The Self-Portrait of a Literary Biographer
Joan Givner is the biographer of Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo de la Roche. Instead of adopting a conventional approach—showing how she became interested in her subjects, conducted her research, assembled her narrative, and came to terms with her finished product—Givner writes in a more informal and personal style, dividing her text into short numbered paragraphs, which do not proceed in chronological order but rather reflect the themes of her self-portrait and her interaction with the lives she has studied.
This daring method—biographers rarely reveal much about their personal lives—does open up and air the biographer’s role in a novel way. But it is not apparent—especially at the beginning of the book—how some of the personal details of Givner’s life and her family history inform her quest as a biographer. It is possible, of course, to read between the lines, and Givner is right not to spell out some of the connections between herself and her subjects, leaving some discoveries for the reader to make. Nevertheless, the best part of her book are those sections when she engages in dialogue and correspondence with sources such as Eudora Welty who question the biographer’s motives and results or encourage her efforts.
The early part of the self-portrait would have benefited from this fusion of personal and professional quests, showing perhaps in an incident how biography and autobiography, the biographer and her subject, coalesce. Givner has made a bold beginning, but other biographers will need to go beyond her in finding a form that achieves a balance that heretofore has been the province of novels taking biographers as their subjects.