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Abstract:
Comments on hagiography, including reviews of nine popular Baha'i biographies. Includes response "In Praise of Saints" by Frank Lewis (from dialogue 1:3).
Notes:
Abdu'l-Baha's Memorials of the Faithful, O.Z. Whitehead's Some Baha'is to Remember and Early Baha'is of the West, Nathan Rutstein's He Loved and Served, Dorothy Freeman's From Copper to Gold, et al.

See also list of dialogue articles or image scans.


When the Saints Come Marching In:
The Art of Bahá'í Biography

by Sidney Edward Morrison and Frank Lewis

published in dialogue, 1:1, pages 32-34
Los Angeles: 1986

1. When the Saints Come Marching In, from dialogue 1:1, pp. 32-34 (1986)

Reviews of:
    Memorials of the Faithful, by 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 203 pp., $10.00.
    Some Early Bahá'ís of the West, by O. Z. Whitehead. George Ronald, 240 pp., $12.95.
    Some Bahá'ís to Remember, by O. Z. Whitehead. George Ronald, 304 pp.
    Martha Root: Lioness at the Threshold, by M. R. Garis. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 500 pp., $21.00; paper $14.00.
    He Loved and Served, by Nathanial Rutstein. George Ronald, 208 pp., $12.95; paper $6.50.
    The Priceless Pearl, by Ruhiyyih Rabbani. Bahá'í Publishing Trust (London), 451 pp., $5.00 (paper).
    From Copper to Gold: The Life of Dorothy Baker, by Dorothy Freemen. George Ronald, 368 pp., $15.95; paper $7.95.
    'Abdu'l-Bahá, by Hasan Balyuzi. George Ronald, 576 pp., OP.
    To Move the World: Louis Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America, by Gayle Morrison. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 321 pp., $8.50 (paper).
    A Life of George Townshend, by David Hofman. George Ronald, 448 pp., $19.50; paper $9.50.
George Washington had big feet. Martin Luther was constipated, and Lord Byron committed incest with his adult sister. Do biographers need to tell us these things? “Why do we have to know about Byron’s wildness?” snapped Tennyson. “He has given them fine work, and they ought to be satisfied.” John Morley chided biographers for wanting “to contemplate the hind parts of their divinities.” Both Dickens and Henry James burned scores of letters to thwart anyone involved in the nasty business of telling the truth.

But self protection is not mere Victorian prudery. T. S. Eliot added this codicil to his will: “I do not wish my executors to facilitate or countenance the writing of a biography of me.” And the distinguished American journalist Walter Lippmann, after allowing Ronald Steele to have “full and exclusive access to his voluminous papers” and volunteering to cooperate fully, balked when Mr. Steele asked “personal” questions about his father’s income. “I wouldn’t want you to make a novel of this,” Lippmann said solemnly. His biographer had to become a detective.

The best biographers are not motivated by impertinence. Like portrait painters, they want to capture what Leon Edel called the “essence of life,” to save a personality for future generations. It is an exciting, frustrating enterprise. “The more I learned about Oliver Wendel Homes,” wrote Catherine Drinker Bowen in her Adventures of a Biographer, “the more insupportable it became to think of him as dead, cold, and motionless beneath that stone at Arlington. I found myself possessed by a witches’s frenzy to ungrave this man, stand him upright, see him walk, jump, dance, tell jokes, make love, display his vanity, or his courage as the case might be. National econium, the laying on of laurels, had only buried him deeper. The difficulty was to uncover the material that gave proof of life, not noble public posture but characteristic brief turns of phrase, small oddities and manners that belonged to Holmes and Holmes alone.” Perhaps to Holmes’ family and devoted followers, Ms. Bowen seems like a ghoul on a rampage. But to anyone interested in human character, her probing, inquisitive spirit is essential.

