Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (refined through several editions between 1791 and 1811) is customarily held to be the apogee of English-language biography, and the book’s reputation survives its many irritations for today’s readers. I light at random on a passage narrating a journey. An elderly woman, sitting in the coach with Johnson and Boswell, inveighs against the Inquisition; Johnson defends it on high principle, “to the utter astonishment of all the passengers” except his companionable chronicler; they do not know of the great man’s habitual contrarianism. Johnson dips in and out of an ancient Roman work on geography, and is put on record as being “very intent” on the subject. On arrival, he scolds the submissive Boswell for overtipping the coachman, a crime against serviceable contentment. In the evening, the girthy, feasting lion orates on the joys of the table, insisting that “he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else”—though Boswell notes that “the 206th number of his Rambler is a masterly essay against gulosity.”
But even while rankling at such seam-bursting personalities, I have to admit to a gulosity for biography; and I’m not alone. The genre’s subjects—up to a few years ago, at least—have tended to be the comic-book heroes of Western individuality. They get away with violations against the physics of society, almost as the actual comic-book heroes defy laws of physics. Both species of protagonist invite us to dream of serving humankind and having a blast at the same time.
That is what makes it so disturbing to reach the age of anti-biography, with its stories of virtuous, often brilliant obscurity—the lives of people we never heard of because people we’ve definitely heard of merely used them. The paradigm is no longer an exciting, world-changing career leading to all its proper rewards, but an enragingly unfair fate.
Many of these books—sometimes with companion children’s versions and film and novel spinoffs—are about women and people of colour. Ada Lovelace was the first to see the full potential of computer science, but burned tragically through wealth, family bonds, and other connections in a desperate effort to vindicate her ideas. Nelly Ternan, Dickens’s secret mistress, wanted nothing as much as a real marriage, and achieved that by subterfuge after his death—only for the truth to ruin her legitimate children’s reputation after her own death. James Pennington was an escaped slave and early and tireless writer, speaker, and organizer in the Abolition movement, yet Yale Divinity School has still not granted the degree he studied for but was forbidden to take, and he died without being able to retire or even live with his family. Only in recent years has interest in him revived at all.
As we might expect, some of the most distressing stories are about women of colour—like the Hidden Figures mathematicians of early NASA. To the reader and viewer, the bummer can be so thorough and so resonant with current scandals (especially those brought forward by the #MeToo movement) that our culture’s celebrated individualism itself—along with the whole inspiration industry—comes into question. What are we up to in the West with our callings, our “dreams,” if—with all our collective material power and appetite for change—we can’t do away with such injustices, of such long standing, and now so affectingly dramatized?
Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law professor and bestselling author, presents in Invisible the story of his grandmother Eunice Hunton Carter, a granddaughter of freed slaves who became an assistant district attorney in New York in 1935. Through her investigation for the team going after Lucky Luciano, the inventor of the organized crime syndicate and most powerful gangster of the 1930s, she devised the strategy of flipping a criminal organization from the bottom.
She had the proverbial mind like a steel trap, and a Smith and Fordham education, but because of her race and gender, she had been assigned to the scorned, mechanical “Women’s Courts.” There she intuited how prostitutes were tied to the mob; this group must be the provider of bail and tamer of public officials. Her sense of what people could get away with long predated this period; she was the daughter of sophisticated, hardworking activists, and the whole family were refugees from the violent South. Once she landed in Thomas Dewey’s crusading operation, she was the only lawyer to listen in detail to neighbourhood complaints of untouchable brothels. She was thus able to map both thoroughgoing corruption and ways around it.
With her help, Dewey set up many simultaneous raids, the order for which was hidden from the cops themselves until five minutes before their deployment. The women they caught were pressured and protected in a balance calculated to make them talk and, slowly but devastatingly, implicate the syndicate’s leadership.
Another lasting contribution to American justice Eunice Carter made, through a later relegation to public-administration nowhere, was in juvenile court reform. Perhaps she was allowed to institute a system both more practical and more merciful only because nobody was paying enough attention to stop her.
What she got in return makes for plenty of yelling and wall-pounding now, at least as far as the facts in outline go. While providing most of the scutwork and practically all the brains, she was paid far less than others were in posts identical on paper to hers. Year after year, she found herself with no elective office or secure and lofty appointment (she craved a judgeship), though she campaigned to exhaustion for Dewey and other white male politicians and, time and again, was touted in public as the deserving or natural person for anointment. She was bypassed, in fact, for almost every mere promotion she earned three times over. She was denied leadership of organizations she shaped, ran behind the scenes, promoted in public, and even bankrolled. She was in perpetual and exacting motion as a figurehead of early black female empowerment, giving speeches, appearing in newspaper spreads, and hosting and appearing at parties; thousands of people must have eaten bread, and some would have grown rich, with the aid of her unpaid work and the privately borne expenses of her public activities. But probably in her very home, the servants were freer to relax and express themselves than she was.
