I have always been averse to theorizing about the art or craft of biography. Like Disraeli’s biographer, Lord Blake, who offers the cautionary analogy of the biographical centipede unsure of her next step because of too much cerebration, I have made it my practice to let the facts find the theory. A preoccupation with theory has been a defensive response by academic biographers in this country, I submit, to the condescension of traditional humanists and social scientists pervading higher education for many years.
The truth of this observation was conceded a few years ago by David Nasaw, as he introduced a roundtable discussion of biography for The American Historical Review. He opined that, in the spirit of Leon Edel, “biography remains the [history] profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff.” Ten years ago, most history departments still discouraged dissertations tethered to biography. Biography had lost its purchase in deconstructionist English departments, where the meaning of the text trumped the intent of the author (whose death Roland Barthes had announced). The new social sciences regarded the study of the individual as of limited value in the scheme of understanding institutional forces. The university—certainly the research university—was not the place for a biographer to make a name for himself. Those who did mostly did so in their spare time.
Yet biography still seemed destined to some of us, much sooner than later, to earn envy-tinctured acceptance from the crustiest humanists and social scientists. I felt in my bones that Alfred Kazin was right to suggest that “the deepest side of being American is the sense of being like nothing before us in history”—a historical conceit that privileged biography as the narrative of the exceptionalist experience. Biography nourished the average reader’s appetite for resonating life stories and captured the educated public’s esteem whenever narrative craftsmanship was sustained by critical judgment. I remember the honest dismay and downright cupidity overheard in faculty clubs and hotel bars at annual association meetings about “poaching journalists” and “amateur scholars” writing biography and history best sellers. Nor was there much generosity of spirit in evidence when a credentialed scholar caught the brass ring, as with the Pulitzer and National Book Award that went to T. Harry Williams’s 1969 Huey Long biography or with Fawn Brodie’s experimental Thomas Jefferson five years later.
A run of major biographical studies informed by race, gender, culture, and transformational politics—some by professors, others not—gradually induced a critical reappraisal of prejudices within the academy during the 1980s, when interpretive revelations appeared of Lyndon B. Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Booker T. Washington, Cotton Mather, Alice James, Oscar Wilde, and Harry Truman, to cite only a few impressive works. Today, biography is so securely established in contemporary academe and in popular culture that most of the concerns of the American Historical Review roundtable seem no longer relevant.
Whether within the academy or outside it, biography now has a much better sense of its possibilities and therefore its responsibilities. Its potential for revelation has become so formidable that, as British biographer Michael Holroyd once wisecracked, biographers have “added a new terror to death.” The dead can no longer expect their secrets to be buried with them. When James Anthony Froude shocked eminent Victorians in the 1880s by disclosing his friend Thomas Carlyle’s sexual impotence, his source was the deceased subject himself. But in An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963, Robert Dallek culled Kennedy’s medical records to calculate the number of pills the president swallowed daily to control his Addison’s disease. The revisionist impact of DNA upon Jeffersonian biography ought to prepare us for similar upheavals as this science’s recuperative potency advances. Could some future J. Edgar Hoover biographer corroborate Gore Vidal’s innuendo and Anthony Summers’s research about the African-American genealogy of the malevolent FBI director?
Many of us biographers are rightly anxious, nevertheless, as we see the recovery of the papered past become increasingly problematic: as grand epistolary collections that tell a life story box by box become scarce; as office memoranda are consigned on legal advice to the shredding machine; as written documents obey the Gresham’s law of email, that the volume of useless communication drives out the useful sort. Still, the amount of recoverable information may be increased by social media, WikiLeaks disclosures, and the omnivorous Orwellian possibilities of the National Security Agency. Which leads us, I think, to ponder the responsibility question confronting biographers as they traverse this expanding new techno-universe formed from unknowns that may become increasingly knowable. If as the French say, to understand everything does not mean that everything is forgiven, the biographer might reformulate the maxim to read that even when all the questions are answered, the challenge remains to assess their explanatory value.