I’m afraid, however, that most Bahá'í biographers would be appalled by the probing, inquisitive spirit recommended by Ms. Bowen. Their work at least suggests an affinity with the reverential writers of medieval England. These biographers knew what they had to do, claims Professor James Clifford: “Their purpose was edification. Their justification was the glory of God through praise of His saints. Describing a truly holy person, their works would succeed or fail to the extent to which they taught Christian virtue and strengthened wavering faith. They had no conceivable desire to create rounded characters.…A saint or a king was obviously set apart from ordinary folk, and it was the duty and prerogative of the writer to emphasize these differences.” After recently reading ten books about Bahá'ís, I must conclude that hagiography, as defined here, is alive and well in the biographical literature of the Bahá'í community.

'Abdu'l-Bahá sets the standard in his Memorials of the Faithful, a collection of sketches about seventy-nine early believers. The merchants, mystics, artisans, princes, and clerks commemorated here are all one type: the devoted, sacrificing follower of God and His messenger. Their names change, but the essential spirit is one. But supreme eloquence redeems uniformity here. 'Abdu'l-Bahá’s love, compassion, grief, tenderness, and joy, revealed on every page in a rapturous language that soars by the end of each tale, makes this book as much a memorial to him as it is to his companions. As a result, biography became a part of sacred scripture.

In lesser hands, memorials patterned after 'Abdu'l-Bahá’s work can bore rather than inspire. O. Z. Whitehead in his two books, Some Early Bahá'ís of the West and Some Bahá'ís to Remember makes no effort to emotionally individualize his subjects. They all hear about the Bahá'í Faith, meet 'Abdu'l-Bahá, faithfully serve the Faith thereafter, and die. They have no independent existence, living only as mirrors to the character of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, earning a footnote in his biography.

Bahá'í biographers must remember that we will read about Ismullah’u’l-Asdaq because 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote about him. Other writers have no such guarantee. We will read their books and care about their subjects to the extent we encounter a fully realized life portrayed by artists who use all the skills of description, analysis and interpretation at their disposal. Those who, motivated by a pious duty to Bahá'í history, wade through five hundred pages of lifeless prose, as in M. R. Garis’ Martha Root: Lioness at the Threshold, are condemned to that special hell over whose gate is inscribed: A great life does not make a great book.

Selectivity, that protection against having to encounter entire archives between two covers, is essential for defining character and determining worth. As Ms. Garis explains in her preface, “It became necessary to condense most incidents, eliminate many, and restrict accounts of friendships that developed through the years. It seems infinitely more important to give the grand picture, paint the broad canvas, so that the readers would have some conception of the vastness of Martha’s dedication, sacrifice, and accomplishment.” But selectivity can distort when the “grand design” eliminates significant or uncomfortable details. I consider it extraordinary that a five hundred page chronicle of Martha Root’s travels does not include a single descriptive paragraph of the places she visited. The planet becomes a mere backdrop to her service. More frustrating is a three page chapter entitled “incidents” where the most personal information in the book is revealed and then summarily dropped. In 1896 Martha had a bicycle accident which required her to have an operation. “This operation,” writes Garis, “rendered Martha unable to have children. It had a profound effect on her and altered the focus of her future.…This accident cast a long shadow over her life. She might have lived longer, and with less agonizing pain, had it not been for her early traumatic experience. The operation was undoubtedly the source of her deep distrust of doctors and her vehement refusal to go to a hospital in any country, despite severe physical need. The shock of this accident brought Martha close to a breakdown. But she recovered, and there was no bitterness. She retained her joy of life, but kept her men friends, of which there were many, as just that—friends. As with every other aspect of her life, once Martha had made the adjustment, she did not look back or waste time commiserating but went ahead to live life at its fullest.” With the exception of her pain, the “long shadow” of spinsterhood, childlessness and near mental collapse is never mentioned again. Martha mounts her pedestal on page thirty-seven and remains there, a lioness in verbal concrete.

