“Absolutely No Manners”: On Having the Audacity to Write Biography

“Absolutely No Manners”:
On Having the Audacity to Write Biography

By Dr. Susanne George Bloomfield

Keynote Address Presented at the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society
Annual Conference on April 10, 2003
Published as a Monograph and reprinted with permission
by the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society
and the Center for Great Plains Studies (2003)
Copyright by the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society (Use with Permission Only)

In a 1926 letter to Mrs. Florence Allen, the sister of the famous Mrs. Coney to whom Elinore Pruitt Stewart addressed her letters in Letters of a Woman Homesteader, Stewart comments on her “knack of meeting extraordinary people” and the inability of others “to see what I do in those we meet in passing.” She concludes, “it is because most of my friends are cultured people and I am not. I have absolutely no manners and therefore can and do ask questions, can mingle with anybody and everybody since I have no standard to support” (George 119).

That seems to me to be one of the best definitions of a biographer that I have ever encountered. People everywhere are curious about the lives of other individuals, and in our quests to understand ourselves, we wonder about those around us. Biographers seem to be the most curious of all.

I remember when Dr. Wunder approached me about speaking tonight. He stated that since I was a “Biographer” and the focus of the conference would be the biography and collected letters of Mari Sandoz, I might be interested in speaking. I met his remark with a sort of stunned silence as the impact of the classification struck home. No one had ever accused me of that to my face before. Upon reflection, however, I had to admit that I was probably guilty as charged.

I didn’t intend to be biographer. Actually my early career choices were to be an archeologist, a forest ranger, or a ballerina. Professor of English was never on the list, nor was Biographer. I began innocently enough, writing a paper on the epistolary backgrounds of Stewart’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader for Dr. Frances Kaye’s Great Plains Literature course. Since I could find no critical sources on Stewart, I proposed that her letters be considered as creative literature rather than simply correspondence written by an unlettered homesteader. When I contacted the Stewart family, told them what I was doing, and sent them a copy of the paper I had written, Clyde offered to share with me all of his mother’s unpublished writings. “There’s your dissertation,” Fran said. I planned to collect Stewart’s writings, but I found in doing so that I needed to know more about her life and times. The same procedure has repeated itself with Kate Cleary and Elia Peattie.

Many biographers arrive in the field by accident, I have discovered in my research, and are often as surprised as I was at being referred to as Biographers. Phyllis Rose, biographer of Virginia Woolf and Josephine Baker, did not consider her self as writing “REAL biography” either, and added that even Virginia Woolf admitted she had not set out to write biography but readings enhanced by biographic backgrounds (132). Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria’s and Wellington’s biographer, agrees, “I think biography chose me, as it chooses most of its operators” (147).

Helen Winter Stauffer was first drawn to Mari Sandoz through the author’s biography of Crazy Horse. She, too, explains, “I didn’t intend to investigate Sandoz’s entire life. I kind of came into to it the back way. Her work was her life, and I just wanted to know why and how she wrote what she did. I certainly didn’t think of myself as a biographer until I was well into the project.”

Mari Sandoz also considered herself more of an historian than a biographer, writes Stauffer in Mari Sandoz: A Study of the Artist as a Biographer. Sandoz “seldom discussed biography as a specific genre, and apparently only rarely selected biography as such for her own reading. . . . although she was continuously defining the purpose and methods of a historian” (69-70).

Moreover, the genre of biography is considered by many not to be Serious Scholarship. According to Leon Edel, Henry James’s biographer, it seems to many reviewers to be

a mix of too many things—like the opera. It involves reportage, research, interrogation of witnesses, village or urban gossip, staged events, arranged scenes, the laws of evidence, massed documents and archives, kinescopes, tape recordings, and who knows, maybe computers as well, in addition to photographs and statues with broken noses. . . . And when such a story has been read, the readers forget that it has been fashioned out of facts and words. (19)

What is it, then, that seems to discomfit biographers about their calling and give their work a dubious reputation? Perhaps, it is because of the audacious nature of biography. “Audacious” has an interesting definition; not only does it mean fearlessly daring and bold, but it implies a lack of restraint or circumspection. I think that aptly describes biographers. Not only do we obsessively pry into people’s lives and subjectively select which private details to make public, but we impose structure and meaning on disorderly lives as well as our friendship on strangers.

