Sunday, June 28, 2009

Meaningful Praise and A Lesson Learned

I just received feedback on one of my chapters from Toole’s close friend Dave Kubach. Toole met Kubach in Puerto Rico—and it was on Kubach’s typewriter that Toole began composing A Confederacy of Dunces. I sent him the chapter on Toole’s first year in Puerto Rico. Needless to say, Kubach’s opinion of my work was very important to me. Only he could verify the accuracy of my portrayal.

I was pleased when he wrote, “I'm happy you gave ample evidence of [Toole’s] fundamental decency of character….There is little in your chapter I would quarrel with.” And I was overjoyed when he finished his letter with:

“Your use of his letters home to chart his development as a comic writer is a really useful contribution to understanding how Confederacy of Dunces got written, a valuable move away from the general fascination with the details of biography. Quoting substantially from his letters home also gives us a useful sense of the texture of John's life in Puerto Rico.”

But Kubach also doubted one section of my chapter, with which I admittedly struggled. He wrote, “I'm not sure John was so much the detached observer of Company A you make him out to be.” In the chapter on 1961 I characterize Toole as “operating on the social margins of Company A, waiting for an opportune moment at any party to inject his trademark wit.” In some ways this description was a compromise between the conflicting character assessments several other members of Company A offered of Toole. But in the end I think it was something more than a mere compromise.

Allow me to digress. I was at a party yesterday with my wife’s family and I found myself listening to several conversations. Periodically I would interject a witty comment, never seeking center stage. I was acting my usual self during a social gathering. But as I became more self-aware of my behavior within the context of the party, the words that I wrote about Toole seemed applicable to me. I too was “waiting for an opportune moment to inject my wit.”

And so it occurred to me that when I wrote about “Toole within the social context of Company A,” I may have let my own personality shape my description. If so, it was not intentional, nor was I cognizant of my actions. But it makes me wonder, does the biographer, in the act of attempting to write objectively about his subject, fight against writing his autobiography? Or, in the subject he chooses, does he in some way actually write his autobiography without knowing it? Scholars might be abhorred at such a proposal. But do we not find traces of the biographer in every biography?

I suppose the best biographies are those that keep this violation to an untraceable minimum. But I also venture to guess that any biographer would admit, perhaps in the rarest of moments, his subject eventually becomes interwoven with his own life, and thereby (either consciously or subconsciously) becomes part of his autobiographical narrative. And thus, such an exchange becomes tempting grounds for subjective assessment. It is a fine line to walk, especially with a subject who is not alive to right the wrongs of a biographer.

For me, this lesson was an important one in the subtleties of the potential pitfalls in any biography. Thank you Mr. Kubach.

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