She had little lasting benefit from any of it; and from personal attachments, she mainly had anguish. Her husband, a successful dentist, ran around on her. Her high-flying brother likely damaged her career—and certainly her peace of mind—with his childish marital upheavals and with the brash communist politics that eventually landed him in jail. Her son despised her for her inattentiveness and his exile (mainly to relatives in Barbados), though his father was of course a party to it, and though he later professed to having been happy there.
But her story itself, in her grandson’s maximally sympathetic telling, makes me wonder whether American civilization reached a point of no return in the twentieth century, bringing us to some kind of end point now. That crisis would show in biography, the main cultural forum in which we meditate about our individual lives.
A joke bouncing through email inboxes is that “you may have been placed on earth merely to serve as a warning to others.” Of course, plenty of biographical subjects are no more than that, and it’s fine; useless and bad people can make useful and good reading. Extravagantly faulty but useful people, like Samuel Johnson, can make great reading. But what about a story that should command both strong inspiration and bold action but ends up straining efforts even toward a little warmth of heart and the imagery of a better dispensation?
Eunice Carter’s circumstances dehumanized her to that degree; she is that unknowable, that much of a flat surface. Spare a kind thought for Stephen Carter, for having to describe a person who wasn’t permitted to be one. She was too rigidly public-facing, too overworked, or too untrusting to keep a diary, write intimate letters, confide in friends, or pursue any pastimes less conventional than bridge. (She was a published short-story writer early on, but apparently produced little that could open her un-interchangeable inner self to us; and she gave up fiction abruptly when she saw a faster way to get ahead.) She didn’t have friends per se, but only demanding bosses, hardnosed collaborators, and fickle patrons. Moreover, her biographer admits, she came across as cold. I sense that she was absolutely humorless—and why not? Performers such as Stepin Fetchit (named by his parents Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, by the way), artifacts of pure racism, had stolen even the joy of laughter from African Americans with worthy ambitions for their people.
She was polished in her social interactions and habitually meticulous. The Harlem elite, her social base, specialized in conformity under high pressure from inside and outside, and anxious material display. Why did Eunice spend so much on furs and other finery, so that she looks in photos like a respectable version of a Hollywood starlet? Did she like the clothes and jewelry? Did she ever ask herself this, as if she had options? The book doesn’t tell us more than the photos do. About her inner life concerning most matters, her biographer is reduced to guessing, in lines set portentously on their own after long paragraphs. “I suspect she was happy,” he writes about the height of her success and prosperity. After one climactic professional disappointment, she exploded—but no text or witness says quite how. In old age, she would sometimes complain to her son about her husband. There’s clearly not much else to go on.
To sum up, her story was largely forgotten within a few years of her death because people lacked the will to remember it. She isn’t much of a biographical subject, and the effort to finesse her into one, just because our demand for exemplary individuals exceeds the supply, is pretty depressing.
As a remedy, I want to suggest that we think about widening our view of biography. Samuel Johnson’s life story couldn’t be so arresting, and couldn’t be told so lightheartedly, and with so much—yet so varied—profit for born losers like me and most of us, without the institutions behind him. They were essential to making him durable, and useful, and delightful, and meaningful, and memorable—even when he naturally, in himself, sort of wasn’t—and they are the kind of resources we all have or can have.
They include the family, which made early financial hardship survivable for him, and introduced him to an array of well-wishers and helpers beyond itself; but most importantly, according to the custom of the time, provided a mother as his primary educator. The institutions include the Anglican Church, which (among much other beneficence) issued the Book of Common Prayer to all respectable households, as a source of standard instruction as well as pious observance. They include the grammar schools and universities and all the public and private patronage channelled through and around them. They include publishing houses, which were making history by allowing authors with unpromising backgrounds to make money by selling books. They include the constitutional monarchy, from which Johnson at last had a secure pension that allowed him to study and write in security.
The real heroes of Eunice Carter’s story are American institutions—ordinarily overlooked or reviled, but often more solid and balanced than the human impulses and talents we Americans like to celebrate as if they achieved in isolation whatever good they achieve. The WMCA did allow Carter’s father, the son of a freedman, to gain national influence, and middle-class status, and the means to start his children’s journey into lofty professions even as he died of tuberculosis. Prestigious and powerful schools did give his daughter the same skills the richest student could gain. The state of New York did open a special prosecutor’s office in response to lawlessness that many societies would simply have lived with; that office, amid untold bigotry and exclusion, did employ a young black female attorney of exceptional ability, and did allow her to innovate in an extraordinary way in order to move the city back toward the rule of law after the riot of the Prohibition era. In the fullness of time, it doesn’t matter whether we’re charmed by the person these entities moved toward their purposes, let alone what she thought when she shopped for clothes; the demand for such an experience of her can actually seem cheap and silly in a larger light.
The United States as a Christian country—that parlance doesn’t appear to address our peculiar mythology and everyday thought, but it does address what has more power to keep us steady: our bricks and mortar, our laws, our professions, our organizations. The New Testament has little to say about our individual specialness, and nothing at all about its entitlement to wealth and fame as rewards. Those texts have a lot to say about sharing the means to live, and orderliness, and repentance, and peace, and love that transcends personal inclination and need. If we care about any of this, then we have to care about organizing our life together. At the least, our institutions deserve more consideration in the popular press than they get.