On Voyeurism

Perhaps the most blatant sin of biography is the almost obsessive voyeurism of the researcher. Janet Malcom, a writer for the New Yorker, believes:

The biographer at work is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for the biography’s status as a popular genre. (The New Yorker 69 [23-30 August 1993]:86)

Many people have carefully honed the image of themselves that they want presented to the world, and a biographer undermines this premeditated persona. Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, for example, both changed their names and their birth dates and carefully manipulated their correspondence while Elinore Pruitt Stewart told the world and her family that she was a widow. Biographers, however, want a peek behind that mask. And sometimes the family wants to see, too.

When I was interviewing Jerrine Wire, Stewart’s daughter, in her home in Philadelphia for my biography, The Adventures of The Woman Homesteader, Jerrine’s health was failing, so much so that she had to recline on the sofa for much of the time. After several days of talking together, we became confidential, and on the day I was to leave, she revealed a secret to me that she had never told anyone before. She handed me an old postcard and a tiny photograph that she had found under the lining of her mother’s old trunk, which had been abandoned for years in the attic of the old homestead. The card, addressed to Mrs. H.C. Rupert in Denver and postmarked December 24, 1908, Grand, Oklahoma, read, “Well, Nora, I wish you a Happy Christmas. H.C.R.” I gasped, “But, Harry was supposed to be dead! That was why she went to Denver.” I studied the photograph of a slender, dark-haired man with enormous ears, and looked questioningly at Jerrine. She pulled back her hair to reveal those same ears. “That must be my father,” she said simply. “Do you want me to see what I can find?” I asked. She hesitated, then replied, “Yes.”

Sadly, Jerrine died within months of my visit, but I continued the quest for her, one that definitely became obsessive. It took over a year of letters and phone calls to public officials, but finally one historical society researcher discovered that Harry Rupert was not buried in Grand as alleged. Another woman, a deputy county clerk, became so interested in the mystery that she searched and searched until she discovered the sale of the Grand homestead in 1917 by Rupert. She also called all over town and found an old woman in the community who remembered Rupert and his second wife, Bertha.

However, Clyde, Stewart’s son, was not sure whether he wanted this information made public, his mother unmasked, and since I had agreed not to publish anything without his permission, it appeared this information would not be allowed in the biography. Finally, Clyde consented to leave it in. I knew that readers today would consider her courageous for revising her past to circumvent society’s prejudices.

Stauffer encountered similar reticence, especially at first, by some members of the Sandoz family. “There were some areas of Mari’s life that they either didn’t know about or didn’t want to talk about,” states Stauffer. ”They particularly didn’t want to discuss Mari’s marriage and divorce, a situation recognized as commonplace today.” Stauffer’s sleuthing was further hampered by scanty details of Sandoz’s early adult years. However, by doggedly prying into county files for dates of marriages and divorces as well as into reports from the country school districts where she taught and Sandoz’s records while a student at the University of Nebraska, Stauffer was able to pin down important dates. Looking for anything that would have contributed to Sandoz’s point of view in her writings, Stauffer was a determined detective. “Besides,” she stated, “I’m just as much a gossip as anyone else.”

Mari Sandoz, too, faced roadblocks as she attempted to gather material for her biographies. After her father on his deathbed had asked her, “Why don’t you write my life some time?” (Story Catcher 69), Sandoz went home to ask her mother’s help in writing her father’s biography, but at first “she brusquely refused to talk about Jules.” Worse, “she wasted no time in getting rid of her husband’s trash,” further discouraging the author’s search for facts (74). Even when Sandoz sent out questionnaires to old-time residents of the area, only one of fifty people responded (Story Catcher 79). In addition, some of the Native Americans that Sandoz interviewed, such as He Dog, Crazy Horse’s old friend, were also reluctant at first in discussing their history and culture. Black Elk, too, would have nothing to do with Sandoz because she had consulted He-Dog, against whose family Black Elk held personal animosity (Story Catcher 81).

