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Biographies for all the characters on your gift list

By Scott Stossel

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  For as long as Bill Clinton has been in the national spotlight, many biographies have been strongly inflected -- intentionally or not -- with the "character question." Last year's National Book Award winner for nonfiction was Joseph Ellis's American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Richard Brookhiser's 1996 Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington focused on our first president's exemplary civility and comportment as a not-so-sly way of commenting unfavorably on our current president's. And Thomas Reeves's 1992 A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy explored the relation between President Kennedy's sometimes outré personal behavior and his ability to govern. All these books -- along with the most complete biography of Bill Clinton himself, David Maraniss's 1995 First in His Class -- have in common a fixation on "character" as the key to historical and political understanding. But what is character? And what light do the best biographies of 1998 shed on the character question?

The depths of character

With the lurid details of the Starr Report still fresh in the national consciousness, it is appropriate that the past month has seen the publication of not one but two biographies of the Marquis de Sade. The more prominent is Francine du Plessix Gray's At Home with the Marquis de Sade (Simon and Schuster, 491 pages, $27.50), a full-life account of the man whose very name has come to connote sexual cruelty. Gray's book has the expected complement of rampant debauchery and sexual deviance, but her biography is most notable for the unexpected sympathy she brings to the man and his complicated yet (sometimes) loving relationship with his prim and proper wife.

But perhaps Gray is too much in de Sade's thrall. If that's the case, Laurence Bongie's Sade: A Biographical Essay (University of Chicago Press, 336 pages, $29) can serve as a welcome corrective. Bongie's book, more densely argued than Gray's, aims to deflate the exalted claims made about the Marquis by demonstrating that he was a monstrous character who was little more than a sexual predator and bit-rate pornographer.

Plumbing the murky depths of character can be a discomfiting yet illuminating project. When the character in question is Adolf Hitler's, there is rather less illumination and rather more discomfiture. For some, Hitler represents the living embodiment of evil; for others, he represents the extremes of abnormal psychology; for still others, he is merely a convenient vehicle for analyzing larger historical and social trends. Ultimately, the scope of Hitler's atrocity makes him fundamentally unknowable -- which,

of course, makes him an endlessly attractive (if that's the right word) subject for biographers, who can project onto him their theories of psychology, history, sin, and evil. Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler (Random House, 444 pages, $30) is a kind of meta-biography; it's a fascinating -- if sometimes existentially stomach-turning -- tour through all the major theories and theorists attached to the 20th century's most significant individual.

Included in Rosenbaum's survey are those biographers and historians who believe there is a physical or medical explanation for Hitler -- that an undescended testicle left him psychologically warped, for example, or that a disease contracted during World War I addled his brain and caused him to have messianic delusions.

Fritz Redlich is a German Jew who had to flee Austria in the 1930s to escape Hitler. It was not until some 50 years later, after retiring as a doctor and professor of medicine at Yale and UCLA, that he turned his scholarly attention to the man he was fleeing from, in Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $35). Redlich's prose can at times be turgid, and he's traveling over well-trodden ground, but his use of Hitler's medical reports to generate a psychological profile makes for an interesting "pathography."

Literary character

Sometimes the sour grapes are the best thing about literary memoirs and biographies, and 1998 was positively acidic. There was the always bilious Paul Theroux delightfully skewering his onetime mentor, V.S. Naipaul, in Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin, 358 pages, $25). And then there was Joyce Maynard's memoir At Home in the World (Picador, 347 pages, $25), this year's leading candidate for the Kathryn Harrison Ickily Embarrassing Memoir Award. At Home in the World is worth reading for its rare portrait of the reclusive J.D. Salinger, with whom Maynard carried on an unconsummated affair when she was a young college student.

It is wry humor more than sour grapes that propels the literary memoir of the year: Sarah Payne Stuart's My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell (HarperCollins, 244 pages, $25). Less a biography of the poet than a family memoir, this brilliantly entertaining book ("Half of my family is manic depressive; the rest is screwed up about it") has wise things to say about Brahmins, depression, artistic creativity, and the distinctively Protestant version of the dysfunctional family.

What on earth would inspire a biographer to undertake yet another life of Samuel Johnson? The bar on Johnson biographies has always been set very high: after all, he was an important developer of the form himself; and, more famously, he is the subject of Boswell's Life of Johnson, the equivalent of a running documentary on Johnson's adult life. What's more, the intervening two centuries have witnessed the publication of scores of other biographies of Johnson. Yet here is Lawrence Lipking, a professor at Northwestern, presenting us with Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author (Harvard University Press, 372 pages, $35). What can Lipking possibly have to add?

