7th Annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture: Richard Holmes

7th Annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture: Richard Holmes

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(audience applauding) – Good evening, I’m Gary Giddins, the Director of the Leon
Levy Center of Biography at the Graduate Center at the
City University of New York. It is a pleasure to welcome you to the 7th annual Leon
Levy Biography Lecture, given this evening by Richard Holmes. I’d like to acknowledge
and thank several people without whom we would not be in our seventh season nor exist at all. Foremost, our benefactress, Shelby White, Trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, for her extraordinarily generous and longstanding support of
scholarship and the arts, specifically excellence in biography. (audience applauding) And Chase Robinson, the
President of the Graduate Center, who is an ardent
supporter of this program. I don’t know where Chase is now. (audience applauding) I want also to thank Judith Dobrzynski, Senior Program Consultant
to the Leon Levy Foundation. Bill Kelly, the former
President of the Graduate Center and Chancellor of the City University who launched the Biography Center along with an ongoing brain
trust that includes David Nasaw, Arthur Schlesinger Jr,
professor of history, my predecessors Nancy
Milford and Brenda Wineapple. And my indispensable program
director, Michael Gaitley. (audience applauding) One of the happiest
traditions of this evening is the chance to introduce
the current recipients of Leon Levy Biography fellowships. Please hold your applause
until I introduce them all. This year’s fellows are Esther Allen for a biography of the Cuban writer and political activist Jose Marti. Peter Filkins for a biography of the German Jewish novelist H.G. Adler. Ruth Franklin for a biography of the American fiction
writer Shirley Jackson. And James Romm for a biography of the Renaissance philosopher
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. I’m sure I mispronounced
that, I always do. We also welcome two dissertation students, Meredith Benjamin, who is writing Creating Feminist Identities: The Autobiographical Across
Genres in the 1970s and 1980s. And Christopher Silsby, who is writing African American Performers
in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Who knew? Please welcome them, they
will be working here all year. (audience applauding) You can find out more about
the fellowship program, which is now accepting
applications for next year and our public events,
which includes a discussion with Scott Berg on October 21st from our website and flyers in the lobby. A critic recently wrote
in the New York Times, no writer alive and
working in English today writes better about the
past than Richard Holmes. During the past few months,
whenever I tell friends that we were bringing Richard
Holmes to the Graduate Center, and no he did not come by hot air balloon, I can’t tell you how many
people have asked me that. They responded in a way that suggests the pleasures only a
great writer can instill. Holmes is that rare creature,
an unapologetic biographer, a partisan of biography
as a distinctive art, different from history and
as personal as fiction. Though as he argues in one of his books, it has the power to surpass fiction in the authority of truth. At 18 he walked more than
150 miles in the path that Robert Louis Stevenson
traveled with his donkey, hoping to find out what kind
of a writer he would be. He discovered he was a biographer. Having grown up in the 1960s, he found in the upheavals of that decade a way to revisit and reclaim
the passions of an earlier age. 10 years later in a 14
month surge of inspiration, he wrote Shelley: The Pursuit, a book that changed the way
Shelley is written about, imagined, understood, taught, and perhaps most significantly, read. The unforgettable first sentence is, “There will always be Shelley lovers but this book is not for them.” His books include the definitive
biography of Coleridge, a work on the young Samuel Johnson that restores the love
life Boswell omitted. The international bestseller
The Age of Wonder, the much beloved Footsteps, which may be the best book ever written about biography and its obsessions. His many awards and
honors include membership in the Royal Society of Literature, the British Academy, and the
Order of the British Empire. Allow me to offer three
Holmesian disclosures which justify Michael Holroyd’s contention that he is not only the most
romantic of modern biographers but also the most revolutionary
in spirit and form. First, he recognized
his literary fate when his bank bounced a check that
he inadvertently dated 1772. (audience laughing) Second, after noting how
uneasy Shelley and his sex life made Matthew Arnold and everybody else, he writes, “He did not make me uneasy.” And finally, in tracing Mary
Wollstonecraft’s time in Paris during the French Revolution, he identified so strongly with her that he was tempted to subject
her to a perilous adventure from which he would then
save her with this flourish, “Your faithful biographer, ma’am, come to extricate you in
the very next paragraph which has a secret trap door.” We are honored to have
him here this evening, please welcome Richard Holmes. (audience applauding) – I was standing in the
middle of 5th Avenue, as British visitors are inclined to do, gaping up at the Empire State. And then I looked across the avenue and then I saw the Graduate Center with its flags, its modest height. And then I thought, but
intellectually and imaginatively, which is the tallest building? It’s this one. (audience applauding) And I want to add to that, that I’m really honored
to be invited to talk here and I think it’s a wonderful
thing that you have a biography center here in
New York, really wonderful. And I think the study of biography can go on to great things,
so I’m touched to be invited. I also noticed the considerable ingenuity of the center in inviting me during the week of the great
climate change debate. As far as climate change is concerned, whenever I lecture in England, it always seems to be raining. And in fact some of you may know the famous Hay-on-Wye Festival, which is on the Welsh
English borders every year, the Woodstock of the mind as
Clinton famously called it. That’s always completely pouring with rain and muddy and you crawl
into a tent to talk. And on one famous occasion
I remember going in and just as I got inside the tent, the downpour, this Welsh voice said, “Mr. Holmes, fine
weather for biographers.” And then I thought I’d got in
