller. Only recently have I begun to call myself a biographer.

My first book came out in 2015 with Lyons Press: The Great Hound Match of 1905: Alexander Henry Higginson, Harry Worcester Smith and the Rise of Virginia Hunt Country. I didn’t consider it a biography; I helped market the book as the story of an exciting contest between two eccentric foxhunters and their packs of English and American hounds at the turn of the 20th century.

In search of my next project, I began reading Mary Lee Settle’s work. Settle was born and raised in my home town, Charleston, West Virginia, about which she wrote a fictional saga spanning three centuries following a family of English immigrants and their descendants. When I learned about her long and fascinating life, not only as an accomplished author—she won the 1978 National Book Award and founded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction—but also as a bold and courageous freedom fighter—she enlisted in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in her twenties, even before the United States had entered WWII—she quickly became one of my literary and personal heroines. Settle went on to live and work in England, Europe, Canada and the United States writing fiction, memoir, and nonfiction, always searching for the origins of America’s ideals and myths of liberty and justice. Realizing that the one-hundredth anniversary of her birth was coming up in 2018, I determined to write her literary biography.

However, I was in grave need of instruction. My MFA is from The Writing Seminars at Bennington College. While biographers are on the Bennington faculty—Susan Cheever in particular—and, while many in the nonfiction track were writing memoir and personal essays, neither I nor anyone in my graduating class were looking to biography to express their nonfiction souls. I turned for help to Biographers International (BIO), a growing organization concerned with a flourishing art.

But wait: is biography a craft or an art? Novelist Walker Percy called biography “a second-hand art.”

I came away from a BIO annual meeting contemplating an essential question haunting the field: just what is biography.


Some say that a biography is a documentary on paper, or a novel with an index. A few claim that all novels are essentially biography. Is Madame Bovary a biography? Is Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit a biography? Is memoir biography? Biography, autobiography and memoir are often lumped together in what is described in academia as “Life Writing.”

Consider also that libraries and book sellers arrange biographies by the subject’s name, not the author’s. Doesn’t this place a certain moral obligation on the part of the biographer: two reputations are at stake here. The distinction seems to lie in that illusive noun that novelists, memoirists, historians, biographers (and evidently politicians) attempt to define: Truth. Richard Holmes, a literary biographer and keynote speaker at a BIO meeting said, “We (biographers) don’t do theory, we do experience.” Experience as story. But the story has to be true. As true as we can make it.

Virginia Woolf put much stock in truth. Her novel Orlando, subtitled A Biography, is shelved alphabetically by author. Orlando is a fictional biography of Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. It could just as easily be shelved with science fiction, time-traveling fantasies, or comedy for that matter; it’s light-hearted and really funny. Or it could be shelved with the writer-on-writing self-help books because Woolf happens to include some of the best advice and back-handed, satirical, spot-on critiques of biography out there. “A biographer’s duty,” Woolf’s narrator explains, “is to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; un-enticed by flowers; regardless of shade; on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone above our heads.”

In Woolf’s classic essay “The Art of Biography,” she places biography in the category of craft rather than art. “Truth of fact and the truth of fiction are incompatible,” she writes, concluding that biography can not be fiction and fiction can not be biography. Woolf maintained that her friend Lytton Strachey’s biography of Queen Elizabeth failed because he had let his imagination run away with him. “The combination proved unworkable; fact and fiction refused to mix,” Woolf writes. The question dogged her work; she also wrote Flush, subtitled A Biography, ostensibly about the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, but in truth about Browning’s courtship, marriage, and life abroad with the poet Robert Browning.

Edmond Morris, on the other hand may have been confused about the truth of fiction and the truth of fact. The only biographer ever commissioned to write the life of a still-living president, Morris published Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, in 1999. His memoir/biography of the president who, by the time it was published, was an Alzheimer’s patient, shocked the critics and many readers. Complete with footnotes, the book jacket assures us of the author’s “absolute documentary fidelity,” except that some of the footnotes are fiction. At the time of publication booksellers were unsure where to put it; the book’s copyright page, the source of most books’ Library of Congress categorization, declines to call it fiction, nonfiction, memoir, or biography. Critics called it a “new biographical style.” When the subject is the President of the United States, what are we supposed to believe if the author is not an objective onlooker, but a fictional narrator?

