Examined lives: the biography boom
by Robert Fulford

(Maclean's, October 6, 1997)

Biography can be shameless, biography can be disturbing and slanderous, biography can be no more than gossip disguised as scholarship. There are people who think biographies are essentially trivial, and that those who read them are probably self-indulgent voyeurs. And yet, and yet, the telling of lives is among the world's most compelling forms of writing. It's become so popular, and absorbed so much authorial energy, that American and British critics have often called this era the Age of Biography.

Canada, however, has been comparatively slow to create a tradition of biography in the arts. It's true that the wonderfully wide-ranging Dictionary of Canadian Biography (13 volumes, and more to come) includes poets, painters, and the rest, but among full-scale artistic biographies there's been nothing, till lately, to compare with two-volume political classics like O.D. Skelton's Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the 1920s and Donald Creighton's John A. Macdonald in the 1950s. Memorable biographies of artists and intellectuals are relatively rare--Maria Tippett's study of Emily Carr, the Hugh MacLennan and Irving Layton books by Elspeth Cameron, Philip Marchand's life of Marshall McLuhan, Rosemary Sullivan's much-admired lives of Elizabeth Smart and Gwendolyn MacEwen, major works by Judith Skelton Grant on Robertson Davies and David Silcox on David Milne. That short list, unfortunately, covers most of the highlights of two decades.

But this publishing season brings a sharp increase in books chronicling the lives and times of artists and thinkers. The bookstores are filling up with James King's The Life of Margaret Laurence, W. Terrence Gordon's Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding, and Eileen Whitfield's Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. Other new books testify to a growing interest in artists' lives. For instance, Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman, edited by John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky, gives further depth to King's portrait of Laurence, and Great Dames, a collection of feminist biographical essays, edited by Elspeth Cameron and Janice Dickin, includes nuggets such as Cameron's brief, revealing life of Gwethalyn Graham, a now-forgotten Canadian novelist once famous for an international best-seller, Earth and High Heaven (1944).

Many more biographies of artists are on the way. Barrel-House Kings, Barry Callaghan's memoir of his novelist father Morley, is to appear later this autumn. Early next year will see the publication of The Gentle Anarchist: A Life of George Woodcock, by Douglas Fetherling, whom Woodcock chose to write his life story shortly before he died in 1995. W.O. Mitchell's son, Orm S. Mitchell, an English professor at Peterborough, Ont.'s Trent University, is working with his wife, Barbara, on the first Mitchell biography. Toronto-based writer and academic Rosemary Sullivan is working on a book about Margaret Atwood and her circle. Nova Scotia-born writer Gregory Cook expects to finish One Heart, One Way, his life of the New Brunswick poet Alden Nowlan, this winter. James King will follow his Laurence book with a life of her publisher and close friend, Jack McClelland.

What has created this boom? For one thing, the founding generation of modern Canadian literary culture is dying off--people born in roughly the first quarter of this century, from Callaghan (1903) through McLuhan (1911) and Woodcock (1912) to Laurence (1926). Their lives left questions that biographies can attempt to answer. Death releases letters and diaries that were not available during the subject's life--and makes relatives and friends more likely to divulge information. Another reason is that the maturing of the English-Canadian literary community, with its attendant apparatus of scholarship, university courses, and publicity, has made writers and readers eager to understand our culture through the people who created it. These are the lives that enlarge the lives of everyone--and we can appreciate them only if we understand them.

And, of course, those who write and read these books are paying tribute to themselves and their society as well as the subjects. James Boswell, in the dedication to his Life of Johnson, wrote of "pleasure in celebrating the distinguished merit of a contemporary, mixed with a certain degree of vanity not altogether inexcusable, in appearing fully sensible of it"--a point that's as valid now as it was in the 18th century.

Inevitably, a biography informs us that, no matter how well we knew the art, we never understood the artist. This is spectacularly true in the sympathetic, thoughtful biography of Margaret Laurence by King, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton who has also written on William Blake and Virginia Woolf. No one ever imagined Laurence's life was easy, but we close The Life of Margaret Laurence (Knopf Canada) with a fresh sense of the burdens she carried--and a new admiration for the way she carefully channelled her anger and sadness into her art.

Almost from the start, things went badly for young Peggy: both parents died when she was a child, and she spent far too much time under the power of a tyrannical grandfather. The need and the gift to write finally gave meaning to her life, but not serenity. Her marriage to an engineer, Jack Laurence, produced two children but collapsed because she insisted that writing came first with her. After the divorce, she lived a lonely and sexually deprived existence, summed up at its worst in the story of her brief affair with the Barbadian novelist George Lamming. This encounter warmed her heart and encouraged fantasies of a happier future, but it went nowhere--and Lamming, when King reached him three decades later, couldn't quite remember going to bed with Laurence.

In the end, even writing failed her. During the week that The Diviners appeared, in 1974, she remarked in a CBC radio interview that she would probably write no more novels because she had no more to say. At that moment she was only 48, and it seemed possible that she was merely exhausted by The Diviners. But her unusual prophecy proved true. She tried to write adult fiction, but never finished anything except some children's stories, essays, and a fragmentary memoir. For one reason or another, she soon collapsed into the miserable life of a chronic alcoholic. King's discovery of her decision to commit suicide at age 60, rather than endure slow death by lung cancer, made news this summer; but it is by no means the most melancholy of the stories he tells.

His book will raise among some readers an old question: do we need to know all this? King leaves no doubt the answer is Yes. The Stone Angel and The Diviners will only become more precious as we understand what it cost their author to make them.

The understanding we acquire from W. Terrence Gordon's Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding (Stoddart) is also useful, but less striking. Gordon, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, was the first scholar given access to McLuhan's diaries and private letters, and has produced an intimate biography that focuses special attention on McLuhan's religious life as a Roman Catholic convert (reading English essayist and novelist G. K. Chesterton brought him to the faith). During his lifetime McLuhan only occasionally spoke publicly about religion, perhaps because he thought it would alienate the unbelievers among his followers--Gordon notes that his faith was "difficult to detect in McLuhan's publications." But it was crucial to everything he did, as Gordon shows.

Gordon also looks closely, and touchingly, at the innocent, earnest young Winnipegger that McLuhan was before he began his metamorphosis into one of the century's most famous intellectuals. The son of an erratic, capricious mother and an unsuccessful father, McLuhan was restless for success even before he had any idea what form his life's work might take. Gordon skillfully uncovers, in the diaries and letters, early hints of the themes that would eventually dominate his work.

Unfortunately, Gordon's book illustrates the major pitfall awaiting a biographer who gets too close: he loses perspective. Where Marchand was an admirer of McLuhan's, Gordon is a fan--or an acolyte. Whatever McLuhan says or does, Gordon stands right behind him, applauding. He quotes what the young McLuhan said of Chesterton ("Nobody could wish him otherwise than as he is") and then says it applied to McLuhan in his lifetime. Actually, many (including admirers) wished McLuhan to be quite different, but Gordon prefers not to remember. Inconsistencies of thought, incoherence of language, opportunistic catering to businessmen: none of these provoke the biographer's criticism. He buys whatever McLuhan is selling, as if he were the master's private secretary. His approach to Jonathan Miller is typical. Miller, the renowned British stage director and neurologist, at first admired McLuhan's work, then wrote a book attacking it. Gordon, like McLuhan, declines to acknowledge that Miller might have made even one or two minor points. He appears even to endorse McLuhan's view that the only people who criticized his work were those it threatened, a bizarre approach to intellectual discourse. He so admires McLuhan that he sometimes mimics his prose style, with unfortunate results--"McLuhan by the end of his life had long since become an iconic figure, in a world that knew little of his percept that the iconic merges figure and ground."

Eileen Whitfield, a Toronto journalist and playwright, probably admires her subject, Mary Pickford, as much as Gordon admires McLuhan. But in Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (Macfarlane Walter & Ross), she manages to take an evenhanded view of her subject's virtues and faults.

Born Gladys Smith in Toronto in 1893, Pickford became the world's first movie star and "America's Sweetheart" but began slipping out of public consciousness in the early 1930s, before most potential readers of this book were born (though she lived to 1979). She has already been the subject of a considerable literature, including her own memoirs. But Whitfield shows us that there is much more to be said, particularly about the art of silent acting (to which she brings a connoisseur's eye) and about Pickford's part in creating the business of Hollywood alongside her partners in United Artists: Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and one of her husbands, Douglas Fairbanks. Whitfield makes it clear that Pickford's character, in her young days at least, was an astonishing mix of sugary charm and iron will.

What animates this book is Whitfield's love and admiration for her subject. She never ignores Pickford's failings--her half century as an alcoholic makes Margaret Laurence's problem look like a weekend binge. But personal shortcomings don't weaken Whitfield's conviction that history has never given Mary Pickford her due, as either artist or entrepreneur. Whitfield ends her wonderfully readable story by reminding us that the movies and TV shows of today are rooted in the innovations and accomplishments of the silent screen. "And there, as though in a secret garden, lies the seminal career of Mary Pickford--a woman of unstoppable power and purpose, whose genius still floods the screen, fierce and sweet." Pickford does precisely what the biography of a significant artist should do--it forces us to care about the subject while carefully explaining why we should. In the midst of a bumper year for books about more recent artists, Whitfield helps us recall a moment when Mary Pickford and the cinema were among the great attractions of a still-new century.

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