e-bio

Parallel Lives, the now classic multibiography by Phyllis (Davidoff) Rose '64, Ph.D. '70, broke new ground in 1983 by examining the lives of...

Phyliss Rose thinks the Internet offers a vast improvement over the Pyramids.

Parallel Lives, the now classic multibiography by Phyllis (Davidoff) Rose '64, Ph.D. '70, broke new ground in 1983 by examining the lives of five famous English writers and their far less known spouses and partners. In recent years Rose has continued to encourage interest in biographical writing by teaching a course on family biography at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she is professor of English. Her students learn about the genre by creating a verbal portrait of grandparents, or one or both parents.

"I've always been interested in 'democratic' biography," Rose says. "Why shouldn't there be biographies of 'ordinary' people? Why shouldn't the stories of many lives be available? Since the main obstacle is the limited focus of the commercial market, it occurred to me that this was a field where the Internet offers opportunities that conventional media can't." The Internet, Rose reasoned, could bring potential readers and writers together outside the constraints of the mass market. "We take it for granted," she notes, "that we can commission photographers and painters to make portraits of family members and people close to us. How about giving people a way to commission verbal portraits and short biographies, too?" The result of her musings is a website, at www.bioregistry.com.

The site has a list of writers willing to accept commissions for a variety of fees. While not all the details have been worked out yet, Rose envisions a secure "bulletin board" where clients can post descriptions of their projects and participating biographers can review them. If one appeals to a writer, he or she can negotiate a fee with the client. The finished biography can then be posted at the BioRegistry, at its own website, or printed in as many copies as the client wishes. "It provides a service for clients," says Rose, "and work for writers at all levels. Why should we have to settle for 15 minutes of fame, after all? Everyone should have his or her own biographer."

For the time being Rose is thinking less in terms of venture capital and more of "conceptual art." "At this stage," she notes, "I'm still just a visionary." The implications are intriguing. If I were considering a life of my wayward uncle, should I try to pitch the story line to Francine du Plessix Gray, who has written an award-winning book on the Marquis de Sade, or are his four marriages more suited to the darkly humorous style of Alison Lurie '47, author of The War Between the Tates? If I wanted a portrait of my grandmother, could I commission it as hagiography rather than cautionary tale? It seems possible, too, that this may be an answer to the pesky question of what to give the friend who has everything. Now I just have to decide whose biography to give her. Mine? Her own?

Rose's vision of the site's potential includes far more, such as a cyberspace record of births, engagements, and weddings, which could replace the very limited offerings of newspapers, and "memorial websites" linked together to create a "virtual cemetery." "The only permanent memorial most of us get is a headstone," she observes. "I think the Internet allows us to be much more creative about immortality."

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