and then he had the follow-up. “Plenty of feet of clay.” (audience laughing) I’m I think the first
of the annual lecturers to use the newfangled PowerPoint, it will almost certainly go wrong. As the great Lord Acton said, “All power corrupts but
PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” (audience laughing) This is not an eye test, those in the front row may be able to see. It just indicates my theme,
which is the two sides, that’s one of my actual notebooks. (audience laughing) Where do we start? This is the photograph I
always send in if people say, have you got a biographer’s photograph? But you will see my pictures
don’t necessarily illustrate what I want to say but
they provoke something. And what I want to provoke here
is the idea of the origins, the whole biographical
question of origins, where do things begin? Over at my Cambridge College, there was a wonderful Latin quote, “Felix, qui potuit rerum
cognoscere causas.” Which is a Virgil talking about the scientific poet Lucretius, happy is he the man or
woman who may understand or discover causas, the
root, the causes of things. And that entered very deep
into my soul when I read that. But my own life as a biographer started exactly 50 years ago, 1964, quite sobering thought
that, when I was 18. And not at that college,
long before the college but on a remote hillside
in southern France. This is how I described it in my notebook, which eventually got
into the book Footsteps. “All at night, I heard footsteps. Down by the river through the dark trees or up on the moonlit road
from Le Puy to Le Monastier. But I saw nothing except the stars hanging over me where I wanted to be with my head on a rucksack
and my rucksack on the grass, lying alone somewhere in the
Massif Central of France, dreaming of the dead
coming back to life again.” And that’s how it began,
the footsteps I heard were in fact two steps of footsteps, those of Robert Louis Stevenson
and his donkey, Modestine. For 10 days, sleeping rough, I followed his travels with
the donkey in the Cevennes, his book in one hand and
my notebook in the other through a wild highland landscape. And here I first learned the idea of biography as a pursuit. Following your subject
over the same ground, at first physical, and
then something else, something more metaphysical. In those days, remember I was 17, 18, I had the sensation I was
walking beside Stevenson, even talking to him. I could hear his Scotch voice, smell is home rolled cigarettes, a whiff of whiskey, a whiff of wet tweed. Sometimes my pursuit
was symbolically broken, as when I crossed a bridge at
the little village of Langogne but found it was a modern bridge and downstream was
Stevenson’s original bridge, broken, and I couldn’t cross it. It was quite a tough initiation, about 200 kilometers over nine or 10 days, including snakes, thunderstorms, river crossings with or without bridges, a monastery of silent Trappist monks, intense solitude, and most
perilous of all perhaps, a party of French boy scouts in a barn. Usually I slept out under the stars but sometimes I had to stay
at one of the little auberges. And here’s something kept happening, which taught me one of my
first biographical lessons. In those days you had to have a passport and it had your occupation in it and I had written, with
great optimism, writer. That was my occupation
because I published nothing. When I handed my passport
in to Madam at the auberge, always the same thing happened, she’d open it and say,
“Ah Monsieur Holmes, I see you are a waiter.” So then I thought of
putting in travel writer and then I could hear “Ah Monsieur Holmes, I see you are a table waiter.” And finally I did put biographer
in, in my later passport, I thought that might amuse
you, time changes all. And even when I had that, in
fact this did happen to me going to Australia on this passport, a voice said, “Ah, Richard, I see you are a type of waiter with
delusions of grandeur.” Now, in fact, this is important, it is a lesson in humility,
just as that passport is because in a sense, that’s
exactly what a biographer is. Someone who waits, who awaits,
who attends on his subject, who is in a sense at their service. And that’s the first kind of idea I had, the pursuit and the idea that you’re, in some way, this metaphysical waiter. I spent further four
months in the Cevennes, I learned more about Stevenson, and notably that his book was really a sort of secret love letter to the American women he had
met and who he’d later go on to marry in San Francisco,
famous Fanny Osbourne. And what I learned from that
is that biographical evidence is often hidden evidence beneath the page, between the lines, behind
the door, beyond the archive. So I came back from that journey with my first biographer’s notebook, which I put away in a trunk and went off to Cambridge University. But that was the beginning,
50 years later I think I now have 200 of these notebooks and I’ve brought the current one along. What I didn’t notice at the
time was that the notebook had naturally divided
itself into two sides. On the right hand page were the facts, the details, the dates
of Stevenson’s journey, and of course the archive material later. But on the left hand side of the page were all my own thoughts, my questions, my vague speculations, my dreams
about him, my own journey. So by simplifying you could say that the right hand page of that notebook was the objective account,
the factual account. But the left hand page
was the subjective story, the dream story, the
inner story of my pursuit. Now I believe that all biographies
need both these elements if a life is to come back to life. So that very simple idea that two sides of the biographer’s
notebook is what I want to just explore in the brief
time we have this evening. I want to, as it were,
go behind the scenes of the biographical practice. Well as Gary said, I
grew up in the late 60s. Looking back, student uprising in Europe, hippie communes in India,
civil rights here in America. And it was a time of
absolutely intense excitement, creative experiment, and above all, hope. Which I see I’ve written in my notes hope with a capital H, very important. I happened to be working for a newspaper, which is the London Times, and that gave me a sense
of watching all this. Also I read with terrific admiration a number of literary biographies. Because literary biography
was suddenly coming in into the ascendent in the 1960s. The ones I really remember
Richard Ellmann on Joyce, most people obviously would
know here in the audience. George Painter on Proust,
Michael Holroyd on Strachey, Walter Jackson Bate on Keats,