Such reticence on the part of subjects and their families is understandable. Some writers question the need for literary biography at all. A writer uses “the sensations and critical events of his life as his basic material,” John Updike explains. He protests:

As long as I am alive, I don’t want somebody else playing on my jungle gym—disturbing my children, quizzing my ex-wife, bugging my present wife, seeking for Judases among my friends, rummaging through yellowing old clippings, quoting in extenso bad reviews I would rather forget, and getting everything slightly wrong. (5)

Germaine Greer concurs: “All human beings have the right to invent themselves. It is not the prerogative of writers to reinvent people living in their own terms” (Stannard 36). However, argues Edel, the biographer MUST “go behind the façade, to penetrate the mask” (33). To do this, biographers sometimes feel like stalkers, devoting, on the average, from five to fifteen years of their lives, thousands of miles of travel, and hours and hours of interviews in the pursuit of a subject’s soul. In order to enlighten, encourage, comprehend, and celebrate human nature, however, biographers must obsessively seek the truth.

On Selectivity and Assumptions

Once biographers have peeped through enough keyholes, bushwacked enough acquaintances, collected everything written to, by, from, and about a subject, and have methodically recorded it, organized it, and filed it, the audacity has only just begun. Next, they must sort through massive, often overwhelming amounts of “evidence” and choose which material to include and which to leave out for readers who expect accuracy, comprehension, and fairness. This is an awesome responsibility. Virginia Woolf states, “[I]n order that the light of personality may shine through, facts must be manipulated; some must be brightened; others shaded; yet, in the process, they must never lose their integrity” (473). Paula R. Backscheider, biographer of Daniel Defoe and author of Reflections on Biography, concurs. Biographers are “decision-makers whose decisions matter. From a variety of perspectives, they judge and evaluate, and the act of interpretation is ever present, inseparable from every other action” (xxi).

Since nearly all aspects of life-writing are biased, from selecting the subject to indexing the book, the choice of what information to include can be agonizing, especially considering the gigantic amounts of information that biographers collect. When a project begins, the evidence is manageable and benign. As the research progresses, file drawers become malignant with Xerox copies of everything from newspaper obituaries found on microfilm and pages of family scrapbooks to entire books borrowed through Inter-Library Loan that needed to be returned before they could possibly be read. Each additional discovery suggests new leads, and being good detectives, biographers must follow them all. Research soon becomes addictive. Biographers, like junkies, can’t stop.

The crisis occurs when biographers must select what information to include in the book. After having spent months or years compulsively tracking down a single piece of evidence, biographers are loathe to leave anything out, and they assume their readers will be just as obsessive about details as they are. If most biographers had their way, the result would be an eight-pound, nine-ounce, leather-bound edition that only the subject’s mother could love. “Constantly coping with the balance between too much and too little,” states Backscheider, “the biographer must be the most ruthless of writers” (85).

I learned this firsthand. When I went to pick up my original manuscript for Kate M. Cleary: A Literary Life with Selected Works from the University of Nebraska Press, the editor told me that I would have to choose whether I wanted to write a biography or publish a collection of her stories. “I must have them both in one edition,” I answered. “Then,” he replied, “you’ll have to cut two hundred pages from your manuscript, or no one will be able to afford to buy it.” He seemed like a Nazi making me choose which of my children to send to the gas chamber and which one to save. I pleaded, “Take my first born, but don’t make me leave anything out!” As he wouldn’t take my daughter, I ending up cutting over two hundred pages, my two pounds of flesh, but that process of selection, however arbitrary, made it a more unified, more coherent book.

Those who have worked with the Sandoz archives appreciate the amount of material that confronted Stauffer in her selection process. “Organization, of course, is the biggest challenge,” admits Stauffer. “I tried to catalog the material chronologically because Mari’s work was so closely tied to her life.” Another challenge was authenticating the oral histories that Stauffer collected. Not only would she receive different versions of events, but people experienced such diverse sides to Sandoz’s personality. “One person would say that she was good-natured and fun-loving while another would describe her as the coldest person she had ever met.” Stauffer tried to follow Sandoz’s example, the one Mari learned from Professor Fling, of requiring three first-hand accounts as proof before including it in the biography. “I learned a lot from Sandoz about researching and writing,” admits Stauffer.