Edmond Morris, along with his wife Sylvia Jukes Morris, Clair Booth Luce’s biographer, were keynote speakers at a recent BIO meeting. Nothing was mentioned of Mr. Morris’s choice to fictionalize parts of Dutch. Meanwhile, BIO has officially asked the Pulitzer committee, having awarded its 2017 biography prize and both honorable mentions to memoirs, to re-evaluate its categories making autobiography and memoir a single and separate category from biography. This leaves me wondering how the Pulitzer committee might categorize Edmond Morris’ biography of Ronald Reagan, which he subtitled A Memoir.

And, full disclosure, I did it too. I fictionalized parts of The Great Hound Match of 1905, which is another reason I was reluctant to call it a biography. My research on The Match took me through archives that included autobiographical writings by both of my subjects. Then, when I found in the archives of the Richmond Times Dispatch that a reporter had been on the hunt field with my characters—a reporter who was in fact the scribe for The Match whose responsibility it was to follow and write about each day’s events, and who was in fact an editor for the Times Dispatch—I felt that I had enough information to fulfill my obligations of objectivity and enough background on each character to be responsibly subjective. I felt that I knew them well enough to narrate their stories from their own points of view. And, more important to me at the time, I still felt I was writing a work of creative narrative nonfiction.

Mind you, I had some push-back on the “creative nonfiction” aspect. One early reviewer suggested that I include “would have said” and “could have said” with each quote, but I concluded that those would-haves and could-haves get tiring for the reader, so I chose fiction for elaboration. Every other chapter in The Great Hound Match of 1905 is a fictionalized account of each day’s events over the course of the two-week Match. In the book’s Preface I am honest with my readers, making it clear that those fictionalized chapters are essentially historical fiction, meaning that I use real events with real characters in real places speaking in fictional dialogue.

Here’s a good question: where does biography differ from history? Historian and biographer David Nasaw called biography the history profession’s “unloved stepchild,” maintaining that historians “are constrained in ways that other writers…[those] more comfortable with random, untethered psychologizing, interior monologues, and imagined dialogues” are not. Some historians who write biographies might disagree with Nasaw when he says that, “Historians are neither equipped for, nor capable of, nor, for the most part, interested in constructing individual portraits with the density and depth of characterization that are available to and prized by” those “other” writers. Biographers are compelled to contemplate the extent of empathy, the hazards of sympathy, the limits of objectivity, the borders of subjectivity.


Which brings me to another essential question about the art (craft) of biography: who writes biographies and why? Leon Edel said that a biographer is “a novelist under oath.” David Nasaw points out that a good percentage of the American Historical Association’s past presidents have written biographies. Some biographies are clearly written for nosey voyeurs. Some biographies are allegorical guidebooks for those in search of a moral compass. Then again, don’t we read biographies to glimpse and understand how famous and infamous lives are lived, how a “self” comes to exist, ceases to exist, and then continues to exist while shape-shifting with changing times?

I’ve been reading biographies. LOTS of biographies. The variety and depth is stunning.

If the house of fiction has a million windows, as Henry James proclaimed, then there are just as many in the biographer’s.

I mentioned Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, a book about five friends with similar interests who, in retrospect, with the long historical view behind us, we can safely say changed the world. Uglow, who was once an editorial director for an imprint of Random House, says that a group biography takes away the “so what” factor that the story of a single life may carry. The “group” may be a literary community, a collection of colleagues thrust together by history, or they may not even have lived at the same time or known one another. Group biographers render their subjects’ lives more succinct in order to add depth to the implied premise that this group of people, whether by accident or design, accomplished something extraordinary. Uglow writes in an essay on her web page that this way of biographical writing supplies “a refreshing relief after footnoted tomes.”

Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt, is about Theodore Roosevelt’s trip down what was an obscure and dangerous feeder river in the Amazon Basin in 1912 after Teddy ceded his third presidential term. Edmund Morris had already written a three-volume “definitive” biography of Roosevelt and won a Pulitzer for his trouble. Hundreds of books and articles had been published about him by the time Millard’s book came out in 2005. But Millard chose a story within the story, and she went there: she hired a crew, experienced the experience in order to fire her imagination enough to take on her larger-than-life subject.

Laura Dassow Walls’ has written a new biography of Thoreau. What nerve, to write a new biography of Thoreau! “Each generation has attempted to bring Thoreau alive in their own way,” Dassow concedes in her Preface. She chose to approach the author of “Civil Disobedience” as a “reading of Thoreau’s life as a writer—for remarkably, he made of his life itself an extended form of composition, a kind of open, living book.”

Michael Gorra’s wonderful literary biography Portrait of a Novel, Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece was published in 2012. Dozens of books had been written about James’ life, including Leon Edel’s five-volume Henry James: A Life, which one critic called “one of the grand English-language biographies of our time.” Those are big shoes to fill. But Gorra put a twist in the biographer’s chronological lifeline. Yes, Portrait of a Novel is about James’ life and times, but Gorra bent the biography of a man into the biography of a book, concentrating on the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, surrounding the books genesis and James’ revisions more than a decade later that marked it as a true masterpiece.

Historian Maya Jasanoff’s 2017 biography Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World is extraordinary, not only for her literary craftsmanship but for her ability to meld historical fact with biographical subject. Geoff Dyer gave Jasanoff what I consider the ultimate compliment for a biographer: “Maya Jasanoff is an eloquent historian and an erudite storyteller.” And she clearly gave the historian-as-biographer question some thought. “The difference between biography and history,” Jasanoff writes, “is that biographers generally start with the person, while historians generally start with the conditions. If looking at Conrad as a biographical subject opens up a history of globalization from the inside out, approaching him as an object of history has let me shape a biography from the outside in, distinguishing the choices he made from the ones that circumstance made for him.”

Historian-as-storyteller, Jasanoff must be the exception to David Nasaw’s rule. Jasanoff also pulled a stunt just as harrowing as Millard’s. In the preface to her book Jasanoff describes the ordeal of obtaining a visitor’s visa to the Congo, hiring a guide, waiting…waiting for both governments to allow her to leave, and then, against all common sense, all advice and prudence, she went! She went to the Republic of Congo and took a thousand-mile boat trip through dangerous territory to find the story behind Joseph Conrad’s stories.

These are blockbuster biographies of famous people and their accomplishments. To read the prefaces of these books is to understand when and how the authors got the nerve to tackle such vast subjects. I found the stories of the authors lives intersecting with their subjects’ lives heartening and inspirational. I began to realize that the richest biographies concentrate on story, just like long-form narrative nonfiction, just like fiction.

My challenge, and that of others writing about less well-know writers, or personalities, or mentors, or whomsoever we choose, is to grab our readers by the shirt collar and slap them into recognition that this is a story worth hearing.

I am more inclined to call myself a biographer these days because I see the faces of biography, and biographers, changing. We are mixologists of the subjective and the objective, looking for a method to add life’s sweetness to the dry limits of chronology. We are mystics looking at a life as allegory, for hidden meanings and morals, without passing judgment. We are architects and builders, taking the measure of a life against external forces, making concrete out of cement. We are miners, chipping away at historical questions, exposing imaginative faith.

Group biographies, slice-of-life biographies, and adventure biographies seem to be the result of an emphasis on story: not a dismissal of fact, but choices made by biographers during the course of their research, to tell, not the definitive “be-all-and-end-all” of a person’s life, but the story of a life. Vivian Gornick made the distinction in her now-classic book for aspiring memoirists The Situation and the Story. “Every work of literature,” Gornick writes, “has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context of circumstance…the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: The insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

Maybe what David Nasaw noticed about historians is that some may concentrate on situation to the exclusion of story.


The problem becomes, how to find the story. I tell people that I am writing Mary Lee Settle’s literary biography. I give the elevator pitch and I watch my listeners’ eyes glaze over. “So what?” is their unspoken comment. I wonder, yet again, why am I doing this? How can I make people understand why her story is worth telling?

Literary biography is a special case, a sub-genre that literary theorist Michael Benton calls “the Cinderella of literary studies,” noting that her “two ugly stepsisters,” criticism and theory, successfully dominated literary studies for the first half of the twentieth century. The thing about literary biography is that there are so many stories to tell. There’s the story of the writer’s life, and the story of the stories she tells, and since she tells those stories in different voices, there’s the story of her inner storyteller’s life, all of which proceed on different timelines. Then there’s the story hiding within every biography, that of the biographer’s relationship with her subject: the voice with which she writes her subjects’ stories typically projects a story of its own. That brings the total of emotional dependents to at least four if not more. The thing the biographer “comes to say” will depend on what her subject has come to say, which can lead to conflicting sensibilities.

How does one choose a subject? There’s some debate over whether dead is better. Some say the deader the better. Personally, I think recently dead is best.

Mary Lee Settle was born in 1918, died in 2005. She published twenty-six novels, memoirs and works of nonfiction in her lifetime. She is best known for her monumental “Beulah Quintet” a work of historical fiction exploring the essential question: Who came to Appalachia and why? Her situation is three centuries of Appalachian culture, her story is why? My situation is Mary Lee Settle’s life as a major twentieth-century Southern Appalachian feminist writer; my story is that, in death, she chose me to write her life.

The early arc of her life is that of a naïve well-born southern girl destined for marriage and family after finishing school. But Mary Lee had a way of severing arcs, disrupting timelines, performing abrupt about-faces, and attempting self destruction, all in the pursuit of her craft. She dropped out of Sweet Briar College after being blamed for a date that nearly resulted in rape. She ran away to New York and married a Brit whom she met at a Russian tsarist expat’s party. She left their infant son with her parents in West Virginia to join the WAAF in England in 1939, presumably to be closer to her husband who had entered the Royal Air Force. She was labeled a “premature anti-fascist” and assigned to the signal corps. After suffering signal shock, what we would call PTSD these days, she was assigned to the US Office of War Information where she learned to write under some of the world’s best journalists at the time. Eric Hawkins, who had been editor of the Paris Herald Tribune in the1920s recognized her talent, took her off of VIP escort duty, and put her on as a correspondent. She wrote later that Hawkins gave her a post-graduate degree in journalism when she had barely been eligible for grade school.

Settle’s 1978 National Book Award was for her novel Blood Tie, about American expats in Turkey, where she had lived during the Nixon administration. She founded the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction in 1979, co-founded the Fellowship of Southern Writers with Walker Percy, won the O’Henry prize for short fiction, and was twice a Guggenheim Fellow. She taught young writers at Bard and Iowa Writers.

Though separated by two generations, Settle and I have a great deal in common. We both grew up in Charleston’s East End and graduated from Charleston High School. Our fathers were engineers associated with the coal industry, as most everybody was. Our fathers both moved their families across the river to the more posh South Hills of town as soon as they could afford it. We both experienced Charleston’s hypocritical social structure from the point of view of East Enders having migrated to “The Hill.” We both left West Virginia in our twenties. Neither of us could ever stop writing about Charleston, about West Virginia, about the mountains, about the people.

As a recently deceased author of importance, woman of the world, sufferer of no fool, instigator of rebellion, questioner of status and its quo, facilitator and mentor of young writers, there are many still alive who knew Mary Lee Settle, and knew her well. She is best known here in Appalachia, fairly well known throughout the South, but unknown elsewhere except in some exceptional literary circles. While alive she invited novelist Richard Bausch to be her biographer, but he turned her down, saying his skill set did not match the job. What did he mean when he said that his skill set did not lie in biography? He is a short story writer, an accomplished novelist. Story is his bread and butter.