Carlos Baker on Hemingway. And those were very powerful effect on me, they had the big imaginative lives. And I could see how the past could become sort of mirror to the present. I see how individual biography could discover the human springs and sources precisely of
that hope and creativity. I could see and feel that
the dead were almost waiting to be brought back to
life again to speak to us. Of course, as I soon find out, biography has always had
its doubters and deniers and that I know goes on
in academia to this day. Perhaps a very good thing, good to have something to fight against. I began to collect in the
left hand side of my notebook various comments by the
doubters and deniers, also remembering that
Boswell once asked Johnson, would he consider writing
a biography himself. Of course he’d written
The Lives of the Poets, but his reply was, “Sir, I could write the life of a broomstick.” And I put this in the front of my study of Johnson, wonderful idea. Equally rather striking was
Johnson’s other great friend, Dr. Arbuthnot, who observed
mournfully to Boswell, “Sir, biography has added
a new terror to death.” (audience laughing) And I went on collecting these,
I’ll give you a couple more. Oscar Wilde on how problem
of biography a celebrity, which we have to this day. This is Wilde, “Every great
man nowadays has his disciples, and it is usually Judas
who writes the biography.” And that’s quite good Wilde. And another one I put
down, Somerset Maugham, he noted that, “Only three
rules for writing biography.” Tense moment, and he continued, “And fortunately no one can
remember what they are.” That’s quite good and then
Lytton Strachey, you remember, “Discretion is not the
better part of biography.” And Michael Holroyd’s very influential typically sort of ironic statement, he said, “Biography at least
keeps the dead in useful, if posthumous employment.” (audience laughing) So I was gathering those kinds of things in the left hand side of the notebook. And then Shelley arrived, a
deeply unfashionable figure, believe it or not, although quoted by Mick Jagger in Hyde Park. In academia, deeply unfashionable, and he’d recently been
excommunicated from the universities by Dr. F.R. Leavis in a brilliant essay. And I found this excommunication
deeply encouraging. So Shelley in fact combined everything that fascinated me at that moment, poetry, politics,
European travel, atheism, free love, certain kind
of student radicalism. All strangely reflected
or perhaps anticipated by the current turmoil,
interesting the way times change, past and the present
become mixed in biography. By attempting to write his biography, I would use the present
to understand the past and even more important, vice versa. So I gave up my work on the Times, I spent five years traveling
in Shelley’s footsteps, England, Scotland, Wales,
Ireland, France, and Italy. The Times editor wrote
me a very nice note, “We hope you come back, Richard,
but you probably won’t.” (audience laughing) I almost got to Greece with Byron but of course Shelley
drowned before he got there. So that was the real
pursuit and that became the watchword in the left
hand side of my notebook. And also the subtitle to the book. And eventually it ran to 800 pages, which now seems rather excessive, like much else that I did at that time. But one of the things that I remember is I bought a ex army camp bed and I slept on that all
the time when I was at home because I was telling
myself I was on campaign, that’s the only thing that mattered. And then my note here
says, do mention that there is room for two in an army camp bed. (audience laughing) On the trail I camped out
as near as I could get to Shelley’s constantly shifting quarters. Once I rented, I remember this, a room, it was in winter in
November in San Terenzo, which is a little tiny
village outside Lerici, where he had his last
house, the Casa Magni. And the extraordinary thing
was that the balcony I found was next to the Casa Magni’s. So in the evening I’d sit on my balcony and I could reach across
to Shelley’s balcony. And by the time it came midnight, I could almost hear them talking. So again, that extraordinary
sensation of the pursuit. My note here says yes, you
also took it a bit far. I was shipwrecked with two
friends in a small yacht in the North Sea, not in the Med, plucked out of the sea by a wonderful orange air sea rescue helicopter. The English Coast Guard
have a wonderful way when they know a boat is wrong, they found out who the crew is and they get all the detail
about the crew, all three of us. And when I was pulled in, somebody said, “Aren’t you the chap
writing Shelley’s biography? Isn’t this going much too far?” (audience laughing) What I wanted to do was to
connect Shelley’s poetry with his radical politics
and show the effect that these had on his friends, and particularly the women in his life, Harriet Westbrook, Mary
Godwin, Claire Clairmont. And here there were rich collections of journals and letters, very
important to point this out, superbly edited by American
scholars like F.L. Jones, Marion Kingston Stocking, and so on. And there’s a very important point how much the biographer
actually depends on that tremendous scholarly groundwork. They may do some of it themselves but very often you are
dependent on the scholars, who the general public don’t know, and one has a huge sense
of debt to these scholars and they should always be
splendidly acknowledged, I think, in your notes and so on, very important. The 60s allowed the kind of
liberalization of attitude to make it possible to write about their emotional and sexual
lives for the first time. And it’s easy to forget, Gary
mentioned Matthew Arnold, who remember created the
famous image of Shelley, the beautiful ineffectual angel but he also wrote this note
about a new Shelley biography. “In one important point,
Shelley was neither like a Pythagorean nor an angel,
he was extremely inflammable. After reading Professor
Dowden’s biography, one feels sickened forever on the subject of irregular relations. God forbid that I should
go into the scandals about Shelley’s Neapolitan baby. About Shelley and that Italian
heiress Emilia Viviani. About Shelley and the
dark eyed Miss Clairmont and all the rest of it.” That’s an essay of 1880. Well, as Gary said, it didn’t worry me. But an important point here, it’s easily assumed
that for the biographer, the sexual life of his subject is the most private, the most significant, the most difficult of access. I’m not at all sure this
in fact is the case. Now it is possible to have such an access, I think other kind of