Sandoz, too, had a “passion for accuracy and a preference for primary evidence,” and she gathered material “from thousands of printed sources, from vast stores of archival material in the regional and federal repositories, from scattered private accumulations and stacks of interviews.” Toward the end of her life, explains Stauffer, Sandoz estimated that her card file was between 300,000 and 400,000 entries, and she had collected over 250 maps as well as the ones she created herself (Study of Artist 42). All of this information Sandoz cross-indexed, sometimes using thirty to forty index cards for a single item. Stauffer had to examine it all.

Selecting which details to omit and paring down her manuscripts also plagued Sandoz. After Old Jules had been rejected by fourteen publishers and extensively revised each time, it was finally accepted by Atlantic Press, who demanded still further revision—the deletion of fifteen to twenty thousand words (Study of Artist 186-187). Sandoz complained that “the manuscript was being cut to the point that it was no longer coherent” and that “some incidents had been cut without her approval” (Story Catcher 100). Knopf, too, insisted that Crazy Horse be cut thirty thousand words. If she wanted it published, she had to cooperate, but when she saw the proofs, she felt it had been “hacked and cut as with a knife” (Story Catcher 156).

Ultimately, all biographers must make such difficult choices; they can’t, and shouldn’t, include everything. Catherine Drinker Bowen in Biography: The Craft and Calling explains:

What the reader must know is a very different proposition from what the writer must know. The biographer must know . . . everything that other biographers have written, plus all he can discover from the records. The reader must know only that which moves the story forward, explains the characters and the scene, and lets him believe what he reads. (95)

            No matter how fair a biographer attempts to be to his or her subject, ultimately the subject’s life is in the biographer’s hands, like a patient under a surgeon’s scalpel.

On Recreating Lives and History

The next problem confronting the biographer is to arrange the disparate pieces of the subject’s life, including the gaps, into a seamless narrative. Thus, biography becomes a dramatic recreation of a real life, an attempt to construct order and meaning from random bits and pieces of surviving evidence within an historical context. This, too, is presumptuous. “The best biographers know that they are inventing through their selection and arrangement of materials,” states Backscheider (18). Some writers compare this process to putting together a jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing while others describe it as creating a mosaic or weaving a web. Whatever the metaphor, biographers “perceive the disorderly nature of the life they are writing about and the imperfections of their form; the best of them try to make some order and completeness out of the chaos anyone’s life must be” (Halperin 160).

In recreating lives, biographers have an unfair advantage, for we can view the subject’s life in hindsight; we know the inevitable results of actions the subjects themselves could not conceive of at the time, could not see coming. We know, for better or worse, “the rest of the story.” As a result, the biographer can be viewed as almost omniscient and omnipotent, manipulating facts to establish cause and effect, imply relationships, and construct meanings the subjects themselves might not have fully understood. Although the biographer is constrained to be true to his or her evidence, the freedom of the narrative form allows us to slip backward and forward in time to create interest and suspense.

For example, in writing Cleary’s biography, I discovered that she had died unexpectedly at age forty-one, apparently a morphine addict, and that she had twice sought treatment. According to family history, Cleary’s addiction began in 1894 when she was thirty-three after she nearly died from puerperal (childbed) fever, and the rural family doctor had given her morphine for pain. At the time, she was just recovering from the sudden death of her mother from pneumonia the previous year, and she would lose two daughters within that same year. Knowing this helped me understand events of her life while she was living in Hubbell, Nebraska—why she would complain of severe depression, bouts of weeping, dysentery, and “heart attacks,” all symptoms of attempted morphine withdrawal, why she would have difficulty withdrawing from the drug, and possibly why her husband went to Chicago for nine months during this period. However, as the author, I chose to keep the morphine addiction a secret from the reader until eight years later, 1902, when she collapsed in Chicago. Cleary had attempted to keep her addiction a secret from the world, and so I conspired with her and kept the knowledge hidden from the reader until the moment of crisis. I believed that purposefully withholding this information until later in the story would create an element of surprise, heighten the conflict, and add verisimilitude.

A “scholarly-historical” retelling of Cleary’s life would have revealed the addiction when it began. In an “artistic-scholarly” biography, however, the author “is permitted qualified manipulation of facts for the dramatic re-creation of his subject’s career,” states James L. Cifford, Samuel Johnson’s biographer and author of From Puzzles to Portraits. “Some risks may be taken, provided the reader is aware of what is going on. On the other hand, nothing can be invented, or completely imagined” (89-90).[1] Since each life story suggests its own narrative structure, the biographer’s task is to create the form that fits the accumulated evidence and the subject like a tailored suit.

