Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Perils Of Biography

Joshua and I have been reading three books, all biographies, sharing them back and forth between us. One is on Maximilien Robespierre, one is on George III, and one is on Andrew W. Mellon.

“Mellon: An American Life”, by David Cannadine, was commissioned by Paul Mellon, Andrew’s only son. Cannadine is a British biographer who was granted full access to the Mellon archives.

This biography took Cannadine twelve years to research, and his painstaking research is on limitless display in this long volume. I have never read a biography so filled with minutiae of all kinds, ranging from personal correspondence to the most mundane business figures and business memoranda to litigation transcripts to long lists of artworks owned. Cannadine has done his research well, and he was clearly determined to place the fruits of his research conspicuously before the reader.

Amid all this proliferation of detail, however, Mellon the man does not so much get lost as fail to make an actual appearance—although some reviewers have speculated, unkindly, that there was no human being there in the first place.

This is ungenerous. Only a very skilled and talented man could have founded and managed such vast enterprises as Mellon Bank, Alcoa and Gulf Oil, and served as Secretary Of The Treasury for the longest such tenure in our nation’s history, and amassed the finest personal art collection ever assembled in the Western Hemisphere (an art collection that was to serve as the core for The National Gallery Of Art in Washington, an institution founded and funded by Mellon).

Why cannot Cannadine capture Mellon the man? Part of the problem, I think, is that Cannadine relied too much upon the recollections of Paul, whose views of his more famous father were ambivalent at best. Paul clearly harbored grievances against his father, and those grievances are given full reign in this biography.

Another problem is that Cannadine is no fan of the rough-and-tumble world of American business and politics, at least as those endeavors were practiced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet another problem is that Cannadine has an intense dislike of American foreign and economic policies of the 1920’s (a dislike common among the British, who view that decade, correctly, as the decade of the emergence of American supremacy at the expense of Britain, a former great power forever decimated by the costs of The Great War). Still another problem for Cannadine is that he is inexpert in the fields of economics and tax and trade policies, on which subjects he espouses bizarre opinions that appear to have been learned at the knee of Ernest Bevin. Goodness!

If Cannadine were more knowledgeable about economics and American politics and American history, he may not have found it so necessary to turn Mellon—a rather marginal figure in American history, all in all—into some sort of emblem of American ills in the first third of the 20th Century. His attempt to do so is the chief failing in his book.

I wonder what Paul Mellon would have thought about this book, had he lived to see its completion and publication. I suspect that he might actually have been pleased.

“Mellon: An American Life” appears to have been “written to order”. It strikes me as a blatant effort to contrast an inhuman, relentless, driven father with a refined, noble, philanthropic son.

Further, it was a mistake, I believe, for an Englishman to have been handed this particular biographic assignment (Paul Mellon was one of America’s—and the world’s—greatest Anglophiles). This is so for two reasons.

The first reason is Cannadine’s fatally superficial understanding of American politics and history, a superficiality that quickly becomes irritating and renders all of Mellon’s genuine accomplishments immaterial.

The second is Cannadine’s unwillingness to portray Mellon’s wife as the true piece of work she was known to be, during her lifetime, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Andrew Mellon’s wife—Paul Mellon’s mother—was British, and the disastrous marriage that ensued between these two incompatible souls may be blamed largely upon Mellon’s British wife: a notorious liar, notoriously unfaithful to her husband, notoriously spendthrift with his money (as was her equally notorious family), and notorious in her endless efforts to embarrass him and make his life as difficult as possible. Cannadine tries to turn Mellon’s British wife into a sympathetic figure—was this another requirement of Paul Mellon, who may have wanted to see his mother portrayed in a favorable light before he died?—but Cannadine utterly fails in this effort. Mrs. Mellon cannot help but be revealed as the harridan she was, no matter how hard Cannadine tries to scrub her clean and sponge her off.

An American biographer of Mellon would not have made two such fateful errors.

A significant after-effect of a biography like Cannadine’s is that it inhibits any other biographer from taking another look at the subject for at least another generation. What major publisher will finance a second Mellon biography to correct the deficiencies in this one? This unlikely volume, sadly, will serve as the authoritative guide to Mellon for the next twenty or thirty years. Mellon, and the American reader, deserve better.

Until then, scholars of the period may benefit from the wealth of factual detail presented in this book, but they must look elsewhere if they want to compile an objective and full-dimensional portrait of Mellon the man and Mellon the legacy.


  1. You know, Andrew, I'm in the mood for reading biographies myself.

    I've always loved reading them. They are such a validation of a person's accomplishment, and I adore reading them.

    Right now, I'm burning the night lamp reading Donald Spoto's bio of Audrey Hepburn, appropriately titled "Enchantment".

    Over at Josh's blog, he mentioned that you guys will have a cook out this weekend, that sounds great! I think I'll throw an impromptu party this weekend. Let's see how that goes. Have a terrific weekend with Joshua and your family.


  2. Hello, Opera Chanteuse. I hope your week has been a good one.

    I hope you are enjoying the biography of Audrey Hepburn. For what it's worth, I would give the Robespierre biography a stern pass.

    I hope you enjoy your party this weekend, and I hope the weather cooperates!

    We're just having a late summer cookout, nothing more. Nothing major.

    We did invite Queen Eliabeth and the Pope, but we are not confident that they will come.

    Have fun.


  3. Andrew:

    You have written a very insightful analysis of the Andrew Mellon book. None of the professional reviewers caught on to the fact that the author's "Englishness" rendered a good portion of his book on Mellon misleading if not worthless. I was pleased to see you note that fact. I was also pleased to see you note the author's bungled handling of American politics and economics. He had no grasp of those subjects at all.

    Your review of Theodore Rabb's most recent book, from a few months ago, was extraordinary. It was more telling and more insightful than the professional reviews. I showed it to two history professors at George Mason, and they were astonished.

    Andrew, you should be a book reviewer.

    Where did you learn so much about music, if you don't mind my asking? I am always astonished at the depth and breadth of your knowledge about music. When Susan and I are reading what you write about music, it is just like reading Andrew Porter. We are always in awe.

    And when are you going to write about the misattributed Caspar David Friedrich painting at the NGA? When Susan and I noticed that entry on Joshua's blog, we were floored. Is it really a misattribution? We are on tenderhooks. We hope you write about that before you go to London.

    Andrew, let Susan and I wish you and your family a happy and safe trip to London. Your itinerary looks delicious.

    We hope you continue to blog, at least occasionally.

    We enjoy reading Joshua's blog, too. Joshua seems to be a very nice young man.

    Ron Brown

  4. Andrew:

    I forgot to mention it, but your review of the Joseph Volpe book was better than anyone else's, too.

    I wanted to pass that on.

    Ron Brown

  5. Mr. Brown:

    I would make a horrible book reviewer. I am far too argumentative, which is why I am a lawyer.

    I took piano lessons for ten years, and gained a degree of facility at the keyboard. I also took three years of music analysis and music theory lessons, privately, while I was in prep school. I have had no formal music training beyond those studies.

    I think we will have a wonderful time in London, and I thank you for your kind wishes.

    All the best to you and Mrs. Brown.


  6. Mr. Brown:

    The Caspar David Friedrich misattribution at the National Gallery is a long, long story, too long to go into here.

    Short version: It was painted by someone familiar with Friedrich's work, probably some other early 19th-Century North German painter. It is not a forgery, but a misattribution.

    The painting was sold numerous times, for over a century, always as a North German landscape, until just a few years ago, when someone decided to tab it a Friedrich, thereby raising its value from $7,000 to $7,000,000 and instantly turning it into a "museum quality" artwork.

    The painting's sky gives it away--its sky is hackwork, and of a uniform color, and completely different from any other Friedrich sky. It is a paint-by-number sky, and it sticks out like a sore thumb when placed next to other genuine Friedrich paintings.

    The lighting is also wrong for Friedrich, as is the coloration. As I said, it is a long story.

    Fifty years from now, the National Gallery will withdraw the attribution, I am sure, just as it has withdrawn attributions of Velazquez, Cimabue and many others over the last fifty years.

    I think the National Gallery has numerous misattributions. The so-called Giovanni Bellini paintings at the National Gallery may indeed be Bellini paintings but, if so, they are by Betty Bellini of the Bronx, and not by the great Giovanni Bellini.

    The National Gallery's entire Samuel Kress holdings are specious, as their attributions may all be traced back to the corrupt and disreputable Joseph Duveen. Every time I go through the National Gallery's Italian paintings, I want to take a black magic marker and write "Not By" above the listed attributions.