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Revisionist-biography blues.

By Gregory McNamee

MARCH 1, 1999:  THE FALLEN ART OF WRITING LIFE: Biography, Sigmund Freud once opined, will always remain an elevated literary genre, safe from lowbrow hacks and writers of malicious intent.

People, Freud went on to explain, would never want to read a book in which their idols were shown to have feet of clay. Those idols, he reasoned, stood for the missing authority figures he so dearly wanted to impose on our lives; if we were to learn of any shortcoming our heroes may have had, the ensuing train of traumas would be catastrophic, and the offending biographer, having stirred up such bad vibes, would be summarily drummed out of literary service.

Well, Freud was wrong, as he was on so many matters. Revisionist biographers, those busy bees, have even made their way to his door. In his 1987 study Freud: A Life for Our Time, Yale historian Peter Gay attempts to explain Freud's obsession with power and control, wondering, for instance, why the good doctor refused to undergo psychoanalysis himself. (Freud said that to do so would compromise his authority.) Gay doesn't quite succeed in puzzling out the answers, but he raises enough troubling questions to make Freud suspect for time to come. Neither does he satisfactorily explain a signal turn in Freud's career: his abandoning the seduction theory, whereby sexually abused children develop neuroses in adulthood, in favor of the Oedipus and Electra complexes, whereby children's sexual fantasies about their parents result in disorders of the soul.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson tackled that problem head on, explaining that Freud found it more socially acceptable, and financially better for his already controversial practice, to blame the victim instead of the aggressor. In Masson's study The Assault on Truth, the twinkling-eyed, lighthearted demigod of Ernest Jones' authorized life of Freud becomes a self-serving monster. The shift is unsettling to those familiar with the earlier Freud, but perfectly appropriate to our time: evidently we want our idols and celebrities to have feet of clay, to be mere mortals like the rest of us.

Some such thought must have been with New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm when she tried her hand at a biography of the crusading psychobiographer Masson, In the Freud Archives. Masson, however, proved to be more testy than the orthodox detractors who panned his life of Freud. Having emerged in her pages as an arrogant master of self-promotion, he sued Malcolm for libel. The protracted trial led, among other things, to a very public dissection of the New Yorker's editorial practices, not to mention a hefty settlement in the plaintiff's favor. The magazine, it developed, allows for the melding of disjunct statements into a single, grammatically correct quotation--the reason most of its profile subjects seem so impossibly well-spoken.

By many lights, to manipulate another's words in such a way violates journalistic integrity, and certainly it appears to offend many readers.

Feet of clay, feet of clay. The change in biographical intention has come about over the last three decades, its origins coeval with the decline of the Vietnam War and our culture's lapse into cynicism and apathy. In 1968, when first brother John Kennedy was still regarded as a hero, Carlos Baker published his biography of the once-great writer Ernest Hemingway. In Baker's pages, Hemingway fell victim to the demands of his craft, necessarily sedating his hyperactive mind with increasingly large doses of booze and eventually losing his sanity in the bargain. Kenneth Lynn's revisionist biography Ernest Hemingway, published 20 years later, glides along on the assumption that Hemingway was unbalanced all along; how else to explain his macho infantilism?

That's modern biography for you: underlain by the belief that one cannot achieve greatness without being somehow unfit for life. To know that Jean-Paul Sartre drank a liter and more of red wine a day, that Tallulah Bankhead was a pain to be around, or that Cole Porter detested Greta Garbo's feet are matters of exquisitely small concern. If Joan Crawford was a bad mother, what of it? Adolf Hitler liked her movies, but what are we to make of that? Even the matter of J. Edgar Hoover's penchant for cross-dressing would be of passingly prurient interest had Hoover not spent so much of his energy--and the nation's resources--persecuting gays. We know Hoover to have been gay himself only thanks to the work of, yes, a recent revisionist biographer. In this instance, and it is one of very few, sexual preference becomes a real issue.

And some revisionist biographers even allow their subjects elements of virtue. John Mack Faragher's Daniel Boone corrects our picture of a gaunt, illiterate, buckskin-clad warrior who slaughtered Indians with abandon. Instead, we learn of a Boone who began his career as a hunter-for-hire and was never thereafter the master of his own destiny, who loved to read and could quote from the classics or near-contemporary books like Gulliver's Travels (on a map of Kentucky you'll find Lulbegrud Creek as evidence of Boone's love for Jonathan Swift's work), in whose house, as a visitor reported, "an irritable expression was never heard." Boone was indeed a great hunter and explorer, and indeed he opened up the trans-Appalachian continent to settlement, a mark against him in this anti-conquistador climate. He also took pains to attest that he had killed humans only in self-defense, fewer than a dozen over six decades on the violent frontier, and to aver that "while he could never with safety repose confidence in a Yankee, he had never been deceived by any Indian, and he should certainly prefer a state of nature to a state of civilization." Boone emerges from Faragher's pages, as before, an American hero: but this time for true and proper reasons, and not through the workings of the great national mythmaking machine.

But for every good new life study and autobiography, it seems, there are a dozen bad ones, most of them trivial at that: Kathryn Harrison's 1997 memoir The Kiss, an account of her incestuous relationship with her father, stands out as a case in point. I suspect that Sigmund Freud would be astounded by our condition, in which an idolatrous public yearns for idoloclasts. He would be right to wonder, too, why so many persons of insignificant attainment--Monica Lewinsky, say, who recently signed a $600,000 deal for her memoir of servicing the President--should dominate the shelves at the expense of women and men of real distinction.

To hope for a level of biography that crosses the Kitty Kelley/Joe McGinniss/William Novak meridian is not a sentimental matter of us wishing us to all get along. Heaven knows, there are plenty of villains out in the world, plenty of room for biographical distortions and historical untruths to be set aright. (Don't wait to write a book if someone tells you the Holocaust never occurred. Spit in his face.) There is plenty of work to be done, and we can hope only that it falls into competent, and, when appropriate, even kindly hands.

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