National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Leon Edel, Winner of the 1963 NONFICTION AWARD

I am, as you know, a biographer. And a biographer who attempts to tell a life in several volumes, as I am doing, has perhaps a reason for offering explanations. You may remember Lytton Strachey's words about Victorian biographies "...those two fat volumes with their ill-digested masses of material, their slip-shod style, their tome of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design." He found a "funeral barbarism" in them.

I have written my volumes with Strachey's words before me. What I have reminded myself is that he is not complaining about the number of volumes; he was complaining that they were badly written. Style, selection, detachment, design, and varnishing of the truth -- this was what he asked of us (although perhaps not sufficiently of himself). It is the challenge biography must learn to meet. It was the challenge leveled at Boswell by one of his earliest critics. "Gold dust," wrote this critic, "should have been ingotted before it was presented to the public." And sixty years ago T. S. Perry, a New England critic, described the making of biography in this fashion: "The biographer gets a dust cart into which he shovels diaries, reminiscences, old letters, until the cart is full. Then he dumps the load in front of your door. That is Vol. I. Then he goes forth again on the same errand, and there is Vol. II. Out of this rubbish the reader constructs a biography."

It seems to me that it is time for biographers to stop putting this burden on the reader. Of course we can complain that we are swamped by our materials. What are we to do for example if our Presidents present us with entire libraries crammed with their documents. Again I find an answer in Strachey: "[Biographers] should row out over that great ocean of material and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with careful curiosity." To illustrate, rather than explain, to select, discriminate, and above all to have some narrative design -- for the biographer who feels obliged to include everything, this may seem like an impatience with facts and dates. It is the reverse. It is a recognition that all history can never be told: that without selection all we have is clutter. We must disengage history and the lives of men from the clutter of events.

It may seem strange to you that I should describe myself as a devotee of the little bucket rather than of the dust cart. The truth is I was forced to melt down my materials or I would have been smothered by them. Had I followed the dust cart method, my materials would have filled two dozen volumes and even then I would not have exhausted everything. It is this inexhaustibility of biographical data that presents to modern biography a challenge to find a method, a theory, a technique, a form. A biography, after all, is a story, a true story. There is really no excuse for not telling it well and trying to tell it with all the art at one's command.