Earlier this week I started a three-part series at The Anxious Bench on the challenges of writing biographies. I’m writing these posts without any real knowledge of what biographers go through, having never written a book of that sort. But like many historians who have reached mid-career, I’m contemplating such a project, reading more examples of it than usual, and starting to anticipate the problems I’d face.
The first challenge may seem like an odd one: What happens when you don’t actually like your subject all that much?
I’m sure many historians would actually tell me that’s a blessing, since I’d be less tempted to engage in hagiography. But I think it forces the biographer to wrestle with the dilemma of how one empathizes without a less-than-admirable figure without in the process exonerating him. I share the example of Civil War historian James McPherson’s assessment of Jefferson Davis. McPherson makes clear that he doesn’t especially like the Confederate president, that he despises the cause Davis headed, and yet he also wants “to transcend my convictions and to understand Jefferson Davis as a product of his time and circumstances.”
But I’d also appreciate some reading recommendations from Pietist Schoolman readers:
What’s the best biography you’ve read of an unsympathetic figure?