Maybe he meant that the amount of research required to write a life story was too daunting to contemplate. Research…enough to drown in. Piles and piles of notes and footnotes and paste-its and sticky tabs and scraps tucked into journals and journals with more sticky tabs and computer files within computer files and books…hundreds of books one must read in order to write a biography. The death of my subject may well be the death of me!

She probably would not have invited me to be her biographer, mainly because on our first meeting I would have been scared shitless to speak. She was a “presence,” a “character.” Her editor at W.W. Norton, Starling Lawrence, said he witnessed her take the likes of George Plimpton and friends, at a gathering of the Paris Review editors and founders, to a “room full of sniveling boys.” E.L. Doctorow said about her work: “Miss Settle’s large ambition, her sense of scale, her capacity to take in the whole life, from the specific feeling of a moment to the vast historic forces in social conflict, are her great gift.”


To write a biography is a complex act of friendship in which one falls in and out of love with a person, alive or dead, he or she may know well, may never have met, may or may not even admire. I’ve come to the conclusion that the difference between biography and historical writing lies in the imagination. Imaginative metaphors for the art and craft of biography abound at a BIO meeting: perhaps a biography is a prism, concentrating light from many directions, then scattering it again into multiple colors and images; or perhaps biography is an accordion, squeezing a person’s life story into a tight scene or moment, then letting it expand to the wider times in which she lived. My favorite metaphor is that of an iceberg in which the reader sees what is above the waterline—the story—but the biographer knows the extent of research hiding below. This plethora of metaphors might be an attempt to describe the discipline of biography as a complex relationship between product and process. The unique aspect of biography, particularly literary biography, as works of art and literature in their own rights, is its tradition of crossing genres, using the essayist’s, the novelist’s, even the poet’s tools to connect history with narrative storytelling.

Mary Lee and I are getting to know one another. I am beginning to understand the nuances of her personality. I have glimpsed the depth of a personal mythology she constructed against her demons. I don’t like everything she wrote. I find her blunt personality off-putting at times. She could be petty and jealous. Her temper was reputed. I don’t know that I could have or would have wanted to be her friend. But I admire her work ethic, her gumption in the face of societal expectations, her absolute dedication to her craft. And then I read a sentence, or read a scene, or laugh out loud at her acerbic wit, and I’m hooked again. I have to write about this woman.

The trick is to remain objective, but not too objective…subjective, but not too subjective…to find the balance between dispassionate assembly of facts with the novelistic urge to find shape and meaning within random events of a life. I am discovering a voice with which to tell her story—a voice with which I hope I would be brave enough to speak to her.

I have to tell myself to take a breath, look around, make scenes, invent dialogue, awaken my senses to the places and times, the moments she lived. Like long-form narrative nonfiction, I must look for images in places I don’t expect. To be open to surprise.

I will remember Orlando’s biographer when she says: “We have done our best to piece out a meager summary from the charred fragments that remain; but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to make use of the imagination.”

Martha Wolfe received her MFA from The Writing Seminars at Bennington College. She is the author of The Great Hound Match of 1905: Alexander Henry Higginson, Harry Worcester Smith, and the Rise of Virginia Hunt Country (Lyons Press, 2015), a finalist in the Library of Virginia’s 2015 Peoples’ Choice Award. As a John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, her research was the basis for her essay “Edward Troye and his Biographers,” which appeared in the exhibition catalogue Faithfulness to Nature: Paintings by Edward Troye in 2014. She has published in The Boston Globe, Science News, Science Digest, The Bennington Review, East Tennessee State University’s literary journal Now and Then, as well as regional publications in Maine and Virginia. She was a guest lecturer at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at Lincoln Memorial University in June, 2018. Her essay “The Reluctant Sexton” won Honorable Mention in the Bellevue Literary Review’s 2018 nonfiction literary contest and was published in the Spring 2018 edition. West Virginia University Press will publish her literary biography of Appalachian author Mary Lee Settle in the fall of 2020. Her website is www.marthawolfe.net.

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