Biographies: The Novels of Nonfiction?

Plot? Before reading a biography, we often don't know all the specifics of how the subject's life proceeded (except, perhaps, that she or he eventually died). So a biography can be as revelatory as a plot-driven novel.
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I usually write about fiction, but I'm going to do a change of pace this week and write about biographical books -- which one could call "the novels of nonfiction."

That's because a biography can read like a great novel when it has a fascinating (real-life) protagonist, interesting secondary "characters," excellent prose, believable dialogue, and a compelling "plot."

Plot? Before reading a biography, we often don't know all the specifics of how the subject's life proceeded (except, perhaps, that she or he eventually died). So a biography can be as revelatory as a plot-driven novel.

Biographies are also a very absorbing way to learn about history. For instance, reading the life stories of FDR, Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Stalin, Hitler, or entertainer Josephine Baker (who courageously took part in the French Resistance) may teach us almost as much about World War II as reading a tome specifically about that global conflict.

In addition, it's fun to learn fascinating facts from biographies. When I read a book about Humphrey Bogart, I was surprised to see that this guy with a streetwise screen persona came from a privileged background (his father was a prominent surgeon and his mother a renowned illustrator). A book about Joe DiMaggio stunned me with just how unpleasant a person that baseball superstar was. I had no idea Henry Ford ran for the U.S. Senate (narrowly losing in 1918) until I read a biography of him. Or that telephone legend Alexander Graham Bell, later in his life, was involved in the fledgling field of aviation. Or that hardworking heiress Nancy Cunard may have been the first person to publish Samuel Beckett. Or that Mary Cassatt was very significant in a 19th-century painting world that's mostly remembered for male artists, thanks in part to histories mostly written by ... men.

Another fun thing about biographies is recognizing things in them specific to one's own life. When I read a book about Thomas Edison, I discovered that he was initially buried in the New Jersey town (Montclair) where I live. A biography of singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson reminded me that he graduated from my alma mater (Rutgers College -- a state school with a private-sounding name). Iconic pitcher Cy Young had the same birthday as me (but 511 more wins!). It's also interesting to read a book about someone you knew, and compare the author's take on the person with your own firsthand impressions. I experienced that several years ago when reading a biography of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.

And then there are biographies of novelists -- books that are a real treat for literature lovers. In the past few years, I've greatly enjoyed biographies of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Miguel de Cervantes, Agatha Christie, Alexandre Dumas, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Zora Neale Hurston, Carson McCullers, Herman Melville, George Orwell, Dorothy Parker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Emile Zola, and others. (Actually, Parker's fictional works included short stories, not a novel, but I'll put her on any list just for what she said about Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.")

It's wonderful to learn, via biographies, what made various authors tick -- and how their life experiences influenced their fictional works. And of course there are fascinating facts one can glean from books about writers. For instance, Dorothy Parker bequeathed her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even though she had never met the civil rights leader. Edith Wharton (nee Jones) came from the wealthy family that is said to have inspired the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." F. Scott Fitzgerald and Looking Backward novelist Edward Bellamy each had a "patriotic" connection: F. Scott was a descendant of "The Star-Spangled Banner" lyricist Francis Scott Key, and Edward was the cousin of "The Pledge of Allegiance" writer Francis Bellamy.

There are even biographies written by novelists. For instance, Daphne du Maurier authored books about Branwell Bronte (brother of Charlotte/Emily/Anne) and the du Maurier family -- which included her grandfather George, who created the iconic Svengali character in the novel Trilby. And Sir Walter Scott wrote an acclaimed book about Napoleon.

What are your favorite biographies, and who are your favorite biographers?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional has been published -- and the many famous people mentioned in its pages include some novelists! If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at The Amazon listing, which contains more details about the book and a look at some of its pages, can be accessed by clicking on the front cover below.

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