The Power of Place

In the June, 2011 edition of The Compleat Biographer Andrea Pitzer offers legendary biographer Robert Caro’s thoughts on the use of “place” in biography, concepts that are just as useful for memoir writers. Pitzer covered Caro’s address to a lunchtime audience of writers at the second annual Compleat Biographer Conference held in May, 2011 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Caro talked about how a vivid evocation of place can reveal motivation and illuminate character, which makes direct explanation completely unnecessary. The following are direct excerpts from her article:

 “The greatest of books are books with places you can see in your mind’s eye,” he [Caro]said, “The deck of the Pequod while the barefoot sailors are hauling the parts of the whale aboard to melt them down for oil. The battlefield at Borodino as Napoleon, looking down from a hill on his mighty imperial guard, has to decide whether to wave them forward into battle. Miss Havisham’s room, the room in which she was to have been married, the room in which she received the letter that told her that the man she loved wasn’t coming, the room with the clock stopped forever at the minute she got the news, the room with the wreckage of the wedding feast that has never been taken away.”

 “If the place is important enough in the character’s life,” he said, “if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it, was brought up in it or presided over it, like the Senate, or exercised power in it, like the White House; if the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character without giving him a lecture, will have made the reader therefore not just understand but empathize with a character, will have made the readers’ understanding more vivid, deeper than any lecture could.”

Pitzer says when Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Caro began research on his four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson he went as far as to take his sleeping bag into the hills outside of Johnson City,Texas to gain a better understanding of where Johnson grew up. After spending an entire day alone, writers Pitzer, Caro came to realize how empty and inhuman the landscape was.

Caro conducted interviews with area residents and with one of Johnson’s early coworkers and used his research to contrast the place Johnson grew up with Capitol Hill, where Johnson came into his own and made his career.

Pitzer’s article emphasizes Caro’s point that the value of place, widely acknowledged as a key component of literature, is often overlooked in biography.

I would add that the same applies to the memoir genre.

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