He Loved and Served is a minor biography written by Curtis Kelsey’s son-in-law, Nathan Rutstein, which continues the tradition of glaring omission. Mr. Rutstein mentions that when Curtis Kelsey served on the Teaneck, New Jersey spiritual assembly every member shunned him for a year, refusing to speak to him. Curtis attended every assembly meeting and feast even though these gatherings pained him. Why this all happened is never explained. Mr. Rutstein’s only comment about this unusual episode is that “[e]ventually the matter that led to the estrangement between Curtis and the other members of the Assembly was settled. Everyone was speaking to him again, and there were those who appreciated Curtis’ steadfastness.” When appreciation and not understanding is the biographer’s purpose, then events, simplified and purged of ambiguities, illustrate a moral rather than explain a character.

Dorothy Freeman and Ruhiyyih Rabbani, also relatives of their biographical subjects, fortunately have considerable talent. They have an eye for telling detail, selecting quoted documents with care, writing scenes with dramatic power and, most importantly, analyzing and interpreting material with incisive conviction. Ruhiyyih Rabbani in The Priceless Pearl writes especially well, painting scene after scene with memorable touches, as when she describes Shoghi Effendi’s eyes and hands. From Copper to Gold, a biography of Hand of the Cause Dorothy Baker, has, to a lesser extent, this ability to give life to people, places, and things. However, this book suffers from artistic choices almost fatal to its credibility. Mrs. Freeman, the granddaughter of Dorothy Baker, writes pages of dialogue which she never heard or read anywhere. “The biography’s purpose is to reflect not only the chronology of Dorothy’s Baker’s life,” she rationalizes in her introduction, “but also the drives, the suffering, the delights and peak moments of decision that helped to make her who she was.” But this is no defense for imagining scenes without documentation or for describing dreams as if having telepathy. The biography as novel undermines trust, a precious bond between author and reader. I read this book wondering throughout, what is really true? No biographer can afford to inspire such suspicion. He should always remember that the reader is under no obligation to believe him; the burden of proof is his and his alone.

Here again, omissions suggest an unwillingness to deal with certain unpleasant facts of a life. Dorothy Baker suffered while serving on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States. One of its members was particularly abusive in his comments, and one of its decisions, we are told, repelled her. This period “was one of the most painful of her Bahá'í life,” yet we’re not told why. Are reputations being protected? Are historians and scholars forbidden access to “top secret” records? Is the admonition against gossip being used as an excuse for suppression or censorship?

Moreover, it is distressing when a biographer feels compelled to apologize for acknowledging the limitations of his subject or expresses guilt for mentioning anything private. Ruhiyyih Rabbani asserts that Shoghi Effendi was a mischievous child, then, one paragraph later, hedges with this genuflection to the orthodox: “It may sound disrespectful to say the Guardian was a mischievous child, but he himself told me he was the acknowledged ringleader of all the other children.” Later, her reluctance becomes more explicit. “It is with great reluctance that I refer to the Guardian’s private life,” she writes, but explains that she must because “unless one catches a glimpse of what he went through as an individual human being one cannot truly appreciate the grandeur of his achievements.” I believe we need more than a glimpse of an individual human being before drawing adequate conclusions about their achievements. No leader is just a public figure, and it is the biographer’s task, unless he is just the “agent of a reputation,” to explore and explain the relationship between the public and private selves. Ruhiyyih Rabbani makes a tentative effort, but as the book reaches its midpoint, her husband steps into the wings and the Guardian of the Cause of God assumes center stage until the very end.

Saintliness, William James suggests in his Varieties of Religious Experience, is a fascinating condition worth exploring. It is a state of grace, dramatic and heroic, and its consequences can be socially redemptive. “The human charity we find in all saints,” he points out, “is a genuinely creative social force, tending to make real a degree of virtue which it alone is ready to assume as possible. The saints are authors, auctores, increasers of goodness. The potentialities of development in human souls are unfathomable. So many who seemed irretrievably hardened have in point of fact been softened, converted, regenerated, in ways that amazed the subjects even more than they surprised the spectators, that we never can be sure in advance of any man that his salvation by way of love is hopeless.”

