National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Richard Ellmann, Winner of the 1960 NONFICTION AWARD for James Joyce

The National Book Award altogether encourages me to say - not altogether dispassionately-something that up to now I have not presumed to: that biographies ought to be long. If an individual life is described too leanly, too much in terms of bony essences without the covering of "casual flesh," we grow anxious, we suspect distortion, we wonder if the essences are really there, or if the biographer, who appears to know his subject so well, knows it because he has dressed himself in his subject's clothing.

Fat books perhaps suspend disbelief as fat men quiet suspicion. The essences may have a chance of gaining acceptance if they arrive dense with particularities. In the dry air of a biographer's intuitions we grow faint; we want to see the personality of the subject as a series of concomitant relations with other people. Longing for his total embodiment, we are dissatisfied if we are shown merely or principally his private self. It is true that the private self is handsomer, braver, and quicker-witted than the social self, but these qualities do not make it more genuine. The real self is the social one, which comes to exist when juxtaposed with other selves. In isolation there is only that tree in the forest with no Berkeleyan god to observe it. The solitary self is a pressure upon the social self, or a repercussion of it, but it has no independent life.

Yet if we want to see the social self, we do not want to see it only in its formal stances. Having committed ourselves to all the varieties of social experience, we are once again committed to length. Dr. Johnson tells us that a man's domestic life should be investigated because prudence and virtue may appear more conspicuously there than in incidents of vulgar greatness. But what Johnson meant by domestic life, and what Boswell recorded, was civilized appointed meetings. Today we want this, but also a closer familiarity. We want to see our great men not only when they are exhibiting prudence and virtue, but also when they are exhibiting bad temper, fear, or boredom. Napoleon warned of the danger of trusting his valet, but we cannot trust Napoleon's warning. One reveals one's character to a dull servant as to a brilliant friend, and the biographer, prevented by his trade from class distinctions, consults both. He consults the details of each day, and the resulting accumulation of incident in, for example, Ernest Jones's biography of Freud, saves it from the kind of isolated, barren formulation into which a lesser analyst might have been misled.

Such detail need not alarm us, for the subject of biography is a person rather than an event, and so involves us in drama even more than in history. The subject is, or seems always to be, trying to escape from the biographer's chapter headings, to defy the biographer's categories, and the biographer is forced to stretch the categories and modify the terms of approach, to build and rebuild his portrait and himself. The ultimate source of tension in biography is the distance between the dead man and those who would comprehend him. The biographer is the uninvited ambassador to a strange country whose language and customs he must struggle to understand and report. His embassy concluded, he comes back changed, if indeed he may be said to come back at all.