No one can take first being hailed for his virtues, then torn up for his vices.

While working on a juvenile biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, I began to pay closer attention to modern portrayals of famous people. I fear that I should have been alert to their dangers long ago. Biography is a popular literary form today, if you count the endless in-depth profiles in newspapers and magazines, as well as the television specials devoted to portraying recent history in terms of personalities. But most of these accounts, whether fiction disguised as fact or fact disguised as fiction, run to a formula my young son knows very well: the good guys and the bad guys. In fact, in the name of truth and the first amendment, our society likes to crucify people in the public eye. Either we lionize them or we throw them to the lions, often doing first one and then the other. It makes a better story.

Writers seem to consider it proper to approach their subjects, or victims, with the strong personal prejudices that make for juicy reading, or they relish any opportunity to turn a story into an X-rated show. Almost no human being can take first being hailed as Caesar for his virtues, then tom up in the arena for his vices, and the impression is left that the individual had no clearcut personality at all. But if a celebrity protests, it is made clear to the audience, whose appetite for blood is roused, that this is just one more case of someone who can’t stand the heat and ought to get out of the kitchen. A pattern appears in which we build a Colossus, then show he has feet of clay, which proves he could not also leave footprints on the sands of time. But in such caricatures we lose sight of the person himself and ignore the cardinal virtues of justice ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: