Biographers and their prey
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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?