The Art and Use of Biography Essay

Biography is a form of literary art through which we can visualize a person from different angles. It is a record of the life and work of an individual, generally a great man. The biographer seeks to narrate the life and deeds of a worthy person. But mere narration of facts or the collection of data is not sufficient to make a good biography. The hero must emerge as a living personality out of the mass of forgotten facts. And the biographer must be a living reminder, not a dusty record of his hero. So choice of materials is an important precondition of writing a biography. Unless the biographer is able to realise the real significance of a personality and catch the very aroma of his life, he cannot be a true biographer. His achievement must fall short of the goal. Lytton Strachery, the pioneer of modern method of analytical biography, along with Emil Ludwing of Germany, lays stress on selection of relevant materials, rejecting unnecessary details.

A biographer can face a problem if he has at his disposal an enormous mass of details such as in the case of Gandhiji or Rabindranath. He must focus attention on such facts that will reveal some essential traits of character or some aspects of personality. It is more difficult if myths grow round a figure for a long time past, such as of Buddhadev, Sri Chaitanya, or Guru Nanak, etc. A mass of legends gathers together and an honest biographer must safeguard himself from the tendency of hero worship. Otherwise, it will fail to achieve perfection. Such is the case of ‘Karunasagar Vidyasagar’ in Bengal in later times. Even Boswell’s ‘Dr Johnson’ is at bottom a tissue of tributes. Hence a biographer must keep his judgement alert and maintain accuracy in perspective and proportion. It is rightly said, “It is not his business to be complimentary, it is to reveal bare facts as he understands them.”

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A wise biographer will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected corners. He will shoot a sudden revealing light into obscure recesses hitherto unearthed. He may also fill up big gaps and breaks in the life of the hero. However, the biographer must not allow his fancies or prejudices to overmaster his critical judgement. He will restrict himself in his motto to explain, to elucidate, to use the significant facts, to light up the dark regions of his hero. He must never give way to the temptation of being sensational or sentimental. There is no merit in exaggerating the virtues or concealing the falls or defects of a great man. He must hold reality with straightforward veracity. That is why a biographer must be an artist who

knows how to keep the proportions, how to blend his colours with a balance. The elements must be so mixed that Nature herself may stand up and say, “Here is a man.” In short, the biography should be a balanced presentation. Therefore, like all artists, the biographer must be trained in the right methods. He must observe the facts objectively and without any prejudice. And to do so, the biographer must have patience, perseverance, and research. The more thoroughly it is done, the more perfect will be the biography. And in this way, the labours and spadework of preceding biographers may help for the final touch and finished product of the master artist.

We know Lytton Strachery was a great biographer and he laid stress on selection of facts. But critics have found faults with him, as he developed his theme with the bias and direction of his own mind. Instead of letting facts guide him, he moulded facts in terms of his own personal likes and dislikes, His treatment was masterly, but his approach was erratic, So a good biographer must be truthful to his theme. He must not fit in facts to prove a theory, rather he must modify his theory in the light of available documented facts, so that the creation may be a true picture. It is often suggested that the biographer should not be too near the hero or events, lest he should be infatuated or overwhelmed by the charisma of the hero.

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Finally, a good biographer must have the insight into the personality of the hero whom he wants to depict. Therefore, Emerson said that the real source of all biography is the confessions of the man himself to somebody. These will make the portrait alive, and make the biography a real work of art as we see in the true biography of Mahatma Gandhi. We know an individual passes into faded history, and a biographer can make him come out as a living one again among ourselves. Furthermore, a biography gives us the social picture of an age. It becomes a window through which we look into interesting segments of a period that urge us to look behind to look ahead.

The study of biography is useful to us in various ways. It is not only a pleasant diversion but also provides deep educative value. It teaches much about the past that is worth knowing and may help us in the practical affairs of life. And even more, the life of a great man becomes often a beacon to keep us away from many pitfalls. Longfellow has truly said that lives of great men all remind us how we can make our lives sublime.