Finding the correct structure for Mari Sandoz: Story Catcher of the Plains caused Stauffer much deliberation. She first tried to organize the biography thematically, and then she attempted to arrange it around the books. Finally, with the help of Virginia Faulkner, editor of the University of Nebraska Press, she decided to arrange it chronologically.

Even Sandoz struggled with form, especially writing Old Jules. “She could not make up her mind,” states Stauffer, “whether it should be a biography, a novel, or a fictionalized biography” (Study of Artist 168). As Sandoz became an established writer, the question of approach did not concern her. “She maintained that a book can be anything an author wants it to be if he can get away with it long enough for the reader to get through it” (Story Catcher 102). As a result, Sandoz fearlessly employed imaginary dialogue and dramatic scenes, like a novelist, to create what must have happened, a technique criticized by many publishers at the time. However, Sandoz firmly believed that “one can dramatize historical events but must not invent them.” After Old Jules was published and received overwhelming reviews, neither Sandoz nor the critics concerned themselves with defining its genre (Story Catcher 103).

As if imposing order on disorderly lives is not bold enough, biographers must also act as historians, another subjective undertaking. In recreating a life, a biographer must necessarily place the individual within his or her era’s intellectual, social, political, and geographic context, analyzing the dynamic between the subject and his or her culture. At the same time, the writers must realize the impact of their own culture on their perceptions of history. “There is no such thing as being impervious to history,” states John Halperin, Jane Austen biographer:

We live in the midst of our own historical moment; our values, our thoughts, our prejudices, our perceptions, are products of that historical moment and of the accumulated wisdom of social history as inevitably as they are products of our unique psyche. . . . Every age reasons from different premises. (165-165)

Not being from the Sandhills, Stauffer’s first task was to acclimate herself to the area: its people, places, and history. She did a lot of background reading, traveling, and personal interviews. Next Stauffer needed to acquaint herself with Lincoln and the University of Nebraska during the 1920s and 1930s in order to contextualize Sandoz’s life and writing during this period. Next came Denver and New York, crucial settings for Sandoz’s life.

Sandoz, too, faced historical challenges when her research uncovered contradictory versions of the same event. She noted that “her Crazy Horse material required fifteen thousand cards for the index alone, and then she could not be sure that she made the right decision on some of the controversial issues” (Study of Artist 16).

Reconstructing the history of an era, however, can help us recognize the forces that formed an individual’s character and influenced his or her actions. Often, through such historical framing, biographers chance to bring out skeletons from family closets, where they have been hidden for decades because of fear or shame.

For example, the Cleary family had heard about their grandmother’s addiction, but the subject had always been taboo, and they knew few details. By today’s standards, a drug addict is a derelict, irresponsible and often dangerous. However, by understanding the role morphine played in medical treatments in the nineteenth century, when it could be purchased over the counter like today’s aspirin, when no antibiotic existed to cure the cause of her life-threatening infection, and when her own country physician was discovered to be a morphine addict, Cleary’s addiction becomes more understandable. And then, by learning of the misapplied treatments she endured in 1903 at Elgin—the typical use of strychnine and mercury for total dehydration, followed by cold showers and electric baths—and the belief that caffeine, alcohol, and other narcotics would cure morphine addiction, readers can not only sympathize with her plight but applaud her strength in submitting and surviving. And the Clearys are proud of their grandmother now, too.

With each biography I write, historical contexts become more important. In my Stewart and Cleary biographies, historical backgrounds served to describe these women’s lives in the nineteenth century for today’s readers. In my current, yet unpublished, biography, “An Uncommon Woman: Elia Peattie, A Literary Journalist in the Gilded Age,” historical perspectives are more central to the text. [Note: The University of Nebraska Press published Impertinences: Selected Writing of Elia Peattie, a Journalist in the Gilded Age (Edited and with a Biography by Susanne George Bloomfield) in 2005.] Rather than understanding the life through the times, in Peattie’s case we understand the times through her life. Peattie grew up during the age of the Victorian True Woman, when piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity defined woman’s role and centered her firmly in the home. The end of the century, however, ushered in the New Woman, who started demanding the right to equal educational and career opportunities as well as stronger political rights and responsibilities. Peattie, a journalist for the Omaha World-Herald, recorded the changing times in her editorials. “Each life provides a genealogy of a culture,” comments Ira B. Nadel in “Biography as Cultural Discourse”(81).

