The Influence of Biographies

When I was a girl, I tagged along with mother to the library, and she would always check out two books of fiction and a biography. The yard sale pick up, the gift, and the loaner filled her bookshelves. When I was bored, I’d choose one and either discard or devour them depending on my age and mood. At college, I enjoyed reading those prologues in the anthologies about historical figures or literary greats in the canon and the non-traditional voices that bumped some out.

Snippets of other lives, the incongruous details of the famous and not-so, these strangers have fastened themselves like hundreds of post-its on my inner wall. Wisdom. Lessons learned. Questions left unanswered. A tragic insight. A horrifying detail. My ghosts follow me around during the day and whisper to me when I’m half asleep. Their mistakes, hardships, and triumphs keep me company for better or worse.

Michelangelo grumbled into his late 80s with arthritis. He was in constant pain and begged God to take him, but while he waited, he wrote sonnets about love and death that still ring true. When I creak and moan with stiffness, when I feel solemn and serious, when I’m creating characters, I think of him and remember what he said:  I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

Dorothy Parker was an accomplished drinker with a sarcastic mouth. She’s my 1920s soul-sister who sat at the Algonquin Round Table along with other American literary critics, actors, and writers. She walked right into a job at the burgeoning New Yorker  as a critic and writer. Her barbed tongue and clever witticisms give the insights of a wise, older sister.  I’ll be the way I was when I first met him. Then maybe he’ll like me again. I was always sweet, at first. Oh, it’s so easy to be sweet to people before you love them.

Benjamin Franklin was efficient. He’d tweak the hours of his day and followed a routine to satisfy all the aspects of his personality. A big fan of industry and self-motivation, he has influenced me more than any other historical figure. Quirky and ahead of the curve, there’s an epigram for almost every life situation. I drift and forget. His nuggets of wisdom realign my attitudes:

Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight. 

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

When in doubt, don’t.

God helps those who help themselves.

Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.

Here are few recent reads I’ve liked:

Which people have haunted you because you’ve read a biography or their autobiography? 

45 Comments on “The Influence of Biographies

  1. A very interesting post, Cindy. I have read some biographies of historical figures, like Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Marco Polo, Lenin, and Stalin. They are not my first choice of a style though, as I much prefer historical fiction (Bernard Cornwell, etc) or historical fact, as in Antony Beevor’s books.
    You gave us some excellent quotes though.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. Always time for a good biography, me thinks. I’ve tended over the years to read a good many of those related to classic Hollywood. Errol Flynn’s, his good buddy David Niven, etc. Still, many historic figures get in there, too. The last one that comes to mind that really stayed with me was not what you’d call a true biography, but certainly read like one: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.

    Great subject to post, Cindy.

    • Hi Michael! Nice to hear you are a fan of bios. I love bios on the stars, too. Fritz Lang is the last one I read.I will have to check out the Quanah Parker narrative. Sounds interesting!

  3. What a fascinating post. Stephen Crane must be some read. They always quote him as the exception of writing about what you know. I would love to have met Dorothy Parker. As well as the humorous side, she really was very perceptive about love.

    • Thanks, Alex 🙂 Stephen Crane’s stories may not be flowery, but I like the theme of Social Darwinism, and he’s a leader during the Gilded Age in America. Dorothy Parker was an unsatisfied woman, but gave her the chutzpah to write her stories and poems. She’s the prickly, funny one you’d like to have at the party 😉

    • Holy, cow, Allen! Quite a compliment considering how much I admire your writing and your research. Thanks, my friend. SOO, which biographies do you like? I assume military history. Can you recommend any good WAC or WASP aviator bios?

      • Over my lifetime, I have rather few biographies and fewer, still, autobiographies. A history major almost too long ago to remember, I have pursued history throughout my life. Military history is of interest to me, but not my passion. If pressed, I might own that my main interest is cultural history however that might be defined.

        I am afraid that I don’t know of any WAC or WASP aviator biographies. I do remember having read a book some 15 years ago about the woman who was instrumental in the founding of the WASPs.

