I've been reading biographies my entire literate life. From the first book I remember in our house--Anthology of Children's Literature (Riverside Press, 1948) my parents and grandparents read to me about the lives of George Washington, Eve Curie, Daniel Boone, Abe Lincoln, and many others.
Later, on my own (a reader now!), I read quite a few in the Bobbs-Merrill "Childhood of Famous Americans Series"--including George Washington Carver, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, and my favorite--Jim Bowie: Boy with a Hunting Knife (1953) by Gertrude Hecker Winders, who wrote a half-dozen or more titles in that series. It featured prose like this:
Jim spun around. His knife sang through the air. There was a sudden thrashing movement, a queer rattling sound. His knife had pinned the head of a rattlesnake to the ground! (156) [Yes, I still own a copy.]
Later, I found out about Bowie, the slave-trader--a portion of his life not covered in Boy with a Hunting Knife.
A little older yet, I progressed to "The American Adventure Series" (Wheeler Publishing), especially their Westerns: Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, and my favorite--Wild Bill Hickok (1947) by A. M. Anderson. Here's the death of Wild Bill, shot from behind in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876:
Once he thought he heard footsteps behind him. He was about to turn around.
At the very same instant Jack McCall shouted, "Take that!" A pistol barked.
Wild Bill, shot in the back of his head, dropped forward on the table--dead. He had been right all along. He had been a marked man. ... A terrible silence fell over the big room. (247)
I remember reading that over and over ... Wild Bill--my hero!--shot dead!!!
(I'd also loved the old Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok TV series, 1951-1958, with Guy Madison and Andy Devine as, respectively, Wild Bill and Jingles.) Check out the exciting weekly opening, courtesy of YouTube: Opening
|Jingles (L) and Wild Bill (R)|
As I, uh, "matured," I still liked biographies--still liked ones about my Western heroes. In high school I read an "adult" biography of Jim Bowie, The Iron Mistress by Paul I. Wellman (1951), a novel that featured graphic violence (he throws his knife once, splits the head of an escaping assailant), some hints of sex (yes!), and, of course, his death at the Alamo. How 'bout these final words?
Yes, Bowie could still lift his pistols. The recoils jolted his hands. In the powder smoke a trail of stricken enemies extended from the door to his cot. The last, the boldest of them, lay with the knife buried in his heart.
Bowie was dead even before the bayonets reached him.
Dead? There are no dead ... (404--ellipses in original)
Lest you think even less of me than you already do, I also "read," for a book report, Martin Luther, by Harry Emerson Fosdick (1956), part of Landmark Books, YA titles offered by Random House. My parents subscribed for me. I confess two things: (1) I enjoyed--far more--Custer's Last Stand, by Quentin Reynolds, also in the series; (2) I didn't quite finish Martin Luther, but still reported on it as if I had. Sue me.
College English departments in my day (1962-1966) were not big on biography. Sure, the professors often told us relevant biographical details about the writers we were reading, but I don't think anyone ever assigned me a biography to read. I did consult some, of course, when I was writing papers. But that was about it.
Later, a teacher, I soon developed the habit of reading biographies about the writers I was teaching. And it wasn't long before I was writing them, as well. As of now, I've written biographies of Jack London, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mary Shelley (all aimed at YA readers, all available on Amazon: Check my Author Page on Amazon). Oh, and I didn't just read about them: I traveled to their homes, other significant sites in their lives, their graves. The last twenty years of my career, Joyce and I drove all over the place looking at such places--taking pictures that I "shared" with (imposed on) my students.
In 1999 I began reviewing books for Kirkus Reviews and for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and I've done hundreds of biographies--of all sorts of people: writers, show-biz celebrities, athletes, historical figures, etc. And I've never really lost my taste for the genre.
Until recently. I just finished reading a massive new biography (coming out in a few months--I'll be reviewing it in the Plain Dealer) of Norman Mailer--more than 700 pp of text (with lots of notes and other information). I loved reading Mailer when I was younger. I started in the 1960s and never really stopped. When Mailer died in 2007, I had not quite caught up with him. His final two books--a novel (The Castle in the Forest, about Hitler) and a series of interviews about religion (On God)--I did purchase, but they've sat on one of my bedroom piles, gradually disappearing from view.
The other day I dug them out and set them aside to read before I review of the biography. They made me sad, looking at them. Mailer had been such a force throughout my young manhood; his books, challenging and educative and maddening and brilliant (often). I hadn't read the final two earlier for a sort of childish reason: As long as the books were unread, I sort of thought, in a way, he was still alive.
And this is what bothers me about reading biographies now: the end. Death--which has always seemed reserved for other people--now seems to have fixed his rheumy eyes on me, his sepulchral voice saying to me, "I see you; I have not forgotten you; I'll be dropping by one of these days."
Mailer lived into his 80s and declined markedly. Near the end (before his final visit to the hospital) he could barely walk, had a hard time catching his breath, could not work--could not do any of the things he'd loved to do throughout his long, raucous, controversial, sometimes violent life. He had shrunk to the size of a Norman Mailer doll--needed to be carried places. I found these accounts horrifying in the biography because now, you see, they have a relevance--an immediacy--that they never had before.
Oh, yes, Death will be dropping by. And it's the "dropping by" part that has begun to bother me--in the lives of those men and women whose biographies I read. And in my own mirror, my own imagination.