Biographers and their prey

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THE children of Harper Lee's enduring novel, ``To Kill a Mockingbird'' - Jem and Scout, and their summer friend, Dill - divert themselves during the slow summers in their small Alabama town by trying to make the local recluse, Boo Radley, come out of the house he has not left in 20 years. They use their green imaginations and their limited resources to get to Boo - from running up to the house and touching it, to sending him a note delivered through shuttered windows at the end of a fishing rod, to leaving a trail of lemon drops from his back door to the front yard. Contemporary biographers, as short on marketable material as the children were on entertainment, have likewise tried to smoke out their quarry, driving them from their sanctums into the clamorous human arena. Both biographers and readers are paying a price.

I am not referring to the law here, though the repercussions of the Salinger case (biographer Ian Hamilton's long-running legal battle with J.D. Salinger, now over) and others are being felt in the publishing community, and therefore in the quality of published books. I am speaking of ethics - a bewhiskered word, to be sure, but one that a biographer ignores at his peril. Hamilton's new book about Salinger (it cannot properly be called a biography), Kitty Kelley's biography of Frank Sinatra, the accumulating revelations of Ronald Reagan's family and appointees - all raise serious questions about the ethics of writing books about living people against their will, and about the future of biography.

Is it right or wrong to undertake a biography against the wishes of a living person? My own feeling, based on my experience as a first-time biographer who had the cooperation of her late subject's relatives and friends - and on a fresh disappointment, when I decided not to pursue a biography I badly wanted to do on a living person who did not want to be written about - is that it is wrong.

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The right to be alone - what Louis D. Brandeis called ``the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized man'' - is to me inalienable. To recognize that right is to be civilized: educated, courteous, refined. It acknowledges, further, that people have a fundamental need to be alone (at times, anyway), what Sissela Bok identifies as a kind of necessary secrecy guarding ``the central aspects of identity,'' which is akin to animals' need for territoriality and spacing.

Take this away from a human being who is also a novelist or creative writer, and you strip him of something essential to the writing process, part of what fuels the work itself - which is the very thing that made him a desirable subject for biography. And surely artists of all kinds who have, after all, given the world their work deserve to be left alone. ``Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,'' says one character in the Lee novel. Like the mockingbird, artists must be protected.

But what about biographies of political figures - elected officials, office seekers, lobbyists, activists, and the like? What of criminals and those who are judged dangerous to the community?

The recent spate of books about the Reagan administration - gossipy, ephemeral, and banal though they may be - paint a portrait of our President and First Lady that tells much about those to whom we have entrusted our country and ourselves. Our interest in those who govern or affect our government, and in those who would cause physical or psychological injury to others, is indisputably legitimate. But even so, there must be a limit to what we are entitled to know about another person, as there is a limit to what even the most meticulous researcher can know.

As Ms. Bok has noted, the lines separating the areas of a private life that should be explored from those that should not are often fuzzy. In determining how much to expose to the public, biographers and journalists must ask whether one needs to know, or simply wants to know.

Taking the part of the unauthorized biographer for a moment, I can understand his persistence, and, to an extent, sympathize with it: Biographers naturally feel a sense of ownership toward their subjects. They can feel as destined and compelled to tell a particular story as a novelist does. But loving a person or his work, however good one's intentions, does not sanction helping oneself to that person's life.

Even the biographer who is blessed with the cooperation of his subject's family or of the subject himself is a writer whose hands are cuffed: He can still write, but he cannot move about as freely as the biographer of someone who is long dead. By ``cannot'' I mean should not, for of course many biographers do, telling all they know about people and damaging lives in the process. Some writers believe that full disclosure is necessary to extract the truth. And their books contain too much gossip, too many hurtful stories about secondary characters, which - entertaining though they may be - are not necessary to an understanding of the subject. The biographer must be scrupulous, but full disclosure is overrated: The creative biographer does not need to tell all to glean the essence of a life.

Though biography is a valid and important genre, its practitioners must remember that they are poachers. Freedom of the press is not a synonym for carte blanche, even if the subject's work - printed and bound, up on the screen, on stage, in display in museums - is in the public domain. When a living person other than a political figure or someone considered dangerous to the community does not want to be examined in a biography, we must listen to him, and to Arthur Schopenhauer, who recognized the value of ``a retired mode of life.'' It ``has an exceedingly beneficial influence on our peace of mind,'' he wrote, ``and this is mainly because we thus escape having to live constantly in the sight of others, and pay everlasting regard to their casual opinions: In a word, we are able to return upon ourselves.''

Salinger - and I refer to him as representative of the many famous artists who are loved nearly to psychological death by their insatiable public - had been pursued for a long time before Hamilton came knocking. We have all suffered for it. Had Salinger been allowed to return upon himself, we might be enjoying more of his books today.

Linda H. Davis is the author of ``Onward & Upward: A Biography of Katharine S. White,'' Harper & Row, 1987.

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