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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · November 06, 2018

Doing History: Writing Biography

Ben Franklin's WorldDoing History 24 min read

Today’s post accompanies “Considering John Marshall Part 2,” episode 211 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 3 series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.

In prior weeks, Michael McGandy has written about biography from the perspective of a publisher and interviewed numerous historians of early America about why they chose to write biographies. Today, he conducts an in-depth conversation about the process of writing biography with historian and biographer Cynthia Kierner.

Michael J. McGandy: I have been thinking a lot, Cindy, about our conversation last June regarding writing biography. Since chatting, I have written up and shared some of my own and others’ ideas on the form. But after concept comes practice. You had some wise and sobering things to say about actually writing biography, and they gave me pause.

Cynthia Kierner: I guess you’re referring to my observation that it would have been very hard, or maybe even impossible, for me to have written a scholarly biography that appealed to general readers as a first book. Writing for non-specialists is an important job for historians and biography is likely our best chance to attract a non-specialist readership. To do that, however, and still be scholarly, you have to write on two levels: tell an engaging story in plain and accessible language and, at the same time, adhere to the standards of our profession. That means doing serious primary research, supporting the narrative with solid evidence, and making some sort of meaningful intervention in the existing historiography. To do that, you need to command the literature in a fully integrated way so that scholars see the analytical relevance without it being stated explicitly in the text. In my case at least, it took some time and experience to develop those skills.

MJM: Yes, all of that resonated with me as an editor: the need for mastery of narrative form and various literatures, as well as having an innovative critical angle. When you lay it out that way, it is a lot to ask of a person writing his or her first book, which will likely be derived from a dissertation and need to review well in key journals in order to clinch a scholar’s case for tenure. First books do a lot of work, at many levels. Can a biography, written as a first book, do all of that? Would you call it mission improbable or mission impossible?

CK: I’d hesitate to say impossible. There are a lot of smart, accomplished young scholars who may achieve something along those lines—or perhaps have already done so. But it would be unusual, and not least because writing a biography is probably not the best way to enter the academic job market.

By contrast, I can think of many examples of scholars who have written excellent, valuable, and accessible biographies as their second books. These books situate their protagonists in a larger historical context, often building on themes explored in the author’s first project, giving readers a window onto the subject’s place and time. I think, for instance, of Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, Catherine Allgor’s biography of Dolley Madison, or Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught on Ona Judge. A few of these might be better considered quasi-biographies, books that focus more on the “times” than on the “life.” But, as a historian, I learned something from these books, each of which found an audience among non-historians.

MJM: Let me connect two things you brought up: an author having an innovative critical take within the literature and the author’s chances for success in the academic job market. What defines a meaningful intervention in the field and is that sort of analytic work at odds with writing good biography?

CK: Not necessarily, at least for a historian who is thoughtful and well-read, and also a skillful writer. I can think of two examples from Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, which, of course, won some academic awards, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize. The first is her deceptively simple use of the warp and weft of a blue-and-white gingham checkered cloth as a metaphor for the gendered division of labor, clearly an important topic for scholars. Ulrich argued that the white squares in the checkered pattern stood for women’s activities, the blue for men’s, and the squares in which warp was white and the weft was blue, or vice-versa, denoted activities that men and women did together. This insight has always struck me as an elegant replacement for the now discredited model of “separate spheres.”

A second, more implicit but no less significant, intervention concerns women and the American Revolution, which apparently had minimal impact on Martha Ballard’s life and consciousness. Maybe a casual reader wouldn’t notice that the Revolution was pretty much absent from Ballard’s diary—and from Ulrich’s book—but historians surely would. Ballard’s world is a telling counterpoint to the more politicized environments described in classic works by Linda Kerber, Mary Beth Norton, and others. Those two worlds aren’t mutually exclusive. Ulrich’s close focus on Ballard and her family complicates our understanding of life in revolutionary America.

MJM: I love the way you articulate the power of Ulrich’s master metaphor. That is the best writing—when a metaphor does analytical work! It does, as you note, require great writing for it to succeed. My mind goes to what readers, students and lay people, want in history books. Most times we counsel beginning with the familiar; I certainly say that a lot as an editor. But the Ulrich example suggests the power of the imagination (here sparked by metaphor) in appealing to readers.

