Comment Drive: What’s Your Favorite Biography?

This week’s “comment drive” got off to a good start asking about historical movies… Let’s see if we can generate even more conversation about one of filmmaker’s favorite genres of history: biography.

In this week’s installment of Past & Presence, our department’s webisode series, we turn to biography: I host from my hometown of Stillwater, Minnesota; we hear some of the intellectual autobiography of my colleague AnneMarie Kooistra; and I have a conversation about biographies and how they show up in teaching and research with our colleague Amy Poppinga (who also talks about her work as an oral historian).

Hence our question for today: What’s your favorite biography?

While that’s a simple enough question, I want to preface it by sketching some of the complexity surrounding biography, and how the genre is seen by historians.

Now, if you watch the webisode, you’ll find that Amy and I quickly confess our fondness — as readers, teachers, and researchers — for biographies and memoirs. But within a few minutes, we’re tackling some of the reasons that academic historians sometimes look askance at such works: e.g., because they might make too much of one person’s experience, and often a person with considerable power and privilege, taking scholarly energy away from the study of others whose stories go untold.

Gaddis, Landscape of HistoryOne of my favorite reflections on the writing of biographies is “Molecules with Minds of Their Own,” one of the lectures that John Lewis Gaddis gave during a sabbatical in Oxford and then adapted as a chapter in The Landscape of History. While John is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer himself and has long taught a seminar at Yale on “The Art of Biography,” he acknowledges that the genre presents particular challenges for the historian. Just a few examples:

How can the biographer be both empathetic to her subject and maintain some critical distance? “A biographer has got to see things through another person’s perceptions — to take over another mind, so to speak. You’ve got to subdue your own distinctiveness in order to do this; otherwise your biography will reflect what’s inside your own head rather than that of your subject. But sooner or later you’ve also got to detach yourself and regain your own identity; otherwise, the biography will lack analytical depth or comparative perspective.” (pp. 113-14)

How do you convey the “character” of your subject? Here John borrows from the field of mathematics the language of self-similarity across scale. “Like practitioners of fractal geometry, biographers seek patterns that persist as one moves from micro- to macro-levels of analysis, and back again” (p. 117). A good biographer, he suggests, has to have an eye for tiny, telling details.

Whose life stories get told? “What is it, though, that brings distinctive characters in history to the attention of the historian in the first place? It is of course reputation, or, to put it another way, some surviving structure that causes us to assign some special significance to the processes that produced it.” How this “significance” is determined is ever-shifting: “History is full of people who seemed unimportant to their contemporaries but, through some process that produced a surviving structure, have become important to us” (p. 119).

Finally, is it possible to write the history of a life without engaging in moral judgment? As we’ve discussed on this blog before, not all historians think there ought to be a moral dimension to their interpretations of the past, but John concludes that this is both impossible and undesirable: “…no work of history of which I’m aware has ever been written without making some kind of statement — explicitly or implicitly, consciously or subconsciously — about where its subjects lie along the ubiquitous spectrum that separates the admirable from the abhorrent. You can’t escape thinking about history in moral terms. Nor, I believe, should you try to do so.” Since we’re, inescapably, “moral animals,” the question is rather how historians make moral judgments in a responsible fashion, “by which I mean in such a way  as to convince both the professionals and non-professionals who’ll read our work that what we say makes sense” (p. 122).

So while I’d be happy to have readers simply suggest their favorite biographies… Let me also ask you to reflect on what makes those books (or films) compelling. Is it that they’ve met at least some of the challenges Gaddis lays out?

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2 thoughts on “Comment Drive: What’s Your Favorite Biography?

  1. My current favorite is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s THE BULLY PULPIT, a fascinating account of the intricately woven lives of TR, Taft and the muckrakers of the early 20th century.

    First of all, Goodwin is a wonderful writer and a natural story teller, and you can feel her falling in love with her subjects as she takes you along for the ride. This doesn’t mean she lionizes the people in her stories; rather, she humanizes individuals who played a critical role in changing the world we live in, and in doing so shows us how greatness is always in some way a triumph over weakness. (It certainly helps that those she chooses to write about are genuinely fascinating people to start with.)

    Secondly, I am always surprised at how much I learn from her. Goodwin’s curiosity somehow leads her to new takes on people and events that have been considered settle history, sometimes for generations. A new perspective on Lincoln? Seriously? And the resurrection of William Howard Taft? Who else would have looked twice at Taft?

    Thirdly, while her “characters” are ostensibly the subject of her books, it seems to me that the real story she is telling is the story of an era, and ultimately of a country, and that her true purpose is to inspire the reader with faith in the principles we are meant to stand for.

    And that would be my final point: Goodwin writes with purpose. She is not just sending another book into the void. She does speak with a moral voice, and why not? Is that not the whole point of history? To tell us where we came from? To remind us what is noble and to warn us of danger? The gift of the past to provide hope in the future, so we are able to carry on?

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for running such a great blog, and sorry I don’t make a habit of commenting — I gleaned a lot from it while I was at Bethel, and I think I appreciate your conversations more with each passing year.

    Tough to narrow it down, but the most recent standout that comes to mind is Sam Tanenhaus’ *Whittaker Chambers.* Probably some combination of writer, era, and subject, but the feeling I had reading that book was comparable to how I felt reading Steinbeck’s *East of Eden* — there was a certain grandeur about the scope and life that absorbed me.

    Hope all is well in Arden Hills.

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