Many scholars agree that biography is essentially a work of history. Even Emerson states, “There is properly no history, only biography.”[2] The biographer, in recovering a life, re-imagines the past, adding new layers, contexts, and interpretations. Robert K. Massie, who wrote Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra, explains:

What is timelessly interesting is human nature. . . . Here are people, different but not entirely different from us, in situations we ourselves have faced . . . As we observe them pausing at a crossroads, struggling with doubt, we compare their lives with ours and feel empathy, perhaps even sympathy. We sense the universality and resilience of human nature. There are lessons to be learned from history. (115)

Biographers, despite their subjective reconstruction of the past, are simply storytellers who help us vicariously experience other lives and times while enriching our own.

On Barancles

Perhaps the most audacious act of the biographer is the emotional connection formed between the writer and the subject. Backscheider comments:

Biographers live with their subjects as parasites and barnacles, attempt to follow them day by day, study their relationships with everyone, pour over their letters, and diaries, pounce upon all descriptions of them, if possible sit in their chairs and handle their crockery. Even the obsession young lovers have with each other pales in comparison. (108)

A complex dynamic exists between biographers and their subjects, and they sometimes find themselves leading two lives in two different centuries. Some describe this relationship as an affair of the heart or a marriage of convenience,[3] but whatever the chemistry involved, some sort of empathy or identification must exist for the biography to be successful.

Why is a biographer drawn to a particular individual? In my case, it has been, for the most part, serendipity. I think Stewart chose me. I was undergoing a traumatic time in my life, and her challenge that any woman could succeed if she only had “the courage and determination” to try, called out to me (Stewart 217). I didn’t want to homestead, but I needed to stake a claim in academia, a region much more intimidating than Wyoming, and she taught me how. This is typical, states Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, biographer of Anna Freud: “Female biographers have written of themselves as turning to their subjects, consciously or unconsciously, in search of an ideal—an ideal mother, an ideal friend or sister, a sexual ideal, an ideal of productivity, and creativity, an ideal liver of life” (151).

I met Cleary and Peattie by chance when I discovered their writings in nineteenth-century periodicals. Only later did I learn that they were from Nebraska, that they had been best friends, and that they were uncommon women. My respect for them developed over time as their lives unfolded before me. Backscheider believes that the relationship between women biographers and their women subjects is more overtly personal than that of traditional biographers. “The equality [sic] of the relationship, the fact that the women subjects ‘need’ to be discovered, given their due, explained, gives a reciprocity to the enterprise that we encounter less frequently between biographers and male subjects” (160).

Sandoz had died only two years before Stauffer began her graduate work in 1968 at the University of Nebraska. Still intrigued by the Crazy Horse biography, Stauffer asked professors if Sandoz’s literary reputation would merit a dissertation. Because the University was just beginning to receive the Sandoz files, everyone was delighted. Stauffer began by reading all of Sandoz’s work and critical backgrounds, but her enthusiasm waned a little when she began looking through the letters. Helen was not sure if she would like Mari. “She was so sure of her knowledge that she could be brusque, impatient, or lacking in tact in her correspondence,” Stauffer states.  However, when Stauffer read letters between Sandoz and friends, she began to see another side of her. “Those who knew her found her dynamic and intriguing,” Stauffer continues. “She could be gracious and charming, even though it is not always reflected in her letters.” This revelation was important to Stauffer. “A biographer must have some kind of connection with her subject, a sort of symbiosis, in order to try to understand her subject’s feelings.”

Although the subjects Sandoz chose for her three biographies were all male, her father, Crazy Horse, and the Cheyenne leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife, her love for the prairie and sense of identity with both the land and its history could be described as a spiritual or mystical liaison. Moreover, her passion for the Great Plains has often been considered a major theme in her works, and the country itself one of the characters. “Sandoz,” states Stauffer, “never attempted to write about anything with which she had no emotional identity” (Study of Artist 210).

