The biographer’s donkeywork
To be a biographer is a somewhat peculiar endeavor. It seems to me it requires not only the tact, patience, and thoroughness of a scholar but the stamina of a horse. Virginia Woolf called it “donkeywork”—for who but a domesticated ass would harness herself to what is recoverable of the past and call it A Life? Isn’t there something curious, not to say questionable, about this appetite for other people’s mail, called Letters? What does it mean to be mulish in pursuit of someone else’s life, to be charmed, beguiled even, by the past, if not held fast to it? It isn’t true that it provides insulation from the present. On the contrary, it impinges upon it, for while it is from the terrain of my own life that I work and mine hers, biography is the true story of someone else’s life, and not my own.