In Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning western Unforgiven, bounty hunter English Bob arrives in the town of Big Whiskey with his biographer, W.W. Beauchamp, in tow.
Having dubbed Bob “the Duke of Death,” Beauchamp is enthusiastically recording his subject’s gunfighting past and spinning these recollections into dime store westerns.
The sheriff of Big Whiskey has a history with English Bob and promptly beats him to a pulp, tells Beauchamp that “the Duck of Death” has been exaggerating his prowess, and runs Bob out of town. As the wagon pulls away, Beauchamp is standing next to the Sheriff, who puts in a parting shot: “I didn’t steal your biographer. He stayed on his own account.”
I bring this up because today is Biographer’s Day.
According to Chase’s Calendar of Events 2010, May 16 marks the 247th anniversary of the meeting in London between Scottish biographer James Boswell and his English biographee Samuel Johnson.
Considered one of the best biographies ever written, James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was the first of its kind to remain neutral towards its subject and to combine accuracy (from Johnson’s diaries) with the narrative flow of a novel.
Boswell became so celebrated for this accomplishment that his name has become part of our vocabulary – the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the noun Boswell as “a person who records in detail the life of a usually famous contemporary.”
No doubt Boswell’s breakthrough work was due in part to ideas he had gotten from his subject. Samuel Johnson was a genius of literary criticism and in his essays he advocated the need for:
- Objective biographies – Johnson wanted to put an end to the white-washed and heavily exaggerated advertorial “biographies” of his day
- Biographies of the non-elite – Johnson insisted that recording the lives of people who had made only small contributions to society was worthwhile; biographies should not be reserved for royalty and the “best of the best”
- Detailed biographies – Johnson thought that all aspects of the biographee should be noted, so that the reader could get a feeling for the whole person, not just their achievements
My internationally themed biography suggestion:
Author: Martha Sherrill
Summary: At great risk to himself and his family, Morie Sawataishi single-handedly saved the Akita – the Japanese “samurai dog” – from extinction.
My opinion: Sherrill’s book immediately appealed to me because I believe that our dog-of-dubious-origins is part Akita and also because I have an affinity for Japan. Dog Man exceeded my expections; a well-told “small life” biography of a man who deserves recognition.