In the Foreword to Old Jules, Sandoz writes, “Old Jules is the biography of my father, Jules Ami Sandoz: I have also tried in a larger sense to make it the biography of a community, the upper Niobrara country in western Nebraska” (vii). Finding empathy, or even sympathy, with her often brutal, vindictive father was not easy for the Sandhills daughter. However, believes Stauffer, “Her early years of long apprenticeship allowed her to write out the bitterness and frustration she felt, to come to terms with both her mother and father and to rid her work of the self-pity of [her] early stories.” With this aesthetic distance, Sandoz was able to achieve the emotional control “to present both the good and the bad in her father, her family, and her region” (Story Catcher 110).

As for Sandoz’s emotional connection to Crazy Horse, the author had been drawn to the Lakota leader long before she had ever decided to write his biography. Crazy Horse had lived and walked on the Sandoz homestead lands, for the old campgrounds had once been located across the road from their house. According to Joyzelle Godfrey, independent Dakota scholar, her people continued to use the campground after the Sandoz family arrived. When the Lakota saw how Jules abused Mari, they were appalled, as it was totally against their system of child rearing, so they took her away from him while they were camping there. The story goes that

When Jules and family called for her, a warrior brought her back to them riding on his shoulders and using his braids for reins. And so it was that when ever the people came to camp there for several summers after that the Indians took Mari to their camp in order to protect her . . . In our way of being, she became our child.

Crazy Horse was Sandoz’s favorite work, not only because she felt she had achieved her literary objectives but also because of the affinity she felt for the Lakota and their hero.[4] “They seemed to have similar psychological natures,” states Stauffer. “She also felt a mystical, perhaps psychic, tie between them” (Story Catcher 158).

In all of my research about biography and biographers, the comment that I read most often, and have heard repeatedly in my own experience, are the similarities readers find between the biographer and the subject. Most biographers acknowledge that each biography, like every other written work, is partly autobiographical.[5] In The Art of Biography, Paul Murray Kendall states, “On the trail of another man, the biographer must put up with finding himself at every turn: a biography uneasily shelters an autobiography within it“(x). Writing biography often confirms, or sometimes makes us reevaluate, our own experiences. As we ask questions about our subject, we question ourselves, and the answers make us fuller human beings. Humphrey Carpenter, biographer of Tolkien, Auden, and Pound, concurs, “I’ve spent the last two decades trying to discover who I am through the people I’ve been writing about. I suppose you could call it living your own life second-hand” (273).

Biographers agree that they must have a blend of intellectual and emotional engagement with their subjects, and, in most cases, that attachment, like sage on the Sandhills, is tenacious. Many of us, writing about a person we have never met, would give up the Pulitzer Prize for one conversation with that individual, hoping, above all else, that they would only like us. Our only fear would be that they would meet us at the door, saying, “You got it all wrong!”


Elia Peattie, in her zeal for reporting for the Omaha World-Herald, accused herself of being “a perfect nuisance.” She probably was. But because of her “impertinence,” another word she used often to define herself, readers today have a first hand account of people and events in Nebraska at the lively end of the nineteenth century.[6] Likewise, because of the impertinence and audacity of biographers in the search for the truth of one life, despite our voyeurism, our subjectivity, our imposition of order, and our emotional attachment, we are able to discover the truth in our own lives. Biography, believes Kendall:

attempts the simulation, in words, of a man’s life, from what is known about that life, from the paper trail, the enigmatic footprint. Thus it differs from other literary arts. They seek to evoke reality from illusion; biography hopes to fasten illusion upon reality, to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived. (28)

Biography can be justified because it is an art, the art of human portrayal in words encompassing a “dynamic interaction of lives, those of the biographer, the subject and the reader” (Backscheider 162). In addition, biographies enhance the reading of an author’s works, helping readers to re-experience them with fresh insight, “to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced with the author’s oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love” (Updike 3). One only has to look at the bestseller lists or the nonfiction shelves in the bookstores to appreciate the allure of biography. They are overflowing with celebrations of life.


Works Cited

Backscheider, Paula R. Reflections on Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Biography: The Craft and Calling. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1969.