David Hofman in his biography of George Townshend, Hasan Balyuzi in 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Gayle Morrison in To Move the World: Louis Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America successfully describe this spiritual drama, proving that saintliness need not be dull or irrelevant. All humble men, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Townshend, and Gregory would not have accepted sainthood. But their biographers, by examining the full range of evidence, by describing the effect of these men on others in fully realized physical and social worlds, and interpreting words and deeds in order to understand motivation and its behavioral consequence, make a convincing or, at least, a compelling case. As we witness human transformation, missing in studies of mere types, we are ourselves transformed. By the end of these biographies, we care about these men. I now want to read Townshend’s Christ and Bahá'u'lláh, his gift to Shoghi Effendi he desperately tried to finish before dying. After first reading Balyuzi’s book several years ago, I loved 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Ironically, Mr. Balyuzi concludes his biography by doubting his success. “'Abdu'l-Bahá was the Mystery of God. Who, then, can portray Him,” he wondered. No doubt, Mr. Balyuzi was sensitive to a truth Lytton Strachey, father of modern biography at the turn of the century, observed, “it is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to live one.”

Even with these successes there are dangers to be considered. Hagiographers tend to think they speak for God. David Hofman asserts unequivocally, “George, like Saul of Taurus, was chosen by the Manifestations of God for a particular task. At all times he was guided, sheltered, protected.”

Hofman’s book, and many others examined here, also reflect a tribal spirit which undermines the introduction of noteworthy lives to the general public. “This is a book about a Bahá'í, for Bahá'ís, by a Bahá'í,” he declares candidly. But writer after writer say “we,” “us” and write asides to the audience as if sharing secrets in a fraternity with a mysterious language only the initiated can understand. Such myopia can lead to disturbing lapses, as in Hofman’s remark that England atoned for its wrongs to Ireland in the only way possible—by introducing Bahá'í pioneers, administrators, and teachers! Yes, writers should define their audience, but Bahá'í biographers do a disservice to the lives they commemorate by implying that only believers would be interested in the lives of Bahá'ís. On the contrary, a religious life well told can have appeal and significance for anyone interested in spiritual drama. A recent biography of Thomas Merton (The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott), a Trappist monk, invites Catholics and non-Catholics alike into his monastic world where his struggles mirror our own.

If edification, the primary goal of hagiography, is the only use for Bahá'í biography, then Bahá'í writers must face the implications of having an exemplary life at their disposal—'Abdu'l-Bahá, the Exemplar. “Except for a life of 'Abdu'l-Bahá,” observed a friend, “why should Bahá'ís read biographies?” To imply that the only lives worth reading or writing about are lives which approximate 'Abdu'l-Bahá’s is to create a literary trap. One life is then written or read, over and over again.

Of course, there are many reasons for writing biographies, as there are many kinds of biographers, and I believe Bahá'ís should expect diversity. Not every subject has to be a Hand of the Cause, not every book has to be written in reverential tones. A minor life, as Geoffrey Wolff has demonstrated in Black Sun, can be as interesting as a major one. Harry Crosby did nothing important, but his life still makes fascinating reading. And we don’t even have to like our subject. I am not suggesting that Bahá'í biographers should duplicate those biographies, popular today, which sneeringly tell us every sordid detail about a mean spirited life so that we can feel, somehow, morally superior, blessed for being ordinary. I am suggesting that Bahá'í biographers continue that tradition, alive since Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which invites us, through the sensitive, sympathetic rendering of individual virtue and limitation, to embrace one more human life, to extend our sympathies to another member of the human family. This tradition is not as old as hagiography, but its calling can be just as satisfying, just as inspiring, for it too releases us from despair. We learn once again that we are not alone.


Sidney Morrison is a Middle School principal in Los Angeles and serves as Dialogue’s Book Reviews editor.

2. Response by Frank Lewis, from dialogue 1:3, pp. 5-6 (1986)

I have just read S. Edward Morrison’s review “The Art of Bahá'í Biography,” and wanted to add a bit of information that might clarify the literary genealogy of Bahá'í works of hagiography.