questions come into view. And for example, I
think far more delicate, far more hidden, far more decisive, and much harder to write
about in figures in the past is what one might call
an inner spiritual life, whether it’s religious or not. That’s really difficult to get at, that’s the great challenge. And in Shelley’s case of
course, officially an atheist. And in fact the left
hand side of my notebook had a working title, which was
That Damned Atheist Shelley. And it’s quite clear from his writing, proclaimed his disbelief in Christianity, God, the devil, what
he called priestcraft, heaven and hell, and existence, wonderful essay on the
non-existence of a future state. So plenty of atheistic material but, and here’s an interesting problem, in that great poem Adonais, which indeed Mick Jagger
quoted from in Hyde Park about the death of Keats, there’s clearly, very clearly, an imagined kind of immortality
for his fellow poet. Remember those few lines,
“He is made one with nature, he is a portion of that loveliness which once he made more lovely. He doth bear his part while
the one spirit’s plastic stress sweeps through the dull dense world.” Now there’s a problem for a biographer, the atheist and the one
spirit, what’s going on here? There’s a kind of contradiction and I found it very very interesting. And I looked very
carefully at that passage and I found that it
had an earlier version. And this was written for his own child, his four year old son William Shelley, who had died tragically in Rome. And this is shattering
to the Shelley household and to Shelley particularly. And I found that Shelley tried
to write poems about William. And they’re only fragments
but they’re exactly the same of what finally appears in Adonais. Here’s one, “Where art
though, my gentle child? Let me think thy spirit feeds with its life intense and mild, the love of living leaves and weeds.” And then it breaks off and that is actually picked up in the poem Adonais. So there’s a very interesting kind of problem for a biographer. And when I was traveling through Italy, with my camp bed, et cetera, I found his little house above Lucca in a little remote village
called Bagni di Lucca. And his house was called Casa Vatini, it had never been seen since. But by verse means I discovered
it, here’s a picture of it. And he had the left hand side of it, it’s not at all distinguished, completely lost up in the
woods, very beautiful. And we know from his letters that he sat playing with little William there, it’s the summer before
he died, William died. And also translating Plato’s symposium. So I went, imagine me there, and I just sat in the garden,
I talked to the family, very sweet Italian family who
knew nothing about Shelley. When I told them about William, the wife there burst into tears. So I just sat in the garden making notes. And then I took a photograph, I had a very old fashioned
bellows black and white camera. That’s the picture I took,
very undistinguished, but there it is, plain
trees, all described. Very, very simple house. And I took the negative back, just look at the right hand trees. When I developed the picture, I found I had photographed
little William Shelley’s ghost. There’s him in detail, okay. I thought that for
approximately 10 seconds. And then of course I
realized this was the son of the family there who had come out to see what this funny
English biographer was doing and hidden behind the trees, alright? And that’s of course why
the mother burst into tears. So that momentary illusion,
which I’ve never forgotten, taught me something as a biographer. First of all, you must be
prepared to meet ghosts in one way and another, alright? But seriously, that a
biographer can become far more emotionally involved with his subject than he realizes. That is a good and necessary thing, so long as he can step finally back, step out of the frame, out of that garden, and that empathy and sympathy moves into a cooler kind of judgment. And that’s a very important lesson that you learn as you write, but I’ve never forgotten
little William Shelley’s ghost. And thinking about it, I realized that I was very upset about
it, I grieved for this. It seemed to me for the young Shelley that his one son, there was
a surviving son afterward but he barely knew that,
was a terrible thing. And though I accepted his
atheism intellectually, there was all the evidence for it, I also believed that at some level Shelley believed in some
kind of creative immortality that he could only express in his poetry. And that led on to my
question as a biographer, I thought how far is the
biographer himself, herself, responsible for that immortality, for keeping his or her subject alive? That’s quite a difficult
question to think about, that’s what I started thinking about. Coleridge, well pursuit of
Coleridge, the great talker, took 15 years and some
30 of those notebooks, ending in another excess 900 pages but at least over two volumes. Coleridge said decisively of ghosts, I put this in the left hand side. This was when he was in Malta, he was asked by a rather
enthusiastic young woman about ghosts and he said, “Madam, I have seen far too
many to believe in them.” (audience laughing) He, Coleridge himself, was
the master of the notebook, over 60 of them survive. And again, thanks to the life work of a Canadian scholar this
time, Kathleen Coburn, and they were saved from
the old Coleridge house in the West Country and brought to the British Library and Museum. Again, absolutely wonderful thing because those notebooks give you access to not only to Coleridge’s mind, his heart, and his literary writing, but also that central relationship with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. And also to his secret love life, the beloved, or possible femme fatale, asura Sarah Hutchinson, the
woman he fell in love with and out of love with his own wife, is a great central problem
in Coleridge’s biography. The notebooks actually
are completely fantastic, they’re all in different sizes. The writing as he gets more excited or possibly he has had more opium, the writing gets very out of hand. Wonderful writings made onboard ship or in coaches and so on, and the lists about his reading obviously, his dreams and his nightmares, his fell walking, his
endless self psychoanalysis, his battles with opium addiction, his thoughts about science and religion. And even things like the
completely amazing note on how to make polish
for your walking boots and he turns it first of all
into a kind of culinary recipe and in the end a kind of
prayer about how to walk well. So quite extraordinary