Call it judgment or discretion, the biographer has to decide what weight to give to the recoverable unknowns: to his subject’s hidden lineage, sexual preferences, concealed wealth, academic cheating, medical history, and so forth. Holroyd says that “from Boswell to [Lytton] Strachey biographers have been an unrespectable crew, given atrociously to gossip and possessing the merit of bad taste.” But this caricature demeans the good biographer’s obligation of conscientious discernment, which, while easy to define as the business of explaining the unsuspected or of suspecting the explained, is far from easy to execute. Virginia Woolf characterized the biographer’s requisite state of mind with consummate grace: “His sense of truth must be alive and on tiptoe.”
Leon Edel’s famous decision not to hypothesize about Henry James’s sexuality after the James family granted access to the novelist’s homoerotic letters stands as an instance of biographical discretion decidedly at variance with the “tiptoe” sense of truth present in James scholar Michael Gorra’s radiant recent book, Portrait of a Novel. As Martin Luther King Jr.’s first academic biographer, I was informed of his extramarital athleticism by journalists and government agents, yet I made the merest mention of the subject, writing almost primly in King: A Biography, “Several of [King’s] intimates would scarcely regard as libelous the observation that the flesh-and-blood Dr. King knew the temptations of physical pleasure.” For King biographer David J. Garrow, the civil rights leader’s private life became a major part of the story. Writing in our day, Edel and I decided that the sexual engagements of Henry James and Martin King, such as they were knowable, were irrelevant to the former’s stature as a great novelist and the latter’s as a unique apostle of racial democracy. Biographical discretion has since become less discreet, which is appropriate to the unbuttoned nature of today.
A curious deficit in introspection is commonplace among professional historians, a function of the inductive way we do history and the temperamental aversion most of us develop to theorizing about the value of what we do. And yet, to indulge a paraphrase, is the unexamined biographer’s life worth living? Permit me then to ruminate on the relationship of the biographer to his own biography—the autobiography of biography. Examining my career, then, I must admit that I would have been surprised, after grad school, if some seer had predicted a modicum of distinction in the field of African-American history and biography. My nurturing—both familial and academic—was resolutely mainstream, majoritarian, assimilationist.
As the youngest son in a secure and comfortable home, as a pupil speeding through high school in two years, and as a confident collegian who experimented with a semester of law school before deciding to pursue history in graduate schools in New York and London, I emerged from these experiences minted as a pure member of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth. My earliest memories go back to the cloistered college community in Wilberforce, Ohio, where my father was dean of the theological school and where a long parade of academic, ministerial, civil rights, and other worthies sat at the family dinner table. Among them were Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Marian Anderson, Walter White, and Du Bois himself. Channing Tobias and Thurgood Marshall also come to mind.
My family and its circle were like characters in a Jessie Fauset novel—committed integrationists whose demeaning existence at the margins of mainstream America we interpreted as worse than a crime; it was a social absurdity, yet an absurdity we passionately believed we could overcome by exemplary feats of professional or intellectual breakthrough. We were self-consciously what Nell Painter has called “representative Negroes.” One badge of civic and social eligibility for us, then, was mastering the history that white Americans claimed as their own. We would recognize the kindred ambitions confessed in Making It, Norman Podhoretz’s arriviste memoir.
I came into my teens unaware that most Americans—blacks as well as whites—were ignorant of the main facts of Negro history. And so it was the facts of other histories that I found most intriguing. I fell into a U.S. history major by chance late in my second year at Fisk University. At Columbia, a thesis on the late–19th century’s premier public intellectual and social Darwinist, Harvard College librarian John Fiske, was my dress rehearsal for writing a biography of ideas. After Columbia came the London School of Economics and studies in political philosophy and French history. Reading modern French history and politics with the distinguished William Pickles turned out to be graduate school nirvana. After two trimesters of lectures, tutorials, and fabulously rewarding hours reading in the old British Museum and its Colindale newspaper archive, I went off to Paris for dissertation research, residing in Versailles with a delightful royalist family hard by the chateau.
