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Jewish World Review /Feb. 11, 1999 / 25 Shevat, 5759

Ben and Daniel Wattenberg

Ben Celebrated lives writ short

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) FOR THOSE OF YOU who have been defeated lately by a bloated, eleventy-hundred-page biography, remain calm. Help has arrived.

On Super Bowl weekend, I read both Larry McMurtry's "Crazy Horse" (141 pages) and Edmund White's "Marcel Proust" (156 pages) --- and still saw time recaptured by John Elway.

The only thing that was too long was the game.

Super Bowl companions Proust and Crazy Horse are the first two Penguin Lives, a new series of streamlined biographies (128 to 256 pages) of figures from world history and culture's exclusive single-name club --- Mao, Dickens, Dante, Darwin, Churchill and Leonardo, to name a few. Conceived by journalist/biographer James Atlas, the short biographies are published jointly by Viking/Penguin and investment banker Kenneth Lipper, sometime author and onetime New York deputy mayor.

More writerly than scholarly, the biographies match an array of up-market literary journalists, novelists, belletristic critics and popular historians (not an academic specialist in sight) with historical figures about whom they feel passionately. The approach makes for some intriguing pairings.

McMurtry's "Crazy Horse" is the story of the diehard Sioux resister to white settlement of the West -- by the writer whose most famous novel, "Lonesome Dove," is famously ambivalent about the taming of the frontier. Next in the series, Garry Wills, one of the notable intellectual converts of our time, encounters one of the notable intellectual converts of all time in "Saint Augustine." The literary matchmaking was like an "exalted parlor game," said series editor Atlas.

With the rise of the new media -- home video, cable and the Internet -- the publishing biz has many new competitors for the attention of its readers. "It is simply utopian to think that you can carry on business as usual in the face of this technological onslaught on our time," said Atlas.

Inevitably, short biography cannot layer incident upon detail on top of episode the way longer biographies can. In a way, they cannot be as true to the lives of their subjects as more comprehensive biographies. But by locating and staying true to the characters of their subjects, they can make their lives more intelligible than can many far longer works ballooning with incidental facts. In good examples of the genre, like the first two Penguins, dramatic coherence and clarity emerge from the pressure to be concise.

McMurtry's Crazy Horse is a reclusive and independent soul who avoided for most of his life "all parleys, councils, treaty sessions, and any meetings of an administrative or political nature, not merely with whites but with his own people as well." His solitary nature helps explain both the vacuum of verifiable facts about his life (fewer than those available about Alexander the Great, McMurtry reflects) and his emergence as an implacable resister, as white pressure on the Plains Indians grew.

His negligible contact with whites, McMurtry speculates, may have meant that "he never made the kind of hardheaded assessment of white character and white intentions" that more accomodationist Indian leaders like Red Cloud and Sitting Bull made early on. Both his mystery and his reluctance to abandon the fight were central ingredients in the emergence of his myth. And McMurtry's Crazy Horse is, finally, a necessary myth: "The Crazy Horse legend grew in the main from a broken people's need to remember and believe in unbroken heroes."

Proust, too, lived reclusively in his artistically mature, later years -- but not by choice. Solitude was imposed on the extravagantly social novelist by debilitating asthma. "Forced to lie utterly still in bed for hour on end meditating on his life, (Proust) was naturally disposed to turning the people he knew and the adventures he lived through into glowing legends," writes White.

But if McMurtry's Crazy Horse is fated to remain a symbol of the vanished civilization of the Plains Indians, White's Proust has been detached with the passage of time from the expired world that he recreated in his masterpiece, "In Search of Lost Time."

"As his life recedes in time and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths rather than the valedictorian of the Belle Epoque," writes White. "We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know. Instead, we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales."

We still don't know whether John Elway knows when to end his career. But at least we know that some writers know when to end their Lives.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.


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