things kept coming up. Many things I’ve put in my
left hand side of my notebook, here’s one where you feel a poem about his end life is coming,
it’s just little prose, prose note made at Greta
Hall in the Lake District. “Shootings of water down the
slope of the huge green stone.” Very simple image. “The white Eddy rose blossoms up against the stream in the scallop
by fits and starts.” That’s where the water
comes down the stone and it circles like that,
goes round in the scallop. And then this wonderful additional note, he says this Eddy rose,
“Obstinate in resurrection.” That is the life we live,
obstinate in resurrection, and you could say that’s almost the theme of Coleridge’s entire life, the way he fights on and on and on against all his various problems,
obstinate in resurrection. Or a very different kind of note, found much later on when he was preparing his own lectures on Shakespeare. This wonderful four word note on Hamlet, on the opening of Hamlet. And this note seems, I think,
to summarize all Freud, four words, and the four words are, and this is the opening scenes of Hamlet, “Suppression prepares for overflow.” Isn’t that the most amazing critical note? So you’re continually coming up with Coleridge with things like that. His travels were in fact geographical as well as metaphysical. And so I followed him in
the English West Country, Lake District, Malta, Sicily,
Italy, back to Highgate. Let me just give you a picture of that, I walked all over these hills, this is the wonderful wild Quantock hills going down in the distance
is a little harbor of Watchet and in that walk he and Wordsworth started The Ancient Mariner. And the times I spent on that walk in all times of seasons, weather, I found that farmhouse where he took opium and wrote Kubla Khan. I found a palace in
Malta where I discovered he’d been copying, he was
First Secretary there, the last three dispatchers to Nelson before the Battle of Trafalgar
copied in Coleridge’s hand, sent from the governor of Malta. Quite extraordinary to
find something like that. Two worlds suddenly meeting. I found the little lost
house in Calne, in Wiltshire and this is where the worst
time of his life, in 1813, his opium addiction was at its worst. Do you remember he’s
given up by Wordsworth and even by Dorothy, who says
they don’t want to know him, he’ll amount to nothing. And he found this little
house opposite the church and the church yard in
Calne, which I also found. And he disappears for two years and he has this great
struggle against opium and he emerges with his prose masterpiece The Biographia Literaria. That again is an extraordinary passage to write about biographically and only by being there on the hillside, this is in the West Country
near the Marlborough Downs. There’s one of those neolithic
horses carved in the chalk facing towards London at a gallop and he refers to this and this image brought the idea of hope
that maybe he could return, maybe he could beat opium, maybe he could come back
to literary life in London. All the time in those two years, this neolithic horse on the hillside galloping towards London cut in the chalk. Those kind of details you
only find by being there. Let’s take a tiny bit further into this. In early childhood,
remember he was brought up in Ottery St. Mary and
some of his best poems, Frost at Midnight, Sonnet
to the River Otter, are written about that. And I looked into his childhood there, he’s almost ignored, amazing,
I got an email only last week from the good councilors
of Ottery St. Mary saying we are at last thinking
about a statue to Coleridge. Isn’t that amazing? There’s nothing in Ottery, his birthplace. But there are other places
and there’s one place called Pixie’s Parlor, which is a cave overlooking the River Otter. And Coleridge says as a very small boy, very greatly daring, he
crawled into this cave and at the back, he carved
his initials, S-T-C. So of course your biographer goes down in absolutely filthy weather
and crawls into the cave. Let me give you, this is
a rather charming view, it’s called the Pixie’s Parlor, this picture has a pixie
in it but this was later. But you can see it and
it goes far, far back, that’s been lit by somebody, and time I went there, it was pitch black. And this cave is particularly interesting because of course the caves,
this is a cave he crawled into probably aged about
five, four or five, it was a very brave thing
to do, carve his initials. But the caves of course
come back again and again, the caverns measureless to man, and there’s a much later poem
about discovering philosophy. “All alone, piercing the
long neglected holy cave, the haunt obscure of old philosophy, he bade with lifted torch
its starry walls sparkle.” Wonderful late poem
1812, tombless epitaph. Now think of those sparkling walls, I crawled in, I had my trusty lighter and right at the back, there
were the initials, S-T-C. So I straightened up
with a yell of triumph, struck my not very heavily constructed on the top of the stonework, and a large piece of stone
came down, not the initials. But what I realized was, it couldn’t possibly be
the original initials. The stone was far too soft, alright? So I crawled out, seeing
stars and deeply depressed and then I thought about
this and it seemed to me, in fact I was learning something, that this is the nature of biography, it’s a process of carving
and re-carving the story and many people contribute to it. This is the peculiarity of biography, in some way it’s a group
process, it provides a layering. And this got into Footnote, into my book, from the left hand page
to the right hand page. And the footnote read, “Such
carvings and re-carvings of his initials, ceremoniously
repeated by generation after generation of unknown memorialists suddenly seemed to me like a symbol of the essentially cumulative
process of biography itself.” Now that discovery, quite a simple one, but it meant a lot to
me, that takes me on to the whole question of
the study of biography and that happened in that cave
with me coming out like this. Just one other example. In Keswick, there’s this
wonderful house, Greta Hall, which Coleridge had as his study. And there’s where he
wrote Dejection: An Ode, which we know is in two drafts, the first is a secret love
letter to Sarah Hutchinson and the second is that formal ode on the powers of nature and imagination to heal personal grief and depression. So I pursued him then,
there are wonderful letters written from the flat
roof, the circular wing, and the window he climbed out is not that dangerous one there, it’s
just behind, you can’t see it but that’s where he used to sit and write. For instance, a letter