For my dissertation, I focused on the young founder of a group of liberal Catholic laity: Emmanuel Mounier of the Personalist movement and his seminal monthly review, Esprit. Ranging across the wide spectrum of Catholic opinion from Jacques Maritain to Gabriel Marcel, Mounier’s review undertook, from 1932 until his death in 1950, the construction of a “third force” in French politics that would transcend both socialism and capitalism. The experiment failed badly in the left-right ideological vise of the Fourth Republic. With “Mounier” written, defended, and accepted in the spring of 1962, I left England for Fort Benning, Georgia, and induction into the U.S. Army.
The Army in its wisdom sent me right back to Europe as a psychological technician in a special unit based at Landstuhl, Germany. After all, I was a “doctor.” I managed an honorable discharge after 18 months through an academic loophole that got me my first teaching post as a lecturer at the University of Ghana. I taught medieval and Renaissance history to some of the brightest students of my career. Assassination attempts against President Kwame Nkrumah seemed to occur just about every other month, most likely assisted by the CIA. Malcolm X passed through Accra on his return from Mecca, leaving Maya Angelou and the sizable African-American expatriate community in a state of exaltation for weeks afterward. Ideological differences among faculty members persuaded me to leave the University of Ghana after only a year. By the time I got back to revising the dissertation for possible publication three years later, “Mounier” felt stale.
In the spring of 1968, after two research summers in Paris, I began to write the book that I hoped would establish my credentials in modern French history. It was to be called “The Clerc in Politics,” a study of the ideas of eight French writers whose works had generated a dedicated public and political following. It included Mounier, but no women, I’m now chagrined to say. That year, life veered off on an unforeseen course when an editor wrote to propose a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. as part of Penguin’s Great Leaders of the 20th Century series. I had already missed most of the civil rights revolution, had no professional interest in writing about it, and possessed only a vague impression of King, whom I’d seen briefly only twice. Furthermore, it struck me as preposterous to write a biography of a dynamic 39-year-old public figure because it would more than likely be out of date before publication. I was just about to decline when the news broke on the evening of April 4 that King had been shot to death in Memphis. That tragedy offered me the project of a lifetime, an opportunity to write about the promise and the mirage of America as the land of opportunity.
During the summer of 1968, I blitzed the South and spent a week in Chicago interviewing the major personalities, digested the primary and secondary sources, and made the first use of the King papers then at Boston University. King: A Critical Biography appeared in time for the second unofficial commemoration of King’s birthday in January 1970. Its reception by professional historians was uniformly gratifying. Unfortunately, the editor and I had both overlooked the negative connotation of the word critical in common English usage. Mrs. King uttered a chilly appraisal. The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore ordered parishioners not to read it—thereby making it a best seller in that city. The book closed on a poignant speculation: “To imagine a Martin King surviving the electoral summer of 1968 raises plausible speculations whose promise and pain are stupefying,” I wrote, and wondered to myself how much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Martin King’s Beloved Community our country would embrace.
The book retains its special value as a biography written in the interpretive space between King’s death as a beleaguered public figure and his beatification as America’s greatest secular saint, a man for all reasons, an elastic fetish as potent for one cause as for another. Working at a furious pace, I quickly became aware that the past would soon begin to become unrecoverable from its future. It was still possible to track “Mike” or “M. L.,” the privileged son of a powerful fixture of Atlanta’s racially segregated, conservative, black upper-middle-class, as he absorbed his family’s rich religious tradition, acquired a more cosmopolitan academic culture in Boston, and alternately led and followed the black freedom movement as it accelerated beyond the control of his nonviolent passive resistance. I could follow him as he surpassed the civil rights parochialism of peers to combine racial emancipation, economic democracy, and world peace into a transcendent, if still inchoate, philosophy of human rights that inspired many, yet puzzled and offended many more. And now, a half-century after Memphis, his philosophy speaks to a great many of our citizens as a splendid emendation of the American Creed.
