Consider that revered, Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling staple of the college curriculum, The Education of Henry Adams. In all fairness, Adams never himself titled the book an autobiography. Nor did he consider it finished. But who would prefer his subtitle, A Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity? And the thing is long enough as is. I know we are meant to admire Henry Adams for his braininess, but, in this case, our author appears smarter than his work. We learn all we need to know about him from the fact that he casts the story of his life in the third person. I won’t even mention the claim—made half in jest, which is to say half not in jest—that he was completing St. Augustine’s Confessions. I stumble less over the Olympian ego, though, than over the detachment (and over the last impenetrable chapters); Adams’ is the most impersonal of all autobiographies. And what of the Rosemary Woods act, the missing 21 years in the middle of Adams’ account, the most productive decades, those of his marriage and of his wife’s suicide? Just after this trifling lacuna, Adams exhorts: “Once more! This is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.” It’s only too easy to believe him. To his mind, the oddball volume could be understood if its reader visualized “a centipede moving along in 20 little sections (each with a mathematical formula carefully concealed in its stomach) to the bottom of a hill; and then laboriously climbing in 15 sections more (each with a new mathematical problem carefully concealed in its stomach) till it can get up on a hill an inch or two high, so as to see ahead an inch or so.” Enough said.
It would be lovely to believe we live in a world in which biography could be overrated. It’s hard enough to keep the stuff in print. First on my list is a volume that only recently found its way back there, Geoffrey Scott’s luminous Portrait of Zélide, reissued in 1997 with a marvelous Shirley Hazzard introduction. This is a flawless volume, an underrated model of the form. For a very different flavor, I’d turn to Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love, The Sun King, and Madame de Pompadour, sparkling jewel boxes of books and proof that novelists—if they can survive what Virginia Woolf called the “sober drudgery, appalling grind” of life-writing—may well make the best biographers. Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun stands as further evidence of the same, as does Alan Judd’s Ford Madox Ford. To which collection I’d add anything Jane Kramer has ever written about a living thing. I realize that these accounts have something in common: They are short. Their authors are masters not only of the “donkey work,” but of the art of omission.