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Unmasking Oscar Wilde, and Others

Biographer Joseph Pearce Hopes to Inspire Modern Readers

NAPLES, Florida, JUNE 18, 2004 (Zenit) - Writing about notable Catholics of the 19th and 20th century is Joseph Pearce's attempt to bring their stories to a new generation and evangelize the culture.

The professor of literature at Ave Maria University, editor in chief of Sapientia Press, co-editor of the Saint Austin Review, and biographer -- most recently "The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde" (Ignatius) -- will speak on the art of writing biographies this weekend at the Catholic Writers' Conference at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.

Pearce, a native of England, shared with ZENIT why he keeps delving into the lives of Catholics and how their stories have the ability to edify readers, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

Q: What attracts you to writing biographies of mainly Catholic figures?

Pearce: First of all, many of the people I write about had a profound influence -- under grace -- on my own conversion to Catholicism.

Writing biographies of these giants of Christian literature allows me to get to know them better. After spending months researching their lives, reading unpublished letters or memoirs, seeing unpublished photographs, etc., one feels that one almost knows them as flesh and blood acquaintances. Indeed, I feel that I know some of these writers better than I know several of the actual, living people that I meet!

And, of course, using this wealth of research material in the process of writing the biography allows one to harmonize the information into a living synthesis.

The other motivation for writing biographies of these Catholic figures is the desire to bring them to the attention of a new generation of Catholics and, indeed, to a new generation of non-Catholics who might be inspired by the edifying nature of their lives and their example to seek a better understanding of the Catholic faith. In this sense, I see my work as a biographer as a work of evangelizing the culture.

Q: What aspects of a Catholic's life stand out to you?

Pearce: The paradox at the heart of every human life -- Catholic or otherwise -- is that we are both ordinary and extraordinary at one and the same time.

We have so much in common with each other and yet we are all special, we are all unique. We are all of the genus homo, and yet we are all individuals.

As such, in examining the lives of others -- and especially in examining the lives of highly gifted Christian figures -- we can learn from, and be inspired by, their example and by their trials and tribulations, by their triumphs and their failures.

Malcolm Muggeridge said that life is a Passion play and the important thing is how it ends. Muggeridge himself led a sin-filled life of adultery and self-centeredness, yet he came to embrace Christianity and finally was received into the Catholic Church when he was in his 70s.

Paradoxically, even his sins had brought him closer to Christ, in the sense that the lessons he had learned from the mistakes that he had made led him to the truth.

His life, his Passion play, was messy and disordered but it ended well. It ended as it should. In Muggeridge's life, and in the lives of the people that I have chosen to write about, we have this final acceptance of the truth of Christ's love, the bringing of order out of the chaos of life. All of these lives contain what Tolkien called "the consolation of a happy ending."

Q: How do you toe the line between writing biographies and writing hagiographies?

Pearce: This is a very good question. When I give talks or lectures on the practical aspects of writing biography, I always insist that it is the duty of the biographer to serve objective truth. He is not to do things with his subject by subjecting his subject to his own subjective agenda.

On the contrary, he is to subject himself to his subject, allowing his subject to do things to him. In other words he is not to pursue his own agenda, under any circumstances, but is to pursue objective reality.

Practically speaking, a failure to do this will lead the biographer to err in one of two directions. He will either paint over the warts, sins and mistakes of his subject's life in order to paint him whiter than he deserves -- which is hagiography -- or else he will exaggerate the warts, sins and mistakes in order to paint his subject darker than he deserves.

I call this "hackiography" because this sort of biography is normally written by hacks who seek to hack to pieces the reputation of the subject on the altar of cynicism or sensationalism. Sadly, we live in an age in which there are far more hackiographies than hagiographies.

Nonetheless, and to reiterate, it is the duty of a biographer to write neither. ...

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