Because I came from the same Atlanta social background as King, I found ready access to prominent families, peers, teachers, associates, opponents, and public officials whose firsthand memories were as yet unsacralized by King’s apotheosis. Ella Baker, the indispensable multitasking civil rights worker who said she seldom met an NAACP official or preacher she respected, served the cause in spite of its misogyny and everything else she still deplored. So did Julian Bond and Charles Sherrod of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who disliked King’s penchant for opportunistically dropping into and out of local protest hotspots. J. Edgar Hoover cordially declined my interview request and sent along a speech he gave on liberty and vigilance. My home telephone line immediately emitted the telltale clicking sounds of a tap.
From his imposing desk at NAACP national headquarters, Roy Wilkins carefully explained to me how the legal assistance and bail money provided by his organization enabled King’s several successes. The inference was clear that King’s challenge of racial discrimination in Chicago and Detroit had been precipitate, that it alienated the labor and liberal allies of civil rights.
King had foreseen the national backlash his speaking out against structural inequality and the Vietnam War would cause. Talking off the record to Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff members a few months after Selma, he told them, “We are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism. … There must be a better distribution of wealth, and,” he went on to say, “maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.” Forty-six years after his death, King’s prescience is confirmed by continuing news reports of the greatest wealth inequality in the country since 1928.
Biography remains an art with few rules beyond the most basic ones embedded in the methodology of research. But there is one rule that all who try their hand at it come to know: until the protagonist reveals his or her character—his or her inner self—what the biographer produces is less a life than a report, an autopsy rather than the record of a séance. The premise of an ego needing to overcome the comfortable expectations of his family history was fundamental to my reading of Martin Luther King Jr. Becoming just another Baptist preacher in highly stratified black Atlanta, settling for a father-son co-pastorship of the family church immediately after graduation from Morehouse College, conflicted with King’s need to excel as an impressively credentialed, culturally liberated professional.
All the more reason, then, that I found the documented evidence of plagiarism at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University shocking, and ultimately inexplicable. After all, I had read King’s hefty philosophical dissertation, interviewed his major professors at Morehouse, Crozer, and BU, and devoted a chapter to his intellectual growth, entitled “The Philosopher King.” What else can I say after contributing a confessional essay, “Failing to Know Martin Luther King, Jr.,” to the Journal of American History? A weird collusion between the student and the professors this must have been, with none of them knowing that one of them would become Martin Luther King Jr.
My King biography ought to have awakened me fully to the extraordinary abundance of virginal sources and variety of germinal interpretations in African-American historiography. Black Studies was on the march. But I still didn’t quite get it. Instead, I returned to French history and an opportunity to write a research breakthrough on the Dreyfus Affair. The quest was to secure access to the “secret dossier” deposited in French military archives in Paris and write a supplemental history of the defining politico-cultural crisis of late-19th-century Europe. The dossier consisted of evidence manufactured by French army intelligence to sustain Alfred Dreyfus’s conviction at his infamous second trial at Rennes. None of it had been used, however, because its fraudulence was finally deemed too obvious even for a court-martial. Rather than destroy the materials outright, the army general staff locked them away in 1899.
This fraudulent evidence had been discussed only by the chief of manuscripts of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Marcel Thomas, who had consented to support my petition to write about its significance for an Anglophone readership. When the head of the Section Historique de l’Armée at Vincennes turned the key in the lock on the metal cabinet in his office, I understood for the first time that the ultimate aphrodisiac is not power, but access to restricted documents. The secret dossier’s significance was in exploding the stubborn 20th-century myth that the army high command had opposed judicial review of the case until the very end because of the welter of confusing information and the honest mistakes bureaucracies inevitably commit.
The book, Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair, was published in fall of 1974. Before long I had begun to reconsider my history agenda. The tug of African-American history had finally become irresistible, and in 1976 my agent proposed a book on the Harlem Renaissance that would be the first deeply researched, comprehensive study of a period largely known for the Charleston, the Cotton Club, and bibulous slumming by fashionable whites. Enormous but relatively unused correspondence collections at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center, the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, and philosophy professor Alain Locke’s letters at Howard made the topic another aphrodisiac of an experience.
But I had a larger agenda in mind: to insert the much-neglected middle class front and center in African-American historiography. I hoped these collections would tell me that I would find clearly stated in these exchanges a self-conscious determination to construct an arts and letters movement in the service of civil rights advancement: a strategy of civil rights by copyright—the phrase I ought to have chosen as the book’s subtitle. The Harlem Renaissance I wrote about was an elitist response on the part of a tiny group of mostly second-generation, college-educated, northern and generally affluent African Americans to the racial straitjacketing of their people in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.
Self-conscious and high cultured at first, this minuscule black vanguard, a mere fraction of the racial total, jump-started the New Negro arts movement, I argued, by using the NAACP, the National Urban League, and their respective publications as its proselytizing vehicles. For a time, it linked together the cultural rebellion of the white Lost Generation of Floyd Dell, Waldo Frank, and Eugene O’Neill, thriving in Greenwich Village, with the racial assertiveness of Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Charles Spurgeon Johnson, rising in Harlem—a collaboration of Manhattan’s two bohemias. The cosmopolitan James Weldon Johnson declared that “nothing will do more … to raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.”
Alfred and Blanche Knopf seemed cagily to agree, as did Albert Boni and Horace Liveright, whose doors were the first to open to Harlem’s writing literati, six of whom I tried my best to resurrect in their old haunts. Alfred Knopf knew them all, and much of my success in capturing the considerable egos and large talents of Carl Van Vechten, James Johnson, Walter White, Nella Larsen, and Langston Hughes was due to the rich remembrances Knopf shared with me during a memorable morning’s interview. When the renaissance collapsed in the Great Depression, the scrappy 50 or so artists who had been discovered and reeled into Manhattan by Du Bois, the two Johnsons, White, and Fauset had produced an impressive corpus of novels, poetry, essays, paintings, and Broadway drama, some of it of enduring significance.
The publication of When Harlem Was in Vogue in 1981 engendered critical praise along with a fair amount of valuable controversy. Curiously, my discovery in her opinionated correspondence of the sizzling relationship of Jean Toomer and Mabel Dodge, the Jazz Age Madame de Staël, escaped much notice. However, the letters, bisexual and homoerotic, of a good number of renaissance figures presented me with what today’s biographers could only regard as a quaint or insignificant dilemma of disclosure. When Harlem Was in Vogue leaves the private life of Hughes, Cullen, Locke, Van Vechten, and Wallace Thurman to the discerning reader to read between the lines.
When Knopf published When Harlem Was in Vogue, a prospective Du Bois biography was enveloped in enough complexity to make it seem the third rail of biography. It was well known that one would-be biographer had been ordered out of the vast Du Bois collection controlled by Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, either because he failed some ideological litmus test or because Shirley Graham, the second Mrs. Du Bois, intended to write the biography herself. Access to 357 boxes of the complete Du Bois papers at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst was unavailable, and rumors (mostly untrue) swirled among historians that the papers had been pruned, that crucial material was still in Aptheker’s possession.
But when news arrived that the embargo of the Du Bois papers was about to be lifted, friends and colleagues urged me to construct a preliminary proposal for a biography. A Du Bois biography would of necessity be large and controversial. The research and writing would also be expensive, as my proposal spelled out in some detail. I committed myself to a completion period of three years: the life of Du Bois in a single volume. No problem, as I assured editor, agent, and wife, and, assurances honestly given, I went off to live in Du Bois’s life. I believed, as I embarked on the research for the biography, that this was a subject of enormous significance, an opportunity to appreciate a life that is the synecdoche of an epoch—a window onto almost every salient issue of the 20th century, from social science advocacy to the politics of social democracy and anti-imperialism.
Three years passed and, as my editor gently noted, I had yet to turn in a chapter. I lived in Amherst during school breaks, persevering foot by linear foot through those 357 archival boxes. For relaxation, I sometimes drove due west to Great Barrington in the Berkshires, the insular town of Du Bois’s birth, where the inhabitants displayed an unmistakable frostiness at the mention of his name. I have a vivid memory of taking tea with the genteel head of the local DAR chapter, who sighed that it was Great Barrington’s misfortune to have the statue of a counterfeiter hanged by the British at one end of Main Street and the ancestral homestead of a traitorous expatriate at the other end. The National Park Service marker on the vacant Du Bois family property mysteriously refused to stand upright no matter how often it was repositioned. Still, I was persuaded that Great Barrington—the embers of abolitionism still aglow in the late 19th century—had been an almost idyllic place in which to be born, “by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation,” as Du Bois writes in one of his three autobiographies.
The Du Bois papers are a great archival treasure, so endlessly engrossing to the biographer that he can feel at times the great sweep and depth of the national odyssey as he opens folder after folder. And there are plenty of surprises, some of them stunning. In one series of letters, a French aristocrat living in England, planning to write an article deploring American racism, asked Du Bois for a reading list and general guidance through the race problem in the United States. The Comte de Voilemont received letters of advice, a bibliography, and three parcels of articles—all forwarded to a village post office box. Du Bois never realized what I as a biographer of Dreyfus immediately discerned: that the French correspondent was Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the officer whose treason in 1894 had sent Dreyfus to Devil’s Island.
After eight years of research and writing, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 appeared in 1993. The book covered only the first half of my subject’s life and times, a major departure from the original agreement with the publisher. Had I tried covering the remaining 44 years in another 300 or more pages, I foresaw a product handicapped by both elephantiasis and sales price. It was about then that I had an epiphany that solved both problems—two volumes instead of one, to my family’s consternation: the first 50 years of the life to end neatly with the close of World War I, the balance of the life to come out in five years or so as Cold War grudges faded and Du Bois’s political apostasy benefited from a kinder, gentler hearing among reviewers. I warily wished to save Du Bois from himself in order to save his essential meaning, as I understood it to be. My publisher balked initially, but then decided that the strategy was inspired.
Du Bois was not an easy man to live with for 15 years. A pioneering sociologist with more degrees than a thermometer, as many black folk joked, he espoused racial and political beliefs of such variety and seeming contradiction as to bewilder and alienate as many Americans, black and white, as he inspired or converted. It was a reading feat to digest the books, articles, newspaper columns, and novels that flew from desks in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Moscow, and Accra as Du Bois assumed a different politics each decade until the synapses in his great brain ceased firing after 95 lucid years. Beneath the shifting complexity of his alliances and denunciations, I saw a compelling and often deeply moving pattern of congealing inclinations, experiences, and ideas, driving him irrepressibly to a vision of society that became, in contrast to the lives of most men and women, increasingly radical as he grew older. The day finally arrived when the full-blown Marxist supplanted the civil liberties maverick. That he was often arrogant and imprudent, maddeningly inconsistent, and even ultimately convinced that what others called treason was the last refuge of the true patriot was, I decided, of less importance than that his ideas were fecund and his obduracy deeply principled.
I opened the first volume of the biography with Du Bois’s death in Ghana on the evening before the historic March on Washington, where Roy Wilkins announced Du Bois’s passing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The NAACP head told the suddenly still crowd, “It is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the 20th century his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause.” Wilkins asked for silence, and a moment almost cinematic in its poignancy passed over the marchers. Mahalia Jackson electrified the great crowd with “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.” A few minutes later, at 3:40 P.M. on that catalytic August day, King, the new shepherd of the ’buked and scorned, soared into one of the noblest speeches in the history of the American Republic.
Ten years before that great day, Du Bois himself had written a new preface for the 50th-anniversary edition of The Souls of Black Folk, the Magna Carta of black America’s civil aspirations. To Du Bois, the real problem of the century had become the manipulation of race in the service of wealth. In his clairvoyance, he greatly feared that the odds would increasingly favor the rich. “I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century,” he wrote in the preface.
But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellow men; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race.
This essay is adapted from the author’s Leon Levy Biography Lecture at the City University of New York.
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