Book Review: Negotiating the Perils of Biography

Originally published in THE BIOGRAPHER’S CRAFT

The newsletter of the Biographers International Organization,

May 2019

By Carl Rollyson

I dropped everything to read this book, and so should you—if you are willing to confront the corruption endemic in writing certain kinds of biography. The plot involves a celebrated archivist, a famous editor, a respected lawyer, and a renowned publisher. I won’t name names—not out of any fear of reprisal or observance of discretion (McBride names them all)—but because the characters: The Biographer, The Editor, The Archivist, The Publisher, and The Lawyer represent, for allegorical purposes, the conflicts of interest that are rife in the tension between archives, publishers, and editors who often side against biographers. What has happened to Joseph McBride has happened to me. In fact, I have known and worked with some of the principal players in this story. If McBride is sometimes impetuous and the author of his own predicaments—as he confesses—his plight is all the same a profound lesson for biographers.

So here is what happened: McBride, a well-regarded screenwriter and film scholar, believed he had the cooperation of director Frank Capra, the creator, if you don’t know it already, of such American classics as Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), generally considered as paeans to the common man and American democracy. McBride conducted extensive interviews with Capra, who, by turns, was friendly and hostile. The Archivist was welcoming and assured McBride he would have permission to quote from Wesleyan’s extensive archive. It was McBride’s understanding that Capra had given Wesleyan copyright control. What McBride discovered in his research was a man who was no democrat or Democrat but instead a conservative Republican, misogynistic and prejudiced against ethnic groups, who downplayed the importance of the screenwriters who created “the Capra touch,” and later informed on those writers and others during the McCarthy Blacklist Period. What is more, after the great achievements of the 1930s and 1940s, the director’s work declined dramatically — in part, McBride believes, because of Capra’s unwillingness to deal with his betrayal of fellow professionals. The Biographer still held Capra’s signature films in high regard but also felt compelled to show their contradictions and how those contradictions explained the director’s later failures.

When The Biographer began seeking permission to quote from the Capra papers, The Archivist, The Editor, and The Publisher, all deferred to The Lawyer, who kept putting The Biographer off, saying all would be resolved when The Biographer turned in the book. I don’t want to spoil the intrigue and horror of what happened to Joseph McBride. You need to follow every twist and turn of the plot—no other cliché will do. Unlike many biographers who do not have the courage or the financial resources to brook the interference of the powerful forces against them, McBride did not relinquish control over his book to his subject’s estate or to his publishers. He kept insisting on his rights even as The Editor keep issuing vague promises that all would be well. Then two things happened: The Editor signed up another Capra book by no less than The Archivist at Wesleyan, creating a conflict of interest in McBride’s view, and then departed for a high-profile job editing a famous magazine.

The orphaned McBride, who had no income other than what he could earn from journalism and his book advance, went through several lawyers, all of whom sooner or later went over to the dark side—that is, to The Publisher and The Lawyer who now considered McBride as, you know, one of those “difficult authors.” For seven years, McBride carried on — sometimes not even sure who was editing his book — barely able to pay for the necessities of life, ruining his health, and seeking a way through to publication, which ultimately involved finding the right lawyer who would not back down and extricated The Biographer from his contract. McBride had to pay back [part of] his advance but not until he found another publisher — one, I might add, that helped McBride produce a brilliant biography (that is my assessment) under fair use at a time when fair use was under attack because of the Salinger decision.

Let me assure you, however, that Frankly is more than just a searing memoir, more than a wonderfully instructive guide as to how to negotiate the perils of biography, more than a disquisition on the nature of film biography, more than a defense of biography itself as a form of knowledge, more than an object lesson in how biography can bankrupt you, more than an astute assessment of the future of biography, more than an inside look at the parlous state of a biographer who tries to earn tenure, more than a disclosure of the poor sales of biographies and yet why it is so necessary to write them. McBride sums up the why of biography in one sentence. After discussing how biography calls upon the skills of a researcher, a writer, a critic, a scholar, and sometimes “a legal strategist,” he arrives at the nub: “The full use of your powers along the lines of excellence.”

Carl Rollyson is the author of The Last Days of Sylvia Plath and The Life of William Faulkner, both of which will be published in the spring of 2020.