Daisy Bates in the Desert
Daisy Bates (1860-1951) spent most of her life among the Australian aborigines. She was a self- trained anthropologist who kept journals of her daily life in the bush and wrote newspaper articles and a book about her experiences. She was also a self-invented figure, telling outlandish tales about her own background.
Julia Blackburn does her best to sort fact from fiction, but she also uses her subject’s prevarications to evoke the legend Bates clearly wanted to make out of her life. Blackburn is far more daring than most biographers. Although she relies on diaries and journals, she casts much of her narrative in a first person voice—as if to present Daisy unmediated by the biographer’s speculations. Of course, the narrative itself is one huge conjecture as to what it felt like to live as Daisy Bates day to day.
The first person narrative works because it is sandwiched between Blackburn’s meditations on Bates. The biographer thus emphasizes the gaps in the evidence that her imagination must fill. At times Blackburn compares herself to her subject—something biographers rarely do in their narratives. Yet Blackburn rightly implies that this is the biographer’s quest: to fuse with his or her subject without losing the critical distance needed for a narrative of another person’s life.
Such experiments in biography can be pretentious and unconvincing—a biographer’s dodging of the data or a cover for a lack of data. Blackburn writes too well and has researched her subject too thoroughly to be guilty of these faults. Instead, she reveals biography as a form always concerned with fact but always struggling to transcend particularities to capture the whole person.