Hagiography: an error to avoid

  • When writing about one’s family or someone you know, it is tempting to omit the faults, sins, or whatever you consider improper behavior. The result is hagiography, originally a writing of the life of a Saint. I present a photo Charmian Kittredge London at work because it immediately reveals the complex array of material used to write about lives. Her Book of Jack London is an example of hagiography. She omitted his being born illegitimate by treating his stepfather as his biological one. She omits the key role of the African-American Prentiss family in his childhood. She was writing around 1917, just after he died, and wanted to protect his image.

An astute woman, Charmian knew her book was biased and searched for a solid biographer. In 1935 she approved Irving Stone, who wrote Sailor on Horseback. To her astonishment, his book was a pathography, emphasizing London’s faults to the point of inventing some. The view of the writer as a drunk, suicidal, alcoholic rests primarily upon Stone’s account. Other biographers followed because they were not allowed permission to see the private letters, diaries, and documents.

When a writer is able to encompass the entire person without judgement, the result is a compelling reconstruction. Few people are totally saints or sinners, even Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler. The writer’s job in those cases  is to show how a child developed toward the extreme of saint or the sinner.


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