        • Okay, I’ll have to do some investigating. I had ambitions of becoming a social historian and sitting in an ivory tower imitating David McCullough. Instead, I teach high school students. “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”
          -Joseph Campbell

      • For a WAC biography, search Amazon for anything about Oveta Culp Hobby. There are also a lot of books available about Women’s Air Service Pilots.

  4. As usual Cindy, excellent and interesting post. I’m not sure it haunts me, but the biography of Bill Hicks hit me hard cos he reminded me so much of myself.

    Have you read Prozac Nation? It isn’t a biography really, more like memoirs, but it is about depression and this girl’s journey through it. That one haunts me, again because I could relate so closely to what I was reading.

    • Thanks, Jordan for good suggestions. Prozaic Nation — heard of it but have not read it. I don’t want to sound judgmental, but I am when I say it seems like so many look for the magic pill that will make them happy–I read this amazing biography of a mother from Australia who wrote a memoir about her experiences with her son who was diagnosed Schizophrenic. THAT was enlightening. I have had a morbid curiosity with mental illness for a variety of reasons. I don’t know many people who haven’t gone through chapters of their lives that didn’t nearly kill them or where their past hasn’t left scars. That’s a part of life.

      • I agree with you that most people go through something that will leave scars, and that book sounds really interesting. What is it called?

        What makes Prozac Nation interesting is the fact that the author was actually one of the first people ever to be put on Prozac, and that was only because every other avenue had been exhausted. This is back in the 90’s. The book has a note at the end saying how Prozac has become this pill that people are prescribed just for feeling down, meaning the real issue of major depression gets lost in the shuffle.

        I have the same curiosity you describe, mainly because I have epilepsy and bipolar myself, so Prozac Nation really made me appreciate where I am, how far I have come. The depression she describes in the book is so goddamn true, it is a heavy read.

        • Jordan, you are brave to share, I remember these aspects of you from previous posts. At the heart of it all, I wish the stress in treatment would be more practical like how to deal with it and tricks to manage it without resorting to pills. Of course, that cannot be done alone with some poor souls. I don’t think one should suffer and if a pill will alleviate severe symptoms, then by all means, feel better! I have read autobios about the mentally-ill Carrie Fisher and her choice to get rid of the pills and get zapped in the noggin as part of her treatment. Well, there she was yesterday on the screen and I noticed she showed signs of a stroke,she was so wooden. Then, I watched “Love and Mercy” about Brian Wilson and his issues with mental illness–it was a good film for showing how it feels to be mentally ill. The voices in his head and how it made him hyper-sensitive. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, I’d recommend it to you!

          • I have been meaning to see Love and Mercy, sounds like one I’ll really like. And I agree, pills should be the last resort. unfortunately pharmaceutical companies give doctors these sample packs which they are only too happy to hand out.

  5. Your growing up experience reminds me of my girls who had an insatiable thirst for reading materials as they grew up and still devour books when their children give them time to do so. We used to bring an armload of books from the second hand book stores and sell them back when finished. My eldest was a speed reader and would discard her books quicker than I could keep up with trips to the book stores. I didn’t believe she really absorbed a book so quickly so gave her a surprise test one day and found to my surprise she really had read and comprehended what was written there. Fortunately we didn’t have a TV in our home to waste their time and energy. I feel sorry for the current generation who spend their spare time watching mind numbing nonsense on TV that does not develop a talent for abstract thinking.

    • You are lucky your daughters were avid readers! I had three kids and pushed reading every day. Out of the three, only one reads voraciously. There are many school and community libraries who do great work advocating and encouraging youngsters to read and to cultivate reading habits. I do know my imagination is greater because of my love for reading. 🙂

  6. When I was a girl, Thomas “Alva” Edison, as an adult I got hooked on Cary Grant, now I like Schopenhauer, he looks totally crazy in his pictures, but he was “deep”.

    • Welcome, Elva. I love reading about Hollywood legends. Never read a bio on Schopenhauer but I believe you. The last philosopher’s bio I read was a while ago regarding Wittgenstein. I confess it was so dry, I couldn’t follow it all the way though. Einstein, however, I liked the biography by Ronald Clark. Oh, and Sylvia Nasar’s bio on John Nash was excellent.

  7. THE 1965 paperback FAROUK UNCENSORED by Michael Stern was one of the first biographies I bought off the Rexall drug store book rack in 1965. Others from that era included Cell 2455, Death Row by Caryl Chessman, the Autobiography of Malcolm X. My Life and Loves by Frank Harris, RICHARD BURTON his intimate story by Ruth Waterbury, and Bob Dylan: The Folk Rock Story. But I was more haunted by the fictional characters of Jesus Christ, Jean Valjean, Lolita, Captain Ahab, Holden Caulfield, Roderick Usher, Dr.Benway, Prince Bagration, Hamlet, Othello, Heathcliff, and Madame Bovary than real people. The two key books for me, biographically speaking, were The Lives of the Saints and The Lives of the Poets. Of late, the most inspiring autobiographies I have read have been of rock musicians Morrissey, Keith Richards, and Ray Davies…and film directors Tarkovsky, Jodorowsky, and Samuel Fuller.

    • Bill, that’s quite a list! I like the fictional characters that have made an imprint with you. Some that you listed are my favorites, too, (Madame Bovary, Jean Valjean, Heathcliff) and I surely need to read the Richard Burton biography you have listed.

  8. oh, i completely forgot. one of those thin little kids’ books on madame curie was a huge influence on me, and in 7th grade i won a national essay contest for a paper i wrote after reading the biography of helen keller. but way back in 3rd grade i wrote a 60 page condensation of william shirer’s the rise and fall of adolf hitler that my teacher had me recite into a tape recorder.

  9. I like possibly more historical fictionalized biographies but there are strange reasons I choose the people I admire. Frank McCord wrote “Angela’s Ashes” about his Irish mother, then two more books making it a trilogy. His 3rd book talks about being a teacher in America. Pat Conroy caught me with, “Conrack.” This is a book about a teacher on a small island. I liked the other family stories he told in, “Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini.” I liked Ben Franklin and the American Revolution while in elementary school, read about Clara Barton, Betsy Ross and Florence Nightingale. My favorite historical fiction/biography was about Thomas Paine. I liked the book,”To Spit Against the Wind,” an “undersold” (public didnt realize his true impact) servant for the American Revolution. I have read the memoir, “Ice Castles,” about a basically homeless family where the daughter somehow becomes a journalist. I liked the candid details like she is riding in a limousine and glances out the door and sees her mother climbing out of a dumpster with a grin, holding something up to the journalist’s father. I am going to check the title and author, Cindy. Great post and so glad you opened a discussion on this subject. The truth behind legends is sometimes fascinating.

    • Robin, thanks for your thoughts regarding stories that stick with you. The Great Santini and Prince of Tides — powerful stories that resonate with “our” generation. It’s impossible to explain to my children how difficult being a child was when it came to your elders and what was expected of you and the power the parent had in the dynamic. Tis the stuff of nightmares. I like your last sentence very much it says it all. It is fascinating!

  10. “The Glass Castle” written by Jeannette Wall, spent 261 weeks on the New York Times list. “Ice Castles” was a Robby Benson movie from awhile back. Jeannette’s father painted stories about building a glass castle, even went as far as to dig a foundation but there were hard times. Yet, much later the children find out their grandmother left them property which could have lived in or sold.

    • I didn’t know that. Thanks, for sharing. Have you seen Grey Gardens, any version? I liked Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange version from 2009.

      • Eleanor Roosevelt and Brooke Aster. The second was unexpectedly moving. She said that she always was happy every day, not because life was perfect. Rather, because she decided it was and acted accordingly. It was determination and will. I find that thought helps me enormously some days. And Eleanor Roosevelt was so smart, in so many ways… too many to number.

        • E.R. is a personal mentor for me. What a strange, hard life. I haven’t read any about Brooke Aster but determination and will are traits I hold in high regard, so I will have to check her out! I hope your Hanukkah was memorable. Happy New Year!

  11. Awesome post Cindy! I really should read more biographies, as you said eloquently, you could learn a lot from them. The one biography I read that I enjoyed was the Gregory Peck one [natch!] but I’m not haunted by it, hmmm I can’t think of any that haunted me.

    P.S. I’m off on holiday, have a merry & blessed Christmas Cindy!

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