Special Section History of Life Writing Theory Study Comparative Biography Autobiography Study Subject Study Film Biography From the Life Writer Essays on Life Writing Academic Info More
Writing Biography: Puzzles and Mysteries

Abstract: The older biographers used to convey an impression of omniscience, as if there was nothing they didn’t know about their subjects. And whenever the available evidence was ambiguous or incomplete, they tended to minimize or ignore the puzzles that arose. More recently, biographers have been willing to let readers share in their detective work, openly acknowledging that certainty is not always possible. With Jonathan Swift and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as examples, I will discuss important aspects of their relationships with women. Rousseau, though vowing in his Confessions to be “transparent” to the reader, misrepresented important features of his past, and may even have been unaware of some of them. Swift was a man of secrets, and his most significant secrets are well worth exploring. In each case, I will focus on important relationships with women. We know who those women were, and we know when and where Rousseau and Swift were involved with them. But what we are far from certain about, is the true nature and depth of the relationships. And this is where the puzzles and mysteries come in. Rousseau believed that early relationships and experiences have a profound effect on the development of personality. He also thought that when a particular memory was disturbingly powerful, it must be telling him something important about his own personality – even if he found it hard to interpret. With Jonathan Swift, we face a different kind of puzzle – in fact, some genuine mysteries. Swift never wrote an autobiography, and never wanted to. He was a man of secrets, even among his friends. And his two most important relationships were hidden behind an absolute curtain of secrecy. His closest friends weren’t sure exactly what was going on. And we – three hundred years later – have real detective work, to do as we try to peer behind the curtain. In conclusion, I would like to emphasize an important way in which the practice of biography has changed in recent years, very much for the better. Like the previous biographers of Swift, older biographers presented their own assumptions and conjectures as if they were fact. Readers today appreciate being taken behind the scenes, to ponder open questions along with the biographer. When the older biographers encountered puzzles and mysteries, they tended to minimize them, or even ignore them completely. Their excuse for doing that was to say that a biographer should not mention anything that couldn’t be proved. But if – as in the examples I’ve related – even people who knew Swift and Rousseau well were unsure about the truth, how could anyone possibly prove the truth today? But that doesn’t mean that the mysteries aren’t fascinating in themselves. It has been a great advance that biographers now share the game of detective work with their readers.

Key words: puzzles in biography; Rousseau; Johnathan Swift

Leo Damrosch (1941 - ) was educated at Yale (BA summa cum laude, 1963), Trinity College, Cambridge (Marshall Scholar, first class honors, 1966), and Princeton (PhD, 1968), he taught in the English Departments at the University of Virginia (1966-83), University of Maryland at College Park (1983-89), and since 1989 at Harvard University where he is now Ernest Bernbaum Professor Emeritus of Literature. In addition to numerous academic publications, his most recent books are Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and winner of the PEN New England award for nonfiction; Tocqueville’s Discovery of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010); Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale University Press, 2013), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography, and also for the Kirkus Prize in nonfction; and Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (Yale University Press, 2015) a finalist in criticism for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and also for the Christian Gauss Book Award. He has four sons, and lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife, Joyce Van Dyke, and their youngest son, Nicholas.