2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fun & Inspiration at the National Press Club

7 p.m. Saturday, May 21, 2011: Leaving BIO conference

Last weekend the little org that could -- Biographers International Organization (BIO) -- held its second annual convention at the National Press Club in the downtown heart of our nation's capital.

I went to the first annual meeting last year at UMass-Boston and thought the unusually good vibe was just start-up euphoria. Couldn't last. Competition, hierarchy, and back-biting would take over soon enough.

I was wrong. This year the ambience was, if anything, even better. Amicable, productive, generous, energetic. FUN. One attendee said it felt more like a reunion than a conference.

Somebody else wondered if writing about people's lives for a living made biographers nicer people. More empathetic. That might be a stretch, but he had a point. If you're any good as the chronicler of a life, you have to put yourself in your subject's shoes and walk. And walk. And walk.

Who better, then, to be the BIO keynote speaker than Robert Caro? The Manhattan-born man who went to the Texas hill country to live for three years so as to understand where Lyndon Johnson came from. The theme of his address was the importance to a biographer of a sense of place Robert Caro: Power of Place. I was reminded of Iris Origo's statement that for a biographer to see the places her subject has lived is like running a hand over a dead man's face.

Caro began by suggesting that the descriptive tool of fiction -- as with the deck of the Pequod, Napoleon on the battlefield at Borodino, Miss Havisham's room -- can be used by the writer of nonfiction to engage the reader in the dynamic process of discovery. With wit, passion, and elegant chronology he brought us along from LBJ's dirt-poor Texas to the triumphant architecture of Washington.

In a bravura conclusion that stunned the audience Caro showed (not told) how a meticulous understanding of a place can expose a real, historical person's essential motivation: Why he does what he does. Why LBJ was running early every morning as he approached the gleaming marble of the capitol building.

The concrete visual details, if acutely observed, reveal the human story.