announces in this way from him, “Written from the ledge of
the house top of Greta Hall, Keswick, Cumberland, at a present time in the occupancy and usufruct possession of S.T. Coleridge Esquire, gentleman poet, and philosopher in a mist.” Isn’t that a wonderful
way to open a letter? So I of course went up
there and I discovered that it was actually a girl’s
boarding school now, right? So I thought tread carefully. So I wrote to the headmistress
and explained what I wanted and it turned out that that top floor with the window just behind
and the flat roof there was the sixth form girl’s dormitory. So I was granted a half
hour period of inspection under matron’s watchful eye, while the girls were all
safely away playing hockey. So I inspected the room
and it is extraordinary, from the letters, you could
see those wonderful views. He used to say he shaved in a mirror looking behind him at the views, through the window, of the Fells
and he always so delighted, he always cut himself
shaving, so magnificent. There are lots of little
details like that, you can recognize that from the room. And then I said to matron, would you mind if I climbed out of the
window onto the flat roof? So she looked at me like, she
said, “No, you may do that,” thinking these biographers,
what are they doing? So I crawled out onto the
flat roof and stood there, exactly where Coleridge had written the poems and those wonderful letters, gentleman poet and
philosopher in the mist. Seeing the whole view and this sort of absolutely inspirational moment. And then I looked down at my feet and there’s a little
gully along the wall there and stacked in very neat row where five bottles of Vladivar Vodka and a packet of Black
Russian cigarettes, sealed. I thought, ah. (audience laughing) So I climbed back out and there was matron and matron said to me, “Did you find anything
biographically interesting?” Well you know biographer
is an artist upon oath, so I took a deep breath
and at that moment, behind matron in the door
to the girl’s dormitory, one of the sixth formers came in, an angelic figure, blonde,
tall, she heard the question, she was standing behind matron and she fixed me with
her eyes and she went. (audience laughing) So I torn between the sixth
form and Coleridge said, “Yes, matron, I found clear
signs of inspiration.” (audience laughing) And behind me in the door,
they’re going thank you. Now that’s a little romantic episode but actually I thought about this, and I thought probably matron knew much more than she was letting
on, that was the first thing. And then I thought, innocently, was that the spirit of asura
there who walked in the door? And then I thought no, because maybe she was Coleridge’s angel but also she was Coleridge’s matron and helped him enormously
during the opium episodes, very interesting relationship between her as his amanuensis,
so much more complicated. So I came out of that thinking well, it is important to visit
these places of inspiration and you can capture
something through time, it’s still there through time. But you should always be on guard against the vodka effect, alright? And that also fit in into my notebooks. So one other thing among many
that I learnt from Coleridge, which made me think very carefully was his friendship with a
young chemist, Humphry Davy. This is in West Country when
they were both 20 year olds. Davy, extraordinary man, self taught, who would go on to become
President of the Royal Society, the leading scientific society in London. But then he was a young man
and he was experimenting at a marvelous outfit called
a Bristol Pneumatic Institute with laughing gas, nitrous oxide. And he had various volunteers. The moment he met Coleridge,
he asked Coleridge to volunteer to breathe euphoric laughing gas and there are accounts of the effect. Now the most interesting thing about this is that Coleridge’s statements, witness statements given
to the scientist Davy are amazingly closely
connected to his descriptions of taking opium and indeed Kubla Khan. So there’s suddenly this
extraordinary bridge between the scientific experiment and what you might call
a poetic experiment. Now that really made me think. And looking more carefully, I found that this area
completely opened up. For example, there was a very
interesting correspondence which went on for several weeks between Davy and Coleridge
on the nature of pain. Because what Davy had discovered was that nitrous oxide
could act as an anesthetic and he wrote a paper saying
it could be used in surgery. Now this is an absolutely radical idea, the very notion of
anesthesia didn’t exist. Most doctors thought
pain was good for you, it was part of the healing process. We hear in Napoleonic wars, where I don’t know how many amputations are on the big battle fields, Waterloo, 20,000 leg amputations took
place, all without anesthetic. So Davy was absolutely on the edge of a major scientific revolution. They discussed the nature of
pain, what’s its function? Starting with a quite sort
of clinical approach to it, was it good for people to feel pain? Did it become part of the healing process? And then Coleridge leading on saying, but what is its function
generally, philosophically? Why do we feel pain? Or as he would say, why did
God give us pain to feel? What’s that about? And particularly he said,
why do women in childbirth, which surely should be
nature’s great gift, why is it so painful? Very very interesting discussion begins. And again, this sort of alerted
me, I thought wait a minute, there’s something else
completely going on here, the poet and the scientist
beginning to talk in this way. The only thing, I actually
wrote a radio play about this called Anesthesia,
and the tragic thing, and it’s also something very
important about science. Although Davy published
that paper on anesthesia, he then went to London
and he started working on electricity and he dropped
the subject of nitrous oxide and it was never taken
forward for 40 years. And it was here in America that the role of anesthetics was discovered. So that’s also very interesting, how a scientific breakthrough
can be on the edge of it, biographically it’s very interesting, but it does not come through. So there were all kinds of
very interesting crossovers. Now while all this is happening
to me, making me think, something happened, which changed my mind and this was, I was suddenly invited to pioneer the first MA
in biographical studies at the University of East
Anglia in Great Britain, which is of course the center of the famous creative writing course. So I was asked, was it