CK: The question of beginning with the familiar is an interesting one, but I think it can cut both ways. I know that when I wrote about Martha Jefferson Randolph the fact that she was Thomas Jefferson’s daughter made her familiar enough to prospective readers that they would want to read my book and that they would find my topic accessible. At the same time, the familiar hook that engages readers can also lead them to downplay or even ignore the truly innovative part of the story. After a book talk in which I showed how MJR’s life gave us a window onto the experiences of plantation wives, mothers, and daughters in colonial Virginia and the early republic, I inevitably got questions about TJ, and most especially questions about whether or not I thought he had sex with Sally Hemings. For me, as MJR’s biographer, the Jefferson/Hemings connection was important, of course, but in an entirely different way. When scholars write biography and aim for a general readership, it would do them well to consider what familiar story will threaten to overshadow their own newer and probably more compelling narrative.

At the same time, I also think that scholars retelling and updating familiar stories can be valuable. John Boles’s recent big biography, Jefferson: Architect of Liberty, is a case in point. Do we really need another biography of TJ? The public loves to read about presidents. Remember “Founders’ Chic”? Although largely sympathetic to Jefferson, Boles is not uncritical. And he’s written a book that gently exposes the general reader to decades of scholarship on critical issues that older biographies either ignored or dismissed, most especially relating to Jefferson’s record on race and slavery, and his relationships with women and enslaved people.

MJM: In specific, what did you do in Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello to avoid the familiar story taking over your innovative account?

CK: The fact that my subject was so closely related to someone who left behind such a huge archive was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I had an embarrassment of riches compared with most other scholars working on women’s history in this period—which, in fact, was one reason why I undertook the project. On the other hand, I was very conscious of the fact that TJ’s voice could easily overwhelm his daughter’s.

To address that problem, I drew on other sources, which varied from chapter to chapter. Travel accounts and local histories set the scenes in Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington—all places that MJR enjoyed living, in marked contrast to her city-hating father. Descriptions of life at Monticello written by visitors—most notably Margaret Bayard Smith—belied its image as some kind of serene pastoral salon. Smith’s account of her visit, like Martha’s own letters and those of her daughters, showed how the labor of women—their performances of domesticity—made possible Jefferson’s life as a leisured intellectual and a purveyor of genteel (and tasty) hospitality.

MJM: So to write a proper biography of MJR, and keep her father at bay, you had to write the story of her full world!

CK: Exactly. In some ways, actually, it’s oddly liberating to have fewer documents. I think, for instance, of Alfred Young’s Masquerade, a terrific book about Deborah Sampson, a famous but yet incredibly shadowy figure, except for the unquestionable fact that she dressed as a man and served as a Continental soldier. Working with relatively few sources from Sampson herself, Young argued that she, in fact, perpetrated a “double masquerade,” first by dressing as a man and later by crafting a persona that served both herself and her audiences well as she went on tour as a public speaker in the post-revolutionary era. In the process of putting together the pieces of Sampson’s life, and her masquerades, Young sought to “reconstruct a kind of life in the era of the American Revolution that has never been recovered.” I think he succeeded admirably . Is Masquerade a biography? I think so, but it’s also very different from the sort of narrative that sticks closely to the specific milestones and events of its protagonist’s life.

Much of what Young could say about the real Deborah Sampson was speculation, but historians always speculate and interpret—informed speculation is part of our job, even when we have documents. One great example would be Rhys Isaac’s Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom, which built on his earlier Transformation of Virginia. Isaac had documents for Carter—most notably his diary—and he also knew the contents of Carter’s library. He wanted to reconstruct Carter’s interior life, which he saw as deeply rooted in his social environment. So, it wasn’t enough to take Carter at his word when he wrote about his disrespectful daughter or his unruly slaves. Isaac interrogated his sources, interpreting them in the larger context of his relations with his family, slaves, and neighbors, thinking about those relationships both from Carter’s perspective and from those of these other people. That obviously required some informed speculation insofar as enslaved people, for instance, didn’t leave diaries recording their experiences with Landon Carter. Isaac was explicit about his method, but authors of the most interesting biographies often use comparable analytical strategies.

MJM: What is a biography? I have used the term (and a clunky one) biographically-oriented to encompass a range of historical narratives that set a person at the center but then work with that person’s life in different ways. Can I persuade you to define biography or put some clear bounds on where biography ends and other modes of narration begin?

CK: A good place to start is the basic dictionary definition of biography, which is a “life story.” The “story” part is the narrative, which typically starts with a birth and ends with a death, though some authors will begin with some background family history and end with a discussion, if appropriate, of posthumous historical memory. The “life” part refers to the idea that, while other people are certainly part of the larger story, it focuses mainly on a specific protagonist whose life is either inherently interesting or offers a window onto the time and place she inhabited—ideally both.

I think your idea of biography putting a