My New Series on Writing Biography

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?

McPherson, Embattled RebelI’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.”

You can read the full post here. (Which also takes up an idea from my September post on Hamilton and suggests that Davis, though dead, still influences the writing of his biography.)

But I’d also appreciate some reading recommendations from Pietist Schoolman readers:

What’s the best biography you’ve read of an unsympathetic figure?

4 thoughts on “My New Series on Writing Biography

  1. I will follow your reflections on this. I have read lots of biographies and can’t think many I liked about an unsympathetic figure so I appreciate your wondering whether this is a good idea. I suppose one example would be Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson though I can’t say I enjoyed reading it that much. Indeed Isaacson resisted writing it though Jobs lobbied him that Jobs was similar to Einstein so Isaacson should want to write it. Isaacson finally relented perhaps because of Jobs’s illness I can’t remember but here is his conclusion about Jobs. “He was not a model boss or human being.” Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, p. xxi.

    Another example would be that I have enjoyed to some extent Erik Larson’s books: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America Paperback – February 10, 2004, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin Paperback – May 1, 2012, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania Paperback – March 22, 2016, which depict rather negative events with villains. Again, though, these are still largely painful to read.

    In all these cases the lesson is a cautionary tale that serves to sober the reader.

    In general because of my Aristotelian and Pauline and Thomist and Mennonite ethical inclinations, I tend to think that *good* example is more crucial for learning than cautionary tale.

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