possible to make biography into an MA course and a discipline? Now this was quite a
radical experience to me, I love this thing, this is just
what I felt like doing this. And we got, and this is relevant here, to the center here, it turned out, it immensely attracted people. It was quite small, I had
about 16 students every year. I had an astonishing range of backgrounds and also age groups, from
20 to 60, my students were. And that was amazingly good, it worked. Because you’re studying
biography, life stories, that the young and the older contribute to each other in quite different ways and it made for a very
very rich kind of seminar. And the way that I think
in many other disciplines, that would be a setback
to have that age range. Also though, I put a
list in my notebook here, some of the people, I had an Irish poet, published, wonderful woman. An American Mormon, who wrote an amazing biography of Mormonism. A general physician that’s
a doctor from Oxford. A Pakistani air force pilot
who subsequently wrote a novel called A Case
of Exploding Mangoes, which is on the Booker long list about General Zia ul-Haq. That started as a study
of tyranny by Plutarch, that’s how it began. I had the ex-headmistress
of a leading girl’s school, not Greta Hall, mind I’d say, alright? I had a brilliant Vassar graduate, I had a Canadian TV executive, I had a very interesting Norfolk farmer. I had a London social worker, and I had a mother of three
whose husband was a sailor and who was dying of cancer,
I’ll come back to that. The immediate question was,
how could I present biography, in general, as a form to study? As what Lytton Strachey
called a human discipline, it couldn’t be done. Because normally biographers tend to approach the whole
idea, working biographies, that you’re dealing with individual lives, you don’t have theory about it. So could you produce this? And the first idea that emerged was the idea that came out
of the Pixie Parlor cave, was the idea of re-carving of initials, what I call comparative biography. Is that it should be possible to study biography in
a historical context, how it had developed as
a form comparatively. So I began with Plutarch of course, went right into the 21st century. People here will be familiar with the kind of thing I might do. Also the second thing was
to look at, comparatively, one, a particular biographical subject and then follow how it had
developed through time, how different biographers had written about the same subject. And that becomes very very interesting. Of course in some cases,
I’ve mentioned Napoleon, but Byron or Lincoln,
there are hundreds of them. But sometimes you have
a particular subject who makes a model study and
one of my most successful ones was the English writer and
feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. A fascinating person
anyway in her own right, her first biography was
actually written by her husband, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, it’s one of the classics of
late 18th century biography. It was so frank, so
shocking, that people said it had ruined Mary’s
reputation for 100 years. I managed to bring it
back in Penguin Classics and it is a wonderful book
and wonderful to teach. But of course the whole point being that there is then layers
of other biographies. There’s a very early one,
an early 20th century one, by Emily Sunstein, which
is an American one. Claire Tomlin, Janet Todd, Lyndall Gordon, Diane Jacobs, who I
think is with us tonight. And these built up, you could then study how Mary Wollstonecraft
reputation had altered. What were the questions that people asked? They weren’t the same in
1930 as they were in 1980. What did they want to know? What did they want to hear from this dead but as Virginia Woolf said, alive speaking to us now, person? Mary Wollstonecraft’s a great figure. Now to those biographers you could come across amazingly different summaries. In some biographies she
appears a tragic heroine and another, a feminist martyr, another a dauntless travel writer, she traveled on her own
right through Scandinavia and of course into revolutionary Paris and saw all the terror and so on. A visionary educationalist,
wonderful on childhood education and also on women’s education,
how important this was, how the notion of quality depended absolutely on women’s education. A female Werther, wonderful mocking idea that she was a female version of Goethe’s great novel Werther, who
of course commits suicide, as indeed Mary tried to do twice. But an attacking type of biography. Or famously by her
contemporary, Horace Walpole, Mary Wollstonecraft,
a hyena in petticoats. So see the picture I’m drawing here that by studying one subject and the historical development of the biographies written about them, you then began to get a rich comparative picture of this person and also then of the biographical form. What was happening to the form? How did the storytelling change? How did the use of evidence change? How did the judgements change? I haven’t got time in detail to say but there’s a wonderful account from Godwin’s first biography, the first time he meets
her, he uses the word I. And he meets her at a
literary dinner party and Thomas Paine is also there. “I had little curiosity
to see Mrs. Wollstonecraft and very great curiosity
to see Thomas Paine. Paine in his general
habits is no great talker, unlike Mrs. Wollstonecraft. And though he threw in occasionally some shrewd and striking remarks, the conversations lay
principally between me and Mary. I have consequence heard
her very frequently when I wished to hear Mr. Thomas Paine. We made a very small degree of progress towards a cordial acquaintance.” Now that’s a brilliant chapter six, this is a kind of love
letter addressed to his wife and in fact it’s a recognition
of her feminism as well. But that’s the way he
chooses to introduce himself in the story to keep
the reader on their line and also with certain mockery of himself. The literary man who looks down his nose at Mary Wollstonecraft. So that’s the kind of
thing we could look at. And also looking at storytelling. We used a technique which was to look at the way biographies opened. Just take this first sentence. For example, Robert Caro’s,
wonderful Lyndon Johnson, here’s the opening sentence. “On the day he was born, he would say, his white haired grandfather
lept on his big black stallion and thundered across
the Texas Hill Country, reining in at every farm to shout, ‘A United States senator
was born this morning!’ But nobody in the Hill Country remembers that ride or that shout.” There we have the epic opening and then the voice of the biographer, reining in, say okay, pay
