Michele Filgate in The Brooklyn Quarterly:
Writers of biography are translators of the human experience, responsible for reconstructing a life and deciphering it for us.
It’s a form that has evolved over time—one which Virginia Woolf examined closely in her famous essay, “The Art of Biography.” She wrote that “almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection…He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.”
What matters to many contemporary readers is that these fertile facts have the weight of truth behind them. “By telling us true facts, by sifting the little from the big, and shaping the whole so that we perceive the outline,” Woolf elaborated, “the biographer does more to stimulate the imagination than any poet or novelist save the very greatest.”
To document a life through biography, Woolf’s essay seems to say, is to perform a radical and creative act.
The word “document” comes from the Latin word documentum: lesson and proof.
We document other people’s lives in order to understand our own, in order to humanize history, in order to make a narrative out of everything. One person’s life can be told in many different ways. It’s a matter of interpretation.
The biographer’s perception of her subject is key. She gives us a life that has already been lived, so that we can live it again in a condensed amount of time—the amount of time it takes to read the book. To do this, she must spend countless hours sifting through manuscripts, letters, diaries, articles, thousands upon thousands of words.
Which lives are worth documenting in biography and which facts within those chosen lives are worth endowing with meaning? These are not foregone conclusions. They reflect and perpetuate our societal shortcomings, especially in considering women. Rachel Holmes’ book, Eleanor Marx: A Life, is a biography of a protofeminist, and is also a feminist biography. The author’s approach tackles head-on the multiple facets of Marx’s professional and personal life—documented and undocumented—in a pursuit of a richer portrayal that looks beyond the simply scandalous or the adjacent-to-fame. “Eleanor Marx the politician, thinker, feminist, and activist leaves us with our own question of personal responsibility to the common interest that is essential to social existence,” (448) Holmes writes. She was more than just someone who lived an extraordinary life; she is a reminder of “how we got here, where the democratic liberties we enjoy came from.” (448)