Mr. Morrison states that the work of most Bahá'í biographers “suggests an affinity with the reverential writers of medieval England.” While this may be true, I think it is rather ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who, in the words of Mr. Morrison, “sets the standard in his Memorials of the Faithful” for the biographical tone and style employed by many Bahá'í writers. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes in a very fine and fitting style beautifully distilled from the Islamic literary tradition. It is to that tradition we should look for the prototype of the hagiographical approach that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá adopts to his advantage, and less able pens adopt at their peril. One particularly prominent example of this hagiographical approach is the Tadhkiratu’l-Awliya, or “Memorials of the Saints” by the Persian mystic Faridu’d-Din ‘Attar (d. 1221), the author of another famous work, Mantiq’t-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds), to which Bahá'u'lláh alludes on page 4 of The Seven Valleys. ‘Attar’s Tadhkiratu’l-Awliya is a compendium of hagiographical accounts of the lives of 72 famous Sufis, written in Persian prose around the turn of the thirteenth century. Although ‘Attar was not the first to write a biography of the Sufi saints, his Tadhkiratu’l-Awliya, along with the Nafahatu’l-Uns of a later Sufi poet, Abdu’l-Rahman Jami (1414-1492), was one of the most famous works of this type.

The Persian title of Memorials of the Faithful is Tadhkiratu’l-Vafa, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá includes approximately the same number of biographical vignettes as did ‘Attar (77 as opposed to 72). Thus it is clear that in this case, as in the case of The Hidden Words or The Seven Valleys, the Bahá'í writings use the form of earlier Persian and Arabic literary models, building upon the edifice of the Islamic cultural tradition.

It is quite true, as Mr. Morrison points out, that not many authors can match the stylistic beauty of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s writing. Our problem goes deeper than that, though, and stems from the fact that we are western writers imitating a style and approach that is alien to our own tradition (safely assuming that most contemporary writers are unfamiliar with the hagiographies of British and Irish saints of the middle ages). The root of the difficulty is that the modern western tradition can arrive at an understanding or an appreciation of the stylistics and esthetics of works originally from the Islamic religious and cultural context, only with great difficulty. Most Bahá'ís have been unsuccessful at simulating or creating an equivalent or approximation of that style which does not grate on western sensibilities. (The English style of the late Hasan Balyuzi is a notable exception, which more or less succeeds precisely because he was so well versed in both cultural traditions.)

The works under discussion in Mr. Morrison’s review, however, were pioneer efforts at Bahá'í biography in English, grappling with the problems and questions of critical and personal ethics, as well as styles and esthetics. If they have not succeeded to our liking, and I would agree that much of what has been written by Bahá'ís leaves considerable room for improvement, they can at least teach us something about the cultural relativity of esthetics and stylistics. We may very well be pursuing a dead-end path when we, as writers in the Western, and more specifically Anglo-American, cultural milieu attempt to borrow or imitate lock, stock and barrel literary models of a very different cultural milieu, in this case that of the Bahá'í Faith with its Islamic roots. Furthermore, Bahá'ís should not always strive to imitate the English prose style or the tone of, for instance, the Guardian. Shoghi Effendi’s English style is finely-honed and majestic, but it corresponds to his station as the appointed Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith. Though we admire his style and follow his unmatched example in translating the Holy Texts, we should neither speak with his authority nor assume his tone. We have no clergy, and for an individual Bahá'í to imitate, in his own books or letters, the tone and style of the Guardian as it appears in God Passes By, for example, would be most inappropriate and awkward. And so with the works of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Though he is a perfect example for us, this does not mean that we should do everything the way he did. We feel no need, for instance, to dress in the manner that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did, nor should we feel the need to write in his style.

It is hoped that by avoiding such pitfalls and fallacies of assumption future Bahá'í authors (of biographies and any other kind of book) will be able to draw on the various traditions and models available to them in a balanced and sensitive way in order to produce more satisfying and ever-more readable works, works which on the basis of their literary, historical or intellectual merit will attract the attention of those who are not Bahá'ís.

1. Images: When the Saints Come Marching In, from dialogue 1:1 (1986)


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2. Images: Response by Frank Lewis, from dialogue 1:3 (1986)


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