attention to what I’m gonna do. So it’s wonderful for
students to see that. One other one, a book by Alexander Masters called Stuart: A Life Backwards, which is a modern version
of Richard Savage Johnson about a drug addict and
a thief, a tragic figure. And it opens with the subject
of the biography, Stuart, walking into the room,
this is how it opens. “Stuart does not like my manuscript. Through the pale Tesco stripes
of his supermarket bag, I can see the wedge of my papers, two years worth of interviews
and literary efforts. ‘What’s the matter with it, Stuart?’ ‘It’s bollocks boring.'” That’s the kickoff, that’s the opening, and it’s what then Alexander
Masters’ gonna do with that but already the confrontation between the biographer and the
subject becomes a major theme is introduced, again just
that opening like that. So we could consider all those things. We also considered things
like the length of a life, that’s a Greek funereal urn. They pinned up, after
we had this discussion, thing called the lifespan
list, which went as follows. “American redwood tree, aprox 500 years. Galapagos tortoise, 190 years,
African elephant, 90 years. European homo sapiens, 75
years, if he or she is lucky, brackets, 20 years asleep.” Very interesting from a
biographer point of view. And so on down, “Canadian Grizzly Bear, clouded yellow butterfly, one year, worker bee, five weeks, adult
mayfly ephemera, one day.” And that Greek funereal urn,
if you look on the left, on your left hand side
is a living young man and on the right is his spirit, he’s dead. And above him is an ephemera,
a one day adult mayfly, and that represents the spirit, alright? And that was to make my students think about what is the value of a life and how do we fit into nature and what is the importance of that spirit, starting with that firefly above the head. I found myself in the end asking what did these particular and very
different students each want and hope to gain from
this study of biography? And again that’s very relevant to us here. Obviously many wanted to write
biographies for themselves and already had specific
individual projects, which ranged from personal
heroes drawn from history, amazing selection, Martin
Luther King I remember was one. Janis Joplin was another. General Zia ul-Haq, I’ve mentioned him. Queen Victoria, Yuri Gagarin, an amazing selection like that. Although a lot of them wanted
to write about their families and what my grandmother
did during the war, was one of the famous subjects. But going on to that, reflecting
on it, and again as I said, I think this may be relevant
as we draw to an end now. Others wanted to catch up on
post university education, after a lapse of a decade or more and regarded biography with its mixture of history, psychology,
sociology, literary criticism, archival research, what
we call field work, which I’ve been talking about, as an ideal mode of reentry into the whole world of scholarship. So biography does that brilliantly. It also obviously took me sideways into related disciplines of visual arts, portraiture, photography,
film, of course the internet, a whole subject on its own,
internet and biography. But behind these two broad
motives, I discerned a third, which only became clear
over the course of the year and usually, or very often,
among the older students. It was I can only call a need
for personal reorientation. They’d reached a point in their lives, often marked by some sort of crisis, a loss of employment, the
departure of children, illness, death, divorce, crisis of faith, which required some kind of
taking stock of their lives. Standing back to consider the ground, to consider the shape of
their own story thus far. And the remarkable thing with biography, by taking them slightly
out of their own lives, into someone else’s life,
allowed them to do just that, it gave them a different kind of overview. I wrote in the left hand
side of the notebook, another person, another
time, another place. Not as an act of therapy but
as a deliberate discipline. I remember one student saying she had reached a new landing
point in her life, she had climbed the stairs and biography was the banister helping me up. This was the woman whose
husband had then died of cancer. She wrote a brilliant biography,
a short biographical essay, on the marriage of the
beautiful Virginia Stanley and the daring 17th century sailor and adventurer Sir Kenelm Digby. And that’s one of the most moving texts I’ve ever read in my life. Now I want to close with
just this statement. I think I got to the
209th now of my notebooks and I want to hold this
up and almost swear on it. Because I don’t know how
unfashionable this is but I believe passionately
in the biographical form and its power of truth telling
and transformation in lives. I also belief it addresses the meeting of the two great modes of human discovery and I barely talked, I barely
mentioned but deliberately, The Age of Wonder, but I think the meeting of imaginative literature
and those who write it and science and those who make it, that is one of the new great subjects for the future of biography. And I believe that’s
particularly so here in America. You could say that if
our world is to be saved, we must understand it both
scientifically and imaginatively. I often think of something
Sylvia Plath said, or she heard her say this,
she said that if the novel, wonderful voice, the
novel is an open hand, poetry is a clenched fist. And I came away thinking that
biography then is a handshake, a handshake across time, across cultures, across beliefs, across
disciplines, across genders, and across whole ways of life. It is an act of friendship. It’s a way of keeping the
biographer’s notebook open on both sides of that endless question about the mysteriousness of life. What was this human life really like and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not really a mode of historical inquiry, it is an act of imaginative faith, that’s what I believe, thank you. (audience applauding)

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3 Comments

  1. I wish most mentors were fortified with Richard's disarming stance and an endearing, intimate, just-for-you-baby style of presentation. He does not drag his enviable erudition like cumbersome ladders across busy thoroughfares, or claim to have ridden astride a dinosaur without a saddle or harness. He is a sailor who has sailed the seven seas notwithstanding the warnings of formidable voyagers. A raconteur extraordinaire !!!

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