A surprising amount, in fact. Focusing primarily on the work, not the life, Lipking explores how through a combination of hackwork, drudgework (his famous dictionary), and imaginative literature, Johnson elevated himself to the status of a literary celebrity in his own time and a canonical author for all time. Deftly blending current academic theory with Johnson's own common-sense approach to literary criticism, Samuel Johnson is a good book for any Johnson aficionado on your Christmas list.

But unfortunately for Lipking, Counterpoint Books decided this year to reissue the greatest Johnson biography of all time (and yes, that includes Boswell's time): Walter Jackson Bate's Samuel Johnson (646 pages, $25 paperback). Originally published in 1975 and capturing both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award that year, Bate's book is not only the best available book on Johnson, it is a model of the biographical form: it not only conveys the facts of Johnson's life and the meaning of his writings, but also gets inside his head to convey his psychology. If it's character we're after, Bate's Johnson is filled with it.

Literary biography need not be about explicitly literary figures; it can be biography written with a literary sensibility, or biography of an individual whose character has the qualities of literature. David Remnick's profiles are frequently literary in both these senses; the one tragedy of his being named Tina Brown's successor as editor of the New Yorker is that we will presumably have less writing from him. Savor, then, his latest offering, King of the World: The Rise of Muhammad Ali (Random House, 336 pages, $25), about "how a gangly kid from segregated Louisville willed himself to become one of the great original improvisers in American history, a brother to Davy Crockett, Walt Whitman, Duke Ellington." Remnick's style, clarity, insight, literary sensibility, and, above all, catholicity of interests make him one of the best American journalists writing today. He is the closest thing we have to an heir to Edmund Wilson -- and he writes a better sentence than Wilson did. All these traits are evident in abundance in Remnick's story of how Cassius Clay literally reinvented himself as Muhammad Ali and created, in his own words, "a new kind of black man."

Political character

If the current crop of political biographies is any indication -- and I think it is -- Bill Clinton is merely typical of the great historical figures in being a bundle of strengths and flaws. To pretend otherwise is to engage in either hatchetry or hagiography. The concluding installment in Robert Dallek's two-volume life of Lyndon Johnson does neither -- a fact made clear in its very title. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1960-1973 (Oxford University Press, 687 pages, $35) covers the most politically significant years of LBJ's career, when he launched the Great Society, got America more deeply involved in Vietnam, and then withdrew from the 1968 presidential election.

Johnson's political nemesis was Bobby Kennedy; it sometimes seems as though LBJ and RFK remain locked in posthumous combat, matching each other book for book (and sometimes in the same book: in last year's holiday PLS, I called attention to Jeff Shesol's Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade, which is now out in paperback). Unfortunately for Bobby, Johnson is winning, and C. David Heymann's RFK: A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy (Dutton, 596 pages, $27.95) will not help close the gap. Candid in a Kennedy biography is usually a euphemism for "lots of sex," and on that ground Heymann does not disappoint. This is an engaging, if sometimes disjointed, book -- but it doesn't add much to our understanding of Bobby Kennedy.

Ron Chernow's Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. (Random House, 774 pages, $30) is not a proper political biography in that its subject is an industrial tycoon, not a politician. But Rockefeller's contemporary relevance -- much has been made of the parallel between Rockefeller and Bill Gates, for example, and of the burgeoning disparities of wealth and class that characterize both Rockefeller's era and our own -- give this magisterial work an uncanny political resonance. Finally, if you want to place President Clinton's character in the context of his predecessors', read Carl Sferraza Anthony's gossipy tale of infidelity and other pleasures in Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President (William Morrow, 645 pages, $30).

Despite the recent obsession with character sparked by our president's travails, the privileging of biography over history and psychology over politics is not unique to our time -- writers from Emerson ("There is properly no history; only biography") to Disraeli ("Read no history: nothing but biography") have subordinated history to biography. Isaiah Berlin, the 20th century's greatest liberal philosopher, who died last year, managed in his writings to combine the two. Berlin saw the lives and contexts of, say, Immanuel Kant or J.G. Herder or Leo Tolstoy as inextricably bound up with their ideas. His character studies of great thinkers were really idea studies, and vice versa. So it's fitting that the best biography of 1998 is Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Metropolitan Books, 356, $30), for the simple reason that Ignatieff emulates the example of his subject better than anyone else could have done. (Ignatieff, a brilliant intellectual in his own right, conducted ongoing interviews with Berlin over 10 years.) Private character and public conduct are intertwined, but not in the crude, all-or-nothing caricatures of the modern media; rather, in the subtle, complicated way that Berlin relates men's and women's lives to their ideas. We could stand to be reminded of this today, and Ignatieff's book does an admirable job of doing so by presenting Berlin's ideas in the context of his life.

Scott Stossel aspires to have his character called into question.

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