Carpenter, Humphrey. “Learning about Ourselves: Biography as Autobiography.” The Art of Literary Biography. Ed. John Batchelor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. 267-279.[bios of Tolkien, Auden, Pound, Benjamin Britten]

Clifford, James L. From Puzzles to Portraits: Problems of a Literary Biographer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Edel, Leon. “The Figure Under the Carpet.” Telling Lives: The Biographer’s Art. Ed. Marc Pachter. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1981. 17-34.

George, Susanne K. The Adventures of The Woman Homesteader: The Life and letters of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

—. Kate M. Cleary: A Literary Life with Selected Works. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

George-Bloomfield, Susanne. “An Uncommon Woman: Elia Peattie, A Literary Journalist in the Gilded Age.” Unpublished manuscript, 2003.

Godfrey, Joyzelle. E-mail to the author. 20 March 2003.

Halperin, John. “The Biographer’s Revenge.” The Literary Biography: Problems and Solutions. Ed. Dale Salwak. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. 149-166.

Kendall, Paul Murray. The Art of Biography. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1965.

Longford, Elizabeth. “Reflections of a Biographer.” The Literary Biography: Problems and Solutions. Ed. Dale Salwak. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. 146-148.

Malcom, Janet. “The Silent Woman.” The New Yorker 69 (23-30 August 1993):86.

Massie, Robert K. “Narrating the Past: History or Biography?” Biography and Source Studies. Ed. Frederick R. Karl. New York: AMS Press, 1994. 103-115.

Nadel, Ira B. “Biography as Cultural Discourse.” Biography and Source Studies. Ed. Frederick R. Karl. New York: AMS Press, 1994. 73-84.

Rose, Phyllis. “Confessions of a Burned-Out Biographer.” The Seduction of Biography. Eds. Mary Rhiel and David Suchoff. New York: Routledge, 1996. 131-136.

Sandoz, Mari. Old Jules. 1935. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Stauffer, Helen Winter. Mari Sandoz. Boise, ID: Boise State University. 1984.

—. Mari Sandoz: Story Catcher of the Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

—. Mari Sandoz: Study of the Artist as a Biographer. Diss. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1974. Ann Arbor. MI: UMI, 1974. 75-3394.

—. Personal interview. 25 March 2003.

Stannard, Martin. “The Necrophiliac Art.” The Literary Biography: Problems and Solutions. Ed. Dale Salwak. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. 32-46.

Stewart, Elinore Pruitt. Letters of a Woman Homesteader. 1914. University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Thwaite, Ann. “Starting Again: One of the Problems of the Biographer.” The Art of Literary Biography. Ed. John Batchelor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. 201-211.

Updike, John. ”One Cheer for Literary Biography.” New York Review of Books 46.2 (4 Febr 1999): 3-5.

Woolf, Virginia. “The New Biography.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. Vol. IV: 1925-1928. London: Hogarth Press, 1994. 473-481.

Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth. “Reflections on Anna Freud: A Biography.” Biography and Source Studies. Ed. Frederick R. Karl. New York: AMS Press, 1994. 149-160.

MLA Citation
Bloomfield, Susanne George. “‘Absolutely No Manners’: On Having the Audacity to Write Biography.” Lincoln, NE: Mari Sandoz Heritage Society and the Center for Great Plains Studies, 2003.


[1] Clifford defines five types of biography: 1) Objective, which he questions as being possible at all; 2) Scholarly-historical, which employs no fictional devices but strings together selected facts in chronological order supplemented by historical background; 3) Artistic-scholarly, which involves extensive research but allows the writer to present the details in a “lively” manner; 4) Narrative, which also involves exhaustive research but imagines dramatic scenes and conversations; and 5) Fictional, which relies on secondary sources and allows the imagination “full rein.” He considers Type III to be the most appealing to creative biographers(84-87).

[2] From “History” Essays: First Series [1841].

[3] Thwaite 206.

[4] Clifton Fadiman, although a negative reviewer of Crazy Horse, noted this affinity, stating that the author “has been carrying on a fervent historico-literary affair with a dead Indian” (Story Catcher 159). However, such empathy between Sandoz and Crazy Horse is important, believes Stauffer. “Her close sympathy with him gives power to the story and helps her to succeed in recreating a man and his time as it must have been, one of the primary purposes of a good biographer” (Mari Sandoz 23).

[5] Halperin 158; Backscheider 90; Holmes 19.

[6]Uncommon Woman.”

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