In the New Yorker, in his essay about Meryle Secrest’s Shoot the Widow (Knopf) and Nigel Hamilton’s Biography: A Brief History (“Lives of Others“), Louis Menand offers some useful perspective on the biographer’s art. Briefly put: a fact doesn’t explain its subject better simply because it was previously unreported.
For one thing, it leads biographers to invert the normal rules of evidence, on the Rosebud assumption that the real truth about a person involves the thing that is least known to others. A letter discovered in a trunk, or an entry in a personal notebook, trumps the public testimony of a hundred friends and colleagues. Biographers go into a professional swoon over stories that some famous person has made a bonfire of a portion of his or her correspondence, or that notebooks in an archive are embargoed until the year 2050. That stuff must explain everything! Why should we especially credit a remark made in a diary or a personal letter, though? The penalty for exaggeration and deception in those forms is virtually nonexistent. People lie in letters all the time, and they use diaries to moan and to vent. These are rarely sites for balanced and considered reflection. They are sites for gossip, flattery, and self-deception. But diaries and letters are the materials with which biographies are built, generally in the belief that the "real" person is the private person, and the public person is mostly a performance.