A book offers a diverse collection of memories and advice about a career as a biographer.
Bober (Papa Is a Poet, 2013, etc.) began writing while bedridden with illness. She’d studied poetry in college and decided to attempt a biography of William Wordsworth. This endeavor launched a successful career as a researcher, historian, and biographer. In her memoir, Bober reflects on her craft and the ways her own life was shaped by it: “I often find myself describing…my life according to which biography I was writing at the time.” For her book on Wordsworth, she first read what was already published. When she’d recovered, she traveled to England and Wales. She saw Wordsworth’s school and home, his desk and original manuscripts, and walked along the Wye River where he’d composed. This pattern—Bober’s insistence on experiencing places and objects relevant to her subjects—would repeat through her eight biographies. In this sense, her memoir serves as guidebook for writers. She shows what it takes to be “a storyteller whose facts are true.” When researching Thomas Jefferson, she made arrangements to see the desk on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence; a photograph would not do. Bober also discusses the challenge of portraying a complex personality. Her chapter on artist Louise Nevelson is intriguing. The author loved Nevelson’s work but, as a devoted mother and grandmother, she could not fully comprehend the sculptor’s choice of art over family. Further, Nevelson was living when Bober was writing her biography but was not particularly forthcoming with details of her life. The author’s account of working through these challenges provides sage advice for any researcher or writer. Bober asserts that her various subjects chose her and that she aims to tell her own “adventure.” This comes through: readers see Bober evolve as a biographer—and then into a Jefferson scholar—and her love of research and writing is palpable. On the whole, however, the book remains more about her subjects, particularly in the later chapters on American history. Perhaps this is inevitable for an inveterate biographer.
Valuable insights into the work of a biographer and the lives of her subjects.