Why Every Biography Is Incomplete

On Monday Christians around the world heard again Luke’s story of the Nativity. But after lingering in some detail on the first day of Jesus’ life, that evangelist moves rapidly through the next couple decades. In the same chapter that begins with Jesus’ birth, Luke skips ahead to age 12, then summarizes Jesus’ adolescence and young adulthood in a single verse: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (2:52). A gospel that started in the reign of the first Roman emperor then shifts immediately into the fifteenth year of the second. And the other evangelists don’t even say that much about Jesus’ first three decades.

Dürer, "Jesus among the Doctors"
Albrecht Dürer’s painting of a young Jesus “among the Doctors” – Wikimedia

“The gospels aren’t biographies,” said our adult Sunday School teacher earlier this month. “They don’t tell the complete life story of Jesus.”

I’ll grant that the gospels aren’t trying to tell all of Jesus’ story. How could they? (“But there are also many other things that Jesus did,” concluded John, “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”) For even if we grant that the gospels aren’t biographies in the modern sense, no biography can tell the entire story of a life.

Berg, LindberghSome appear more comprehensive than others. Scott Berg’s authorized biography of Charles Lindbergh, for example, has stretches that seem to give a day-by-day, if not minute-by-minute, account of that particularly famous life. But it’s not actually complete. No life is so interesting to sustain such attention. And even if Berg had wanted to write so meticulous a chronicle, he wouldn’t have had the historical evidence to sustain it. Most of our minutes, hours, and days are undocumented.

And even where there is evidence, the biographer still needs to make interpretive choices. At this point, I often share with students John Gaddis’ suggestion that history is akin to cartography. Just as no cartographer can or should try to map all of space, no historian can or should try to map all of time. Instead, cartographers and historians offer a representation of space or time, starting with their decision of what to include and what to omit.

“[T]here’s no such thing as a correct map,” Gaddis concluded. “The form of the map reflects its purpose.” A road map, for example, won’t include details about soil composition or fault lines. Likewise, seeing history as a form of mapping the past “would permit varying levels of detail….”

Simply choosing to map the life of one citizen, rather than a city, country, or civilization is an interpretive choice. Then the form of the biography will reflect its purpose. I don’t aspire to write anything authoritative or comprehensive; I simply want to give the “spiritual, but not religious” map of a life better known for activities that don’t seem to have much to do with spirituality or religion.

I’m still a ways off from really starting to write the manuscript, but it’s likely that my Lindbergh biography will differ from others in the amount and type of attention I give to two episodes:

First, the 1927 flight from New York to Paris that made Lindbergh an international celebrity. Whole books have been written about those 33.5 hours. I’ll have a chapter on it, but will likely pay far less attention than others to the technical details of the flight. Instead, I’ll linger on how Lindbergh himself interpreted the flight in his various autobiographical projects. First, how he started to add mention of encounters with what he called “disembodied presences”: phantasms that spoke to him during the flight. Second, how he decided to use his telling of the flight to include flashbacks about his upbringing (including his religious background) and metaphysical ruminations on God and mortality. And I’ll survey some religious responses to the achievement of a young man whom one editor called “the new Christ.”

Gardner, The Case That Never Dies
In the 2012 afterword to his book, Gardner added the theory that Lindbergh was involved in his own son’s kidnapping

Even more strikingly, I doubt that my biography of Lindbergh will say very much about the second event that made him famous: the kidnapping and murder of his infant son. There’s a cottage publishing industry around the Lindbergh kidnapping, including this controversial book by the renowned diplomatic historian Lloyd Gardner. And serious Lindbergh biographers like Berg and Joyce Milton devoted significant attention to the Crime of the Century. By contrast, my coverage of that episode will probably seem negligible, since its connection to my larger theme is unclear.

Now, you could imagine a kidnapping chapter playing a central role in a spiritual biography of Charles Lindbergh. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if such a traumatic event had driven a bereaved father to seek solace in faith — or, as likely, to question the existence of a God who would allow such a tragedy. But to this point, I’ve seen no evidence of either scenario in reading Lindbergh’s papers. He’s largely silent about the entire affair, and certainly doesn’t identify it as a cause of his growing interest in spirituality from the 1930s on. Instead, that shift seems to have much more to do with his burgeoning partnership with Alexis Carrel, a leading medical researcher and eugenics advocate who was also a Catholic mystic.

On the other hand, I suspect that my biography will say far more about World War II and its aftermath than most others, since Lindbergh’s experience of and reflection on that conflict amplified his interest in spiritual and metaphysical questions.

And if you’re still not sure that a biography should be shaped by such interpretive choices… Consider what Lindbergh himself wrote in 1938, as he sat down to start his first serious attempt at writing a memoir:

A biography, like a painted portrait, can be done with many combinations of color, shading, and lines. Life is an infinite rather than a finite thing and all of it can not be imprisoned in words. The biographer can only preserve a portion of its richness. He must select the characteristics, actions, and experiences which he believes will convey to his reader the best appraisal and understanding of his subjects [sic] life. But biographers do not agree on the relative importance of incidents, or assign similar causes to a given result. It is a part of human nature to differ in ideals and ideas.