April 15, 2014

The new biography


Susan Sontag, whose UCLA archive contains 17,198 emails written in less than a decade

Susan Sontag, whose UCLA archive contains 17,198 emails written in less than a decade

In a post on The Millions last Friday, Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin examined the use of authors’ archival material in the digital age:

After centuries of shuffling papers, biographers must now deal with the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed. Contemporary literary biographies — of Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, Nora Ephron, John Updike, all of whom adopted email quite late in their lives — are petri dishes for a new age of biography.

Mhaoileoin admits that the “practical barriers” inherent to preserving and accessing digital material are a challenge, but the true issue is this: “How does the rise of email change our understanding of great minds and great works”? Some biographers lament the loss of handwriting, doodles, and scratchings-out. Stephen Burn, who is editing a collection of David Foster Wallace’s correspondence, explains that “email makes minor exchanges proliferate — procedural courtesies, note responses that probably wouldn’t have merited an actual letter.” There is good evidence for his statement; Mhaoileoin points out that “Sontag used email for less than a decade, yet the Sontag archive in UCLA includes 17,198 emails.”

“However,” Mhaoileoin goes on, “although email might make the life of the researcher more difficult and less romantic, we should be wary of mistaking different for worse.” There are the smallest delights in email exchanges—for example, Benjamin Moser‘s glee in realizing that Sontag used “Whassup?” as a subject line. Noted biographer Hermione Lee, too, appreciates the general principle of somewhat frivolous communication as an entrance to understanding the whole self:

. . . when people are at their most frivolous, superficial, gregarious, and chatty is often when they are most revealing about themselves. . . . We all have different parts of ourselves, and your secret self, your solitary self, your nighttime self, your gregarious, chatty, e-mailing self are all mixed up together. They overlap.

This debate becomes particularly interesting when we consider the ages of the people being studied. Sontag, as pointed out above, only used email for ten years; Wallace, as shown in one D.T. Max’s piece for the New Yorker, used email for about fifteen years, give or take a few. Today’s middle-aged writers have already used email for years, and have many more to go; even younger writers may have used email since middle school. It would be a new form of (highly embarrassing) juvenilia, in fact, if we saw emails stretching back to a writer’s childhood.

Obviously, email and letters are different formats, and with an altered format comes another way of expression. As Mhaoileoin wrote, “The rise of the e-mail may generate a host of practical and technical challenges, but the art of biography . . . need not suffer as a result.” There is no reason not to appreciate the opportunities email in particular can afford — the daily; the minor.

While working on a critical thesis in school, I studied Wallace Stevens. The moments I enjoyed most in his letters and diaries were also the smallest. When he first arrived in New York City in 1900, he wrote that all the city’s flowers were “in tin-cans on fifth-story fire-escapes.” In letters to friends, he wrote about his morning shave, his walk to work. These bits were not only enjoyable, but also highly indicative of Stevens’ personality—his life itself—as well as how it was incorporated into his work. If these are the kinds of daily details we can be given by authors’ emails, I can only be grateful.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.