Telling the Untold Story

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Weinberg, author of an unauthorized biography of Armand Hammer, suggests that investigative reporters have opened up new avenues of truth in biography by aggressively questioning the historical record, conducting exhaustive interviews, and submitting the received opinions on their subjects to ruthless cross examination. The champion of this emerging form of investigative biography is Robert Caro, whose biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson are treated in a chapter-length discussion.

Weinberg observes that journalists differ from most academic biographers in having a stronger sense of narrative and a vision of their subjects which tends to be less laudatory. Historian, however, have taken issue with Caro’s methods, and Weinberg concedes that Caro is too sanguine about his ability to obtain the truth, not realizing how significantly his own biases can skew his story.

Other journalists turned biographers are discussed (Donald Barlett and James Steele, Kitty Kelley), and Weinberg devotes a chapter to an insightful explanation of how he conceived and pursued his biography of Armand Hammer, having to overcome his subject’s hostility. With excerpts from several biographies in which biographers explain their research methods and experiences, Weinberg has provided a kind of primer for both practitioners and readers of biography.

By focusing almost exclusively on journalists, Weinberg ignores the work of several academics who have begun to blend their Ph.D training (with its rigorous standards of evaluating evidence) with well-paced, imaginative narratives. But Weinberg provides an excellent history of biography in his first chapter and a state-of-the-art discussion of it in his concluding chapter, with revealing discussions of how subjects have used libel and copyright laws to discourage biographer.