Why I Wrote a Short Biography

Today marks the three-month anniversary of Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot releasing to the public. I’ve published enough books to know that this is almost always an awkward moment for authors. Three months into publication, it’s not just that the initial excitement is long forgotten in the midst of the more pressing demands of the academic calendar. But if it hasn’t happened already, three months seems like the time when most authors have to accept that the most extravagant of their initial expectations have been disappointed.

By now, I’ve moved through anticipation and anger to an acceptance of the many reasons that it was bound to be difficult for this particular book to break through quickly into a crowded market: it doesn’t come from a trade publisher; Amazon elected to make it difficult for users to review it; and an ongoing pandemic limited early opportunities for in-person talks.

Above all else, many potential readers simply find my protagonist to be toxic.

I don’t mean to sound bitter. I’m gratified by the universally positive response I’ve received from readers and reviewers (and know to expect an especially generous review soon from a particularly impressive reviewer). I look forward to several events coming this winter, with another about to be added. And I know that one reason to publish in this format rather than its more ephemeral alternatives is that books have a way of being rediscovered in coming years. (2027, say.)

But I’ve also come to accept that there’s virtually no chance that this book this year will receive the kind of wider recognition that I think it warrants. It’s been nominated for at least one award, for example, but I doubt it will win — or make any other such lists. Even if it is as good a book as I believe it to be, even if people are willing to recognize a biography of a white supremacist, anti-Semite, and Nazi sympathizer, it’s got one big strike against it:

It’s barely over 200 pages long.

Now, it was no small project to plan and undertake, and the resulting book is dense enough that it requires significant time and attention from readers. But simply put: relatively short biographies don’t have the same stature as their lengthier cousins.

I do not think my book deserves a place on so lofty a shelf, but just for comparison’s sake… Take a look at the page lengths of the most recent Pulitzer winners for Biography: 621, 832, 944, 640, 272, 464, 592, 496, 816, 928. The only one less than twice as long as mine was a memoir: Hisham Matar’s The Return.

I can understand why so many trees need to die for some biographies. Jeffrey Stewart drew on previously unused sources and offered new insights into a complicated, understudied man in writing his tome about Alain Locke. Closer to home, it’s hard to blame Scott Berg for wanting to spend three times as many pages on Charles Lindbergh as I did: he was the first person given full access to Lindbergh’s papers.

But having read Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer-winning biography of George Washington, I can confirm that there’s zero reason that anyone needs to write or read nearly a thousand more pages about someone who’s already the subject of dozens of biographies, on the basis of no new evidence. Or take Edmund Morris’ three-part study of another head on Mount Rushmore. Having spent the past month slogging my way through the first (Pulitzer-winning) 900 pages of Teddy Roosevelt’s life, I know that the rest of the trilogy will go unread.

It’s not that Morris is a bad writer. Far from it. He shares his subject’s way with words and boldness in interpretation. But in the moments when Morris praises one or two chapters in TR’s own books and dismisses most Rooseveltian prose as forgettable, it’s hard not to turn the judgment back on the biographer himself.

In my experience, at least, too many biographies seem to have been written by authors who agree with the sitcom psychiatrist, Dr. Frasier Crane: “If less is more, then just think how much more more would be.”

So when the time came to stop researching Lindbergh’s life and start writing about it, I tried to heed some advice from historian James McPherson:

In historical writing, one of the biggest faults of beginning students — at the graduate as well as undergraduate level — is the tendency to cram all of one’s research into the text of a paper, chapter, or dissertation. To overcome this fault, I urge students to think of an iceberg: six-sevenths of it is invisible below the surface but is necessary to support the one-seventh that is visible.

The same is true of historical research and writing: Only one-seventh of the data, quotations, and other information one finds in one’s research should make it into the text, but the invisible six-sevenths of that research is necessary to support the text. A good many students have told me that this iceberg metaphor is helpful.

Not surprisingly then, the only true biography has McPherson written is a 2009 account of the life of Abraham Lincoln that checked in at less than 100 pages. Amid the “cascade of information” that poured out for the 200th birthday of our 16th president, McPherson believed that “there [was] room for a brief biography that captures the essential events and meaning of Lincoln’s life without oversimplification or overgeneralization.”

Unfortunately, too many biographers seem to think that every note they (or their assistants) have taken belongs in the narrative, which not only reflects an inability or unwillingness to edit one’s work, but conveys the false impression that any person’s life can actually be preserved in such precise detail.

I’m sure I would have been tempted to do likewise, if Berg hadn’t already given Lindbergh that treatment and if I hadn’t made the fortunate decision to zoom in more tightly on an aspect of Lindbergh’s life that given scattershot treatment from earlier biographers: his spiritual journey. Here I took some more inspiration from McPherson, who did go on to write longer studies of both Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis —the latter book on my reading list as I wrote the Lindbergh proposal — but focused narrowly on their performances as Civil War commanders-in-chief.

Maybe it just means that I’m a historian, not a biographer. But I didn’t mean to sculpt a life-sized reproduction, only to paint an impression of a man and his world through the interpretation — rather than accumulation — of historical evidence. I still think that was the right choice.