From Stanley Fish's ridiculous, broad-brush dismissal of biographical writing (1999):
My criticism of biography does not hold for autobiography. It makes none of the claims made for biography and is therefore not subject to any of the criticisms. You cannot fault the author of an autobiography for failing to be objective, or for substituting his story for the story of his subject.
He is his subject, and his performance, complete with the quirks and blindnesses of his personality, is not a distraction or deviation from the story of his life but an extension of it. Autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say, however mendacious, is the truth about themselves, whether they know it or not. Autobiographers are authentic necessarily and without effort.
Biographers, on the other hand, can only be inauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their own story for the story of their announced subject. (Biographers are all autobiographers, although the pretensions of their enterprise won't allow them to admit it or even see it.)
Biography, in short, is a bad game, and the wonder is that so many are playing it and that so many others are watching it and spending time that might be better spent on more edifying spectacles like politics and professional wrestling.
For years, preparing to write my book Counter-revolution of the Word, I spent a lot of time trawling through newspapers and magazines of the 1950s. At one point I found this ad for Republic Steel. Usually nutsy about jotting down precise bibliographic info, I apparently slipped this time, perhaps so elated at having found it, and alas never made a note about date or source. (I think it's from the Saturday Evening Post, but that's a guess.)
Two dark almost noir-ish vertical panels, lots of words (tons--far more than usual even for a full-page ad) in the central panel. Left panel: the neighborhood cop, standing at the suburban-neoGreek front door of the home owned by the frightened couple in bed in the right panel, is knocking loudly in the middle of the night. The husband narrates the middle panel.
You see, they'd listened to a radio show before going to bed - a program about "secret police dragg[ing] a family off to a concentration camp." (Not the Nazis - you can be sure the reference is to the Soviet gulags. Hubby was certain, when he first heard the loud knocking, that they were on their "way to some Siberian salt mine.")
But at the door it was indeed only the friendly night cop, McCarthy. The cop's name is McCarthy. McCarthy was there to save the day, or night: It was only a little easily extinguished wiring fire in the kitchen.
"I couldn't get back to sleep for a couple of hours. Kept thinking suppose it was the secret police! But that was nonsense. Here in American the police help us... not hound us like they do in countries where folks have forgotten what the word 'Freedom' means." Then, new paragraph: "Ah-h-h....Freedom! Pick your own church [oh you have a choice of churches; I suppose synagogues and mosques are beyond the choices freedom bestows, but never mind...], your own newspaper, your own candidates. Pay your taxes but do what you want with the rest.... Loaf or pick out a good job like I have with Republic. Help produce steel or autos or tanks...or work in a store or a bank, as you please." And so on.... [We have the option to "loaf"! If only I'd known...]
And then finally--almost too late--comes the pitch for Republic Steel. America is strong and needs strength. Republic makes strong steel. America is freedom and Republic is like America in its strength so it's freedom too.
Thank God for McCarthy! He woke us up to the risks of losing our freedoms!
After all, that little fire in the kitchen could have spread. Were it not for McCarthy's frightening, fascistic middle-of-the-night intrusion into your private suburban life, it might have consumed the Whole House. Be thankful for that 2 AM banging at the door. Be thankful for McCarthy's vigilance. Someone has to watch out while we're all asleep.
My office on the third floor of the Writers House is small, but look how many poets were there this afternoon after the recording of a new episode of PoemTalk: from left to right, Julia Bloch (white sweater, back to us), Sarah Dowling, Rodrigo Toscano, Bob Perelman, Tom Mandel, Rachel Levitsky.