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Writing Another Life

The biographer’s task can be overwhelming. Here’s how one biographer learned to breathe new life into her subject. by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

Someone once said that women like writing biographies because they enjoy reading other people’s mail. In that case I’m guilty. Biographers often confess to enjoying the thrill of the hunt, of discovering what no one else has seen. There had been 12 other books on the 20th-century journalist/social critic H. L. Mencken before I decided to write a biography of him. So my challenge was to make a familiar story new.

The biographer must be endowed with curiosity, energy and a drive for accuracy. The sheer volume of Mencken’s personal material is overwhelming. It includes books, diaries, memoirs and more than 100,000 letters, encompassing the likes of Groucho Marx and Herbert Hoover.

The biographer must suggest the sweep of a life, yet highlight the major behavior patterns that give that life its shape and meaning, striking a balance between personal and public achievements. That being said, you can’t tell every episode. Instead, the goal is to enrich your biography with flashes of human interest. As in life, the personality of a man is never revealed at once, but by slow degrees. You can accomplish this through research and organization.

I rely predominantly on primary material. I found that the missing entries from the edited version of Mencken’s diary were essential in demonstrating the theme of his life, which, in turn, became the theme of the book: Mencken’s commitment to freedom. Additional sources I consulted included: contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts, other manuscript collections, letters, photographs and office files. Documents written during the heat of the moment are always best, but they can’t replace oral histories and personal interviews. They not only help make the past come alive; they also provide insight and guideposts to other troves of material. Quite often, when I was near the end of a visit with children of Mencken’s contemporaries, they searched their attics and loaned material that previous biographers had missed. Last (but essential) is to retrace the footsteps of your subject. Mencken was integrally associated with Baltimore. In order to learn more about him, I “followed” my subject to his city. Here, the past still retains a physical presence: in Mencken’s house, buildings and landscape.

When it comes to organizing material, I use a method that the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Edmund Morris taught me from his work on Theodore Roosevelt. Assemble notes chronologically, on 5 x 8 index cards, beginning with the subject’s birth and working toward his death. This approach allows you to stay in the moment. I didn’t merely learn the facts of Mencken’s life; I got to “see” him growing up and know his changing phases and moods. With chronology as the base, you can flesh out scenes with material from those who were with your subject during key episodes.

Yes, it’s a slow process, but it can lead to illuminations into your subject’s character, which is the very essence of biography. An interview with Mencken’s goddaughter revealed insight into a very public man. During Christmas 1938, when she was recuperating from an illness, Mencken gave her a toy doctor’s kit. When she put the tiny stethoscope to his heart, she got very worried. “Uncle Henry,” she said, “I don’t hear anything!” To which Mencken replied, “Just as I thought. I’ve been dead for years.”

Taken alone, this anecdote is worth nothing. But my cards revealed that 1938 had been a pivotal year for Mencken. His popularity was low; he was depressed; he suffered several strokes. So this anecdote actually becomes quite poignant. It’s a glimpse into the feelings of a very private man who often shielded his privacy with a quip. This episode would have been easy to overlook if I hadn’t arranged the cards chronologically and showed the circumstances of that year.

The biographer’s task is to see what others don’t see, to shine meaning into mysteries that even your central subject may not understand. This is when the process becomes exciting—when the research jells. When it came to writing on Mencken’s depression that year, I thought, Ah! Here is my ending to that chapter!

Separate from the chronology file are several other categories. “Mind” encompasses aspects of Mencken’s intellect and personality: his reading, writing style, wit, politics, vanity, playfulness, etc.—bits and pieces I could insert into the text. “Body” contains descriptions of his appearance and health (by year), his love of food and drink, including his passion for music, which he said was as integral a part of him as his skin. “Places” contains cards with information on Baltimore and Mencken’s home. A separate biographical file gives the histories of the people who knew Mencken, focusing on his closest friends. Last, a “production” file contains entries as they occur: ideas for book titles, chapter headings, illustrations. It also has lists of those interviewed, archives consulted and libraries to visit.

There can be no enlightening biography that doesn’t include an account of a man’s times, especially when the main character is a social critic. But biography isn’t history; material must be organized according to your subject’s perspective. Information about the United States, including Baltimore, became vital when it came time for me to tackle

Prohibition, a topic central to my narrative. Mencken viewed Prohibition as the ultimate violation of individual liberties; he was a spokesman for its repeal. That independent spirit was also demonstrated in Baltimore, which did its best to ignore Prohibition. How to convey this vividly to the reader? Here’s where the cards regarding places became useful. Instead of writing a crushing litany of facts, I described Mencken’s neighborhood. On Sunday afternoons the air in Union Square smelled of malt and hops, as neighbors brewed homemade beer. Atmospheric detail like this can be created in fiction, but in biography it emerges only from research.

The process I’m describing will yield more material than you can ever use. Items that aren’t relevant to the life, work and personality of the subject must be ruthlessly discarded. Some can be recycled into other articles—or may even provide the idea that leads to your next book. Without sacrificing scholarship, this method provides delicate touches of humor, drama and pathos, and these can make your story powerful. And, as we all know, storytelling is the essential element of biography.

Ultimately, as a biographer, I aim to make my readers feel like they’re there—back in the 1920s, hearing Mencken pounding on the typewriter, sensing his personality on every page. One of the nicest compliments I received came from a reader who told me that Mencken’s presence had been so vivid that when she came to the end of the book, when Mencken dies, she felt as if he had just left the room. To which my husband would probably say, “Thank God!” For years he’s been trying to get rid of “that other man” in the house.

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