Posted by: koolwine | May 16, 2010

The W.W. Beauchamp Biographer’s Day Celebration

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:

Title: Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain

Author: Martha Sherrill

Publication: 2008

Country: Japan

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.



  1. This one looks really neat – I might have to check it out!


  2. I liked this book very much. I liked reading about the personalities of the dogs but even more so the personalities of the husband and wife. I like that the author didn’t romanticize their relationship but presented it straightforward. I especially appreciated learning more about Japan and gaining the perspective of Japanese people about WWII and the occupation by Americans.

    My first remembrances of hearing about Japan as a young boy in the 60’s was my parents and their friends retelling their experiences of WWII always beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and ending with the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I recall seeing a picture in a magazine of a shadow seared into the surface of a rock and wondering how that could ever happen. What kind of a bomb could do that?! Later, “Made in Japan” was the phrase on everyone’s lips as it seemed that nearly everything but cars was being made in Japan. “Made in Japan” became synonymous with cheaply made. But the most dramatic association I had with Japan was Godzilla. I recall the title of one movie was, “Godzilla Vs. the Smog Monster”. The Smog Monster would spew slimy batches of smog on everyone and everything sparking mobs of Japanese people to flee the city. On cue, Godzilla would stumble into the scene flinging his head about like he had a broken neck and subdue the monster. (How he did that, I do not now recall.) The best cultural tutorial of Japan for me was the 1972 Winter Olympics. It was the first Olympic Games that I intently watched and I was fascinated by the historical and cultural vignettes presented in the TV coverage. For me it turned Japan from a long ago former enemy into a people worthy of my respect.


    • Godzilla was my favorite movie monster but I watched all those movies on German TV so I never knew exactly who he was versus-ing!

      Glad to hear that you liked Dog Man. The unsentimental portrayal appealed to me as well.

      The Olympics sure does have the ability to form (and possibly cement) people’s impressions of the host country. Thanks for sharing so many of your associations.


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