Margot Peters is an accomplished biographer whose many books include Unquiet Soul: A Biography of Charlotte Brontë; The House of Barrymore; Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; May Sarton: Biography; Bernard Shaw and the Actresses; and Summers: A True Love Story, recently featured on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Chapter a Day.” Wisconsin People & Ideas recently visited Peters at her home in the lovely town of Lake Mills and asked her five questions.
You have done several successful biographies. What about the genre is so appealing to you?
Lorine Niedecker: A Poet’s Life is my seventh biography [published in September 2011], so I must really love the genre. I enjoy research and writing; biography combines these two passions. I also tend to hero-worship, and writing biography is a way to pay tribute—though I’m strictly “warts and all” when it comes to my subjects. Then too, I believe that writing about women’s lives is extraordinarily important. One of my favorite projects was bringing the women who influenced George Bernard Shaw out from under his mighty shadow in Bernard Shaw and the Actresses. And I can think of no one who merits a biography more than the extraordinary poet Lorine Niedecker. Finally, a biographer is there in her work, but invisible. This is appealing to me since I’m fundamentally shy.
What is the most difficult part of composing a biography in terms of research or writing?
One very basic thing: paying for the five years of travel and research a biography usually demands. Publishers’ advances help, of course. As for the writing, balancing results of that research has almost always been a challenge. My chapter about Lorine Niedecker at Beloit, for example, is three pages because evidence is simply lacking for those two years of her life. In fact, I cover her first twenty-one years in only seventeen pages, whereas the last half of her life is fully documented. There is another challenge all biographers face: to what extent should the writer analyze a subject or let her speak for herself. In my [biography] of the Edwardian actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, I let her speak for herself and got some complaints: “Why didn’t you explain her?” said some critics.
What in the life or work of Lorine Niedecker compelled you to do this biography? Why is Niedecker, the writer, so important to the poetry world? To Wisconsin?
I have loved Niedecker’s taut, subtle poetry since 1985, when I discovered her. I’m also intrigued by the mystery of the small, plain Blackhawk Island woman in the gingham housedress whose intellect and imagination knew few bounds. Niedecker the poet is important to the poetry world because she’s so damn good and because her integrity is an inspiration. Wisconsin should be proud to claim her.
What did you discover about Niedecker that was most surprising to you?
Two things, seemingly contradictory: her personal library was a revelation in its scope—from Greek philosophy to geology to ornithology to Marx to the poets. Secondly, how often she uses in private correspondence the word “ecstasy” to describe poetic inspiration. I think if you can reconcile Niedecker’s “ecstasy” with her objectivism, you come close to understanding her poetics.
Which biographers/biographies do you particularly admire? Any from Wisconsin?
I chiefly read letters, diaries, and memoirs—the foundations of biography. I used to think Fawn Brodie’s biographies were awfully good. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, of course. Lytton Strachey. Nancy Mitford’s life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I read anything biographical about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship was riveting. I avoid all biographies of living persons because the truth can’t be told therein. Of Wisconsin biographers, I am woefully ignorant. I’ve always felt very alone in my field.