Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How Busybody Biographers Biograph

Awhile ago, I posted on FB some images of a device called a "Busybody," a contraption that John O'Hara mentions in a few of his stories and novels.  Since O'Hara was not so kind as to tell me what it was, I spent some quality time with Google and found some pictures and descriptions of a Busybody--a set of mirrors affixed near an upper window permitting someone up there to see what's happening out on the street--who's at the front door--that sort of thing, all without having to rise from the couch (this is definitely an American invention--we of the Snuggie, the garage-door opener, the TV remote, the drive-thru window, etc.).  I knew they were more common in eastern Pennsylvania (Ben Franklin the inventor), but what I didn't know was this ...

John O'Hara's father was a doctor in Pottsville, Penn., and O'Hara later wrote much about small-town, country doctors.  And why not?  He knew a lot about them.  His father's office was just down the street from their residence.  Little-boy John adored his father (that changed with adolescence).  Well, not long ago, I was reading one of the O'Hara biographies (the one by Finis Farr) and came across this: "John O'Hara at the age of seven or eight would use the busybody in the middle window on the second floor of No. 606 so that he could see his father coming up the street and be at the door to meet him" (30).

And suddenly that odd detail--that Busybody that pops up in O'Hara's fiction--took on enormous emotional significance.  And metaphorical, too.  As boy John saw his father in the mirrors, so he would, later, mirror his father in his fiction.

I learned long ago that many novelists hate being asked about autobiographical aspects of their fiction.  And who can blame them?  Fiction's fire is imagination.  But often the fuel is autobiography.  It's ludicrous to deny it.  Novelists transform experience, no question.  but the volumes of experience they remove from the shelf are often stored in the libraries of their own lives.

Examples, of course, are so plentiful as to be obvious.  How about a couple of really obvious ones.  Mark Twain's Mississippi River novels?  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?  (A significant scene between Victor and his creation occurs on the very glacier above Geneva that she and Shelley had seen in 1816.)  Jack London's Klondike writing?  Joyce Carol Oates' Niagara writing?  And on and on and on.

Of course there are counter-examples.  Many and powerful ones.  (Shakespeare anyone?  But even he scattered throughout his plays references to flora, fauna, sites from the region where he grew up.)

It does nothing to diminish a novelist's achievements to notice autobiographical elements in fiction.  For me, in fact, those elements add a surge of electricity, a charge of verisimilitude that, for me, animates the fiction even more, in a very intimate way.  It would make as much sense to condemn an Impressionist's painting because, you know, it's of an actual wheat field!

As a biographer myself (YA biographies of London, Poe, Mary Shelley), I've been astonished to discover the connections between creative act and autobiographical fact.  I've found that knowing lots about a writer's life gives me another doorway into the text--it's obviously not the only doorway, and once I'm inside, all sorts of unexpected things always happen, especially when a talented writer is in charge of the tour.

I always taught my students a bit about the lives of the writers we studied, trying to humanize the poets, playwrights,novelists, and others we read.  Trying to show that these artists were also people who were born, grew up, thought and cried and suffered and loved.  I always believed that if my students could make a human connection with, say, Hawthorne and Irving and Melville, that they would find their reading assignments a bit ... different.  More personal.

Billy the Kid
And let me end with a story.  Thirty years ago I somehow fell under the sway of ... Billy the Kid.  Before it finally ended, I'd read everything about him, visited the "shrines" in New Mexico, seen all the movies, bought all the old comics--I even flew to NYC to see the Joffrey Ballet perform Copland's Billy ballet.  With my Aurora students I wrote a play about the Kid--a musical!--that we performed in two different years with two different casts.  I was insane.

And at Western Reserve Academy, thirty years ago, I delivered an hour-long illustrated talk about the Kid (in pre-PowerPoint days, this meant hundreds of 35mm slides in a Carousel projector).

The morning I was to deliver the talk I rose very early--about 4:30--to go through it one more time, cutting a bit (even I, a madman, knew it was too long).  As I sat alone in my study, with only a single small lamp, the pre-dawn dark pressing in on all sides, I felt, well, that I was not alone.  I don't believe in ghosts, in the supernatural.  And I didn't see anything.  But I felt something.  And--this defies explanation--I smelled something, too, something sour, unwashed--as if the Kid were there, not-so-fresh from the Southwestern desert. 

And I was afraid.

I turned on more lights, feeling like the little boy I'd once been, back in Oklahoma, afraid of the "man in the closet" who, my older brother had convinced me, would come out and slaughter me if I fell asleep.

The light scattered the feeling, the smell, the fear.  And I went back to editing.

Later, I convinced myself that my weariness, my obsessive immersion in the Kid's story, had, in ways, brought him to life in my study that dark morning.

A biographer's dream ... to know so much that you can coax back into this world some fleeting sensations of the people who were.

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