What Am I Trying to Do as a Biographer?

I haven’t done a lot of work on my Lindbergh biography this fall after a great summer of research. In part, that’s not by choice: I’d much rather learn about aviation than wrestle with a financial crisis at work. But I have tried to let the project lay fallow for a short season, in order to sit with what I found over the summer and let new questions germinate.

But as I start to get back to that work, an old question is actually at the forefront: What am I trying to do as a biographer?

O'Donnell, Elizabeth SetonWith that in mind, I attended back-to-back panels on biography during the last morning of this month’s meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. First, I was astonished to see so many people wake up and make a long, rainy walk to attend our Saturday 8am roundtable discussion of “non-traditional spiritual biographies,” featuring Amy Artman (Kathryn Kuhlman), Cara Burnidge (Woodrow Wilson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), Malcolm Gold and Jay Case (Bob Dylan), and myself and moderated by my Lindbergh editor, Heath Carter. Then I headed downstairs to listen to Jonathan Den Hartog (John Jay), Nancy Koester (Sojourner Truth and Harriet Beecher Stowe), John Fry (Laura Ingalls Wilder), Catherine O’Donnell (Catherine Seton), and Tracy McKenzie (embittered Civil War soldier William Paynton) compare how biographers engage in the “Search for Meaning.”

In a sense, both panels helped me see more clearly just what was so “non-traditional” about writing a “spiritual, but not religious” biography of Charles Lindbergh: that is, it helped me understand what I’m not doing as a biographer. It’s not just that I’m writing about the spiritual life of an aviator, rather than a pastor, evangelist, missionary, theologian, or hymn writer. It’s that…

…my subject will never undergo a conversion to Christianity. At the roundtable, I suggested a contrast between my project and Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller Unbroken, about another famous American who ended up fighting in the South Pacific: Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. As it was for Lindbergh, WWII was a turning point in Zamperini’s life, but the latter later attended a Billy Graham revival and made a decision for Christ. Lindbergh may have brought along a New Testament on his secret combat deployment in 1944, quoted Jesus in his 1948 critique of technological progress, Of Flight and Life, and sought out Christian conversation partners as diverse as a Catholic mystic, a Florida businessman, and Benedictine nuns… but he never converted to Christianity.

And I don’t necessarily mean Lindbergh’s story to be morally instructive. In part because he was sitting ten feet away from me, I thought of Rick Kennedy, the Cotton Mather biographer who once noted the rise of a “new academic hagiography,” whose authors are critical… but still “want their readers to imitate the Christian character of their subjects.” And in the second session, Den Hartog pointed out that moral instruction is a trait of biographies that even predates Christianity.

While I wouldn’t mind my readers emulating some of Lindbergh’s traits — including his intellectual curiosity and his desire to feed that curiosity through conversation with diverse partners, there’s much about Lindbergh that I find less than admirable. I don’t know if I feel the historical disgust that Elesha Coffman suggested this morning should sometimes accompany historical empathy, but there’s much about Lindbergh I find off-putting.

Of course, that raises another question: is a biographer also a judge?

Let me take what might seem like an odd digression:

I was fighting a cold throughout my time in Michigan, and ended up spending almost all of last Sunday home in bed. So I decided to plow through the first season of a TV show that I’ve been meaning to watch for two years: The Good Place, Mike Schur’s philosophical comedy about a deeply self-centered, recently deceased woman (Kristen Bell) who realizes that she has ascended to the wrong level of the afterlife. She enlists a moral philosophy professor (William Jackson Harper) to teach her how to become truly worthy of permanent residence in “The Good Place.”

Now there’s a twist or ten along the way, so we’ll see how things develop as I get deeper into the show. But at least initially, The Good Place determines the eternal destiny of the deceased based on their reaching a certain number of points earned by good behavior in their lifetime, minus points lost by bad deeds — or, we learn, good works done out of rotten motivations.

I’m not rendering Judgment, but in a sense, those of us who make public meaning of dead persons’ pasts do place them in a pre-eternal “Good Place” or “Bad Place.” As Fry pointed out in the Q&A following the second session, our subjects — unlike Bell’s character — are done changing — but their public reputation is not. Is “scoring” someone’s life my function as a biographer?

The more I study Charles Lindbergh, the more I find myself wanting to make arguments about, say, his views on heredity and competition, or his murky allusions to “the Jewish problem.”

But at least for the moment, I’m clearly in what might be called the pre-argument stage of research, which lends itself well to blog posts like this and the series I’ve been posting intermittently at Anxious Bench. (Look for one in a week or two on Lindbergh’s connection to First Man Neil Armstrong!) And there’s a part of me that resonates with O’Donnell’s observation that she likes writing biography precisely it seems less about reducing the entirety of a life to an argument, and more about wondering over the complexities of another person’s existence.