Joe Bonomo: On Biography and Temperament

March 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

Amidst the ongoing brouhaha over truth in memoir, guest blogger and rock and roll biographer Joe Bonomo — author of the forthcoming Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series, 2010), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found (2009), and Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band (2007) — reminds us of how even a biographer’s personal relationship with his subject will influence the text.  Joe teaches at Northern Illinois University:

We know the word art derives from the joining and fitting together of parts, and that a well-wrought biography is shaped and disciplined over messy, shapeless history.  But there’s this: “There is properly no history,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, “only biography.”  And Phillip Guedalla: “Autobiography is an unrivaled vehicle for telling the truth about other people.”  Emerson and Guedalla seem engaged in a battle of definitions. What of the biographer’s own history?  Every writer has a personal relationship with his subject; try as you might, you can’t be outside the work.  What’s interesting is how much truth biography tells about its author.

When I wrote Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, I decided that I’d stay off of the crowded stage and out of the book (only near the end of the process did my editor ask me to write the autobiographical material that appears in the epilogue). In Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found I worked my way to the Killer Myth by essaying a scintillating performance that I didn’t witness, yet “my story” of loving that show’s recording was backgrounded, and became context, was context all along for my greater understanding of Lewis’ vexed and unique career. In my book-length essay on AC/DC’s 1979 album Highway to Hell, I intuited that that rocking paean to adolescence was composed of more voices than Bon Scott’s and mine: I tracked down my classmates from Catholic school during the 1970s and asked them, too, to talk about the album, about how they’ve changed or stayed the same. I asked them to fit their history into someone else’s biography. Their voices, perspectives, and memories changed the book’s landscape.  The actual act of reconnecting with these kids (adults) took me away from a biographical reckoning of the album and back to the country of the personal, back to the past and to the vernacular and aesthetics of my autobiographical essays.

Emile Zola reminds us that “Art is nature as seen through a temperament.” A writer engaging his world biographically imagines a kind of cinematic construct: camera here, subject there.  You think you’re creating an objective community outside the lens, but simply by placing that camera eye where you choose you’re altering and personalizing that community, you’ve worked your way in. I’m led to my subject by desire; that desire changes the subject and, ultimately, my search.  If I write a critical biography of All In The Family, the curious fact that Archie Bunker wore the same pajamas my dad did might raise the stakes for me, might be my way in.  Every biography is on some level a secret autobiography.

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§ One Response to Joe Bonomo: On Biography and Temperament

  • Amen, Joe. What we care about on the page seems to me to say as much or more about the self than what we reveal . . . I just got Lost and Found in the mail. Can’t wait to dig in. I grew up on biographies of dead presidents and black baseball players, books my elementary librarian, Virginia “Virgie” Pine forced me to find by the Dewey Decimal System.

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