Biographies are dicey stuff. Readers have to be prepared to accept a little license from their writers. I observed that when MacArthur was the subject of a number of works, some by sycophants and others by his detractors, they read like battle reports. Each side had claims and truth was likely somewhere between. The general wrote his own pompous apologia near the end of his life. As expected, it appeared without warts. Autobiographies are not expected to be perfect accounts of lives of icons.
It depends on who's writing. Children of screen stars have written for revenge. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Bing Crosby were dumped on by their kids after they were dropped into their graves. Books will sell if there's dirt in them. A newer authoress, Madonna, has titled her premature opus-magnus "SEX." It plays on fantasies rather than the usual hob-nob routine of excesses Robin Leech has made absolutely nauseating. Her fantasies are first-person. Leech has superficially recorded them into third-person hopelessness.
The effect of notorious characters and their impact on readers is a puzzle. Hitler has been dead long before most of those who are fascinated by him and his monstrous agenda were born. Go to a bookstore. In the war and history sections you'll see a lot of swastikas. And Mein Kampf.
Living idols are coaxed into autobiographical works that are written with shared credit. I read "Main Line Wasp" by Thatcher Longstreth — with Dan Rottenberg. I wonder how much of the style is Rottenberg's and how much is conspired invention? Once the influence of a stranger falls into a work it is in danger of being diminished, altered and losing the mind of its original author.
Second-hand research leads to romanticism. For years little boys read idyllic accounts of Custer's bravery at Little Big Horn. Revisionists dismantled the fiction of these heroics spurred by a re-assessment of the white man's motives in dealing with old landowners. Different generations of readers will get different appraisals. That muddies history because it is difficult to discern academic examiners from people with "bones to pick" and from docu-dramatists, writers who mix fiction with threads of fact or toy with supposition and distill their work into popular acceptance.
Even fiction has supports of reality for inspiration. I imagine Booth Tarkington drawing upon his own childhood for the remarkably nice little essays of Penrod — and Sam. On the other hand Jean Shepherd took the accounts of his own boyhood and buckled them with a lesser accuracy of reconstructed dialogue because stenographers didn't chase him and his pals around through their childhood. We all need that license to make our stories succeed — and do when we relate our own experiences.
Charles Dickens began his first person narrative of David Copperfield honestly. "I am born." Copperfield and Pip and the other Dickensian children are symbols instead of kids. They suffer through their childhood. Somehow they manage to escape their miseries through the intervention of benefactors who would be unrealistic champions of waifs. Perverts are a better bet to come to the rescue. Note that Oliver Twist and the rest of Dickens' children of literature have survived. Tarkington's Penrod disappeared because he wasn't beset by the exhausting melodrama that readers thirst after. The Hardy Boys breathed excessive adventure and thrived on it. They saw more action in a brief part of their adolescence than most adults would in ninety years.
In a more romantic tone, Mark Twain was able to reflect on plausible experience at a particular time of childhood and he looked at Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as an observer rather than being either of them. His writing was less a reflection than a chronicling of a time within their lives to engage situations through their characters. The players aren't necessarily incidental, but interdependencies for the success of the story. In each case, Tarkington, Dickens and Twain circumscribed the idea that their stories were autobiographical.
It's not really the obligation of biographers to dwell on in-depth accounts of their subjects' childhood. The greater interest to readers lies with fame — the reason for recognition — with its effect, and with the greater characters associated with it. A thousand pages or more about a celebrity will give but small acknowledgement to a few moments of early days.
I'm immune from that.
I've written about me and my world, not someone else's. There is a place for Beatrix Potter and for Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll. Children daydreamed beyond their own imaginations when they opened pages of stories fortified by illustrators. They sailed away to places beyond the known world that were someone else's. Not! They entertained us with fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson's Garden of Verses was a better book. It found the common thread of imagery that little children shared. He wrote it down in easy poetry that was reassuring to those who read it and they spent some time looking at the pictures that might be of themselves.
This is not a children's book. It is a book about childhood with crises common to childhood. The little adventures don't reach the scope of fictions, certainly not by volume. It's not spoiled by the kiss-and-tell desperations that are calculated to sell books. A half-century gone cold is warmed by memories. I have the advantage of my own thoughts about my own childhood. "Did you have a happy childhood?" I was asked that more than once.
"Return with us now...to those thrilling days of yesteryear...when out of the past..."
We did. In the afternoons in our boyhood we rationed a little time to radio. Not too much because we preferred the immediate world, the known world. Years would pass and we would still remember our own adventures even though they were pale beside the dramas concocted by writers and read by actors and faithfully followed by listeners in afternoons and early evenings. Those stories were largely forgotten after a few days. The Lone Ranger and others belonged to days that never were in years their creators invented. The only residual benefits were in our eating habits: Wheaties and Ovaltine and Ralston and Cheerioats at the table.
Sentimentalists with something to gain have tried to revive old radio. They're on the wrong track. They've inflated an unimportant connection, albeit a pleasant one of that time when radio held our attention. Later generations abandoned radios when television became available. Children, once happily set free to the streets and the woods on Saturday mornings and at play-time became willing prisoners in their own homes. Play and conversation would be regulated, restricted and strangled by a new obedience to little screens.
We looked at big screens on Saturday afternoons at the Rialto. That place was a baby-sitting service for ten cents and it was manned by nervous ushers who maintained a modicum of order when things started to go sour: when cowboys got mushy with girls (aaargh) or when dialogue got intellectual. Then the unruly engaged in noisy prattle that interfered with the storytelling on the screen. There was always incessant traffic from seats to the candy machine, the lobby and the restrooms. Slobs threw unwanted candy aimlessly around in the dark. A bas-relief of chewed gum freckled seat bottoms. Toughs at fourteen puffed cigarettes in the restrooms; they wilted if ushers appeared. The movie house was our "turf," our hideout and any adults who frequented matinees were luckless chaperons or terribly desperate for want of activity, or perverts.
We learned nothing at the matinees. No one supposed otherwise in the realm of horse-operas and cartoons and badly written, badly acted serials that fetched a dime from small-fry and not much more from older brothers and sisters over twelve.
Childhood is ruined by strangers: by television that takes away exploration and discourse, by advertising that introduces kids to Greed 101, by social flits with rosters who build premature little men and little women as a vehicle in their own quest for attention and money.
Radio was best appreciated when we were alone. Movies were a nice occasional diversion best savored when we went with the gang and later with a girlfriend — a phenomenal transition that was incomprehensible until it happened. It's reversed now. Radios blare from passing autos and from boom-boxes and strangers force their tastes on us. If we object we are at risk of being killed. Earphones, the alternative, shut out pleasant sounds: of birds chirping, of small talk with friends, of hellos from civilized neighbors. Wearers are zombies. Car radios muscle out conversation among companions. They do. Television has replaced larger experiences with invented ones hyped by clever boors. The epochs of our time are listed proudly: Tiny Tim's wedding to Miss Vicky, J.R. Ewing getting shot in trashy Dallas, of fantasy, Howard Stern celebrating vulgarity, Bart Simpson raising rudeness to classicism and finding intellectual apologists. Conversations roil around absurdities for days — for years. The guy who first said "Get a life" is right.
"Return...now to those thrilling days of yesteryear." Forget the influence of strangers. They want something and they'll get it if you spend enough time with them. We spent time with friends and there was mutual reward for that. We didn't spend enough of that I'm sure and sometime later, too late, we realized that here or there we left an empty chair at a friendly table or got dazzled by lesser lights even when we saw the greater ones.