The Troubles of Biographers: B is for Bigger Than Life

PROBLEM 2: Is the best biography the one that covers a person's entire life? Or one that focuses on a seminal event? 

On the one hand, focusing on the person's entire life gives readers context as well as all the uneven bits (the parts that don't match up to the legend). After all, does one concentrate on Admiral Byrd's success in Antarctica or the controversy surrounding the North Pole into which he was reluctantly pulled?

On the other hand, sometimes focusing on a seminal event can provide deeper insight into a person's life than a cursory overview. 

I address this problem to an extent in my post on J. Edgar (the film). As with Invictus about Nelson Mandela, Eastwood's film about Hoover focuses on a particular event (early) in Hoover's career. I argue that unlike with Invictus and Mandela, the event chosen for J. Edgar doesn't really fit the man. 

However, even J. Edgar does a fairly good job providing insight into a complex man's personality. 

"B" biographies were particularly useful here! So many "B" last-name personalities are known for a singular event/connection: Barnum (circus), Burroughs (Tarzan), Bly (travel around the world), Admiral Byrd (Antarctica), Bryon (his affair with his cousin--no, wait, his poetry--well, one of those), and so on. 

Biography: Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan by John Taliaferro

The book quite impressively retains its single focus. This is made easier by the fact that Burroughs, to a degree, and other people, to a much larger degree, defined Burroughs's life as being all about Tarzan. This is the man who named his ranch in California Tarzana (though he and his family only lived there five years). The book additionally provides insight into being a writer in the age of pulp magazines and, that exception to all rules, the burdens of a rich pulp writer--though Burroughs lost a great deal of his money to various investments, some of which paid off and many which did not.

Taliaferro is a fine biographer. He admires Burroughs (all biographers, I will contend, fall in love with their biographees) but he thankfully doesn't justify some of Burroughs's more distasteful opinions. He also doesn't resort to the "but everybody thought that back then!" argument, which is patently false in many cases (plenty of people in the early twentieth century were opposed to eugenics--though it is true that many political figures of the time on both sides of the political aisle were enamored with the idea).  

On the other hand--and this I especially appreciate--Taliaferro doesn't reduce Burroughs to "just" his political or scientific ideas. He presents Burroughs as a fully complex human being who was surprisingly self-effacing, good friends with his children, and an astute literary businessman (despite the failed investments), especially when it came to dealing with editors and the Hollywood of the day. Burroughs's opinions also changed over time; he was capable (not everyone is) of adjusting his attitudes based on actual experience. 

Best of all, Taliaferro doesn't apologize for enjoying Burroughs's adventures. Literary biographers sometimes tie themselves into knots when it comes to liking "unpopular" writers (literary circles are as susceptible to "popularity" trends as high school cliques). Burroughs may have suffered from a desire to produce something other than Tarzan. Taliaferro doesn't demand the same result. 

Tarzan remains at the center of the book because to a large extent, Tarzan remained the center of Burroughs's life, partly by necessity, partly by choice. I was reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle's struggles against his ongoing bond with Sherlock Holmes--though Burroughs seems to have acceded to his inevitable legacy with far more good-natured humor. 

Taliaferro, John. Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan. Scribner, 1999.


Matthew said...

Burroughs was interesting guy even beside the creation of Tarzan.

Not a long time ago, I read Blood and Thunder the Life of Robert E. Howard, the creator of the other muscular primitive hero, Conan the Barbarian. Like Burroughs, Howard held to some beliefs that haven't age well. While not everyone held the same beliefs, a lot people did. I imagine a lot of what is accepted now is going to be considered horrendous in the future. (Sometimes rightfully so.)

About your post on the other site about the Phantom of the Opera, the thing to remember is that the original Gaston Leroux novel was a horror/thriller not a romance. The phantom was supposed to be an obsessive serial killer, though a tragic one. I'm not quite sure why people see him as a romantic figure.

Joe said...

I read prolifically until my 40s--as in about four to six books a week--then I got bored. My taste is eclectic, but I was generally willing to give any popular author a try, but for reasons that escape me, I didn't bother with Burroughs until a few years ago. Almost all of his books start out rocky--which is probably why I gave up when younger--and then settle into delightful nuttiness.

"It just so happens" is Burroughs, but done so fun that I don't care.

Tarzan is probably his most well constructed novel, though still uneven in flow. For a ripping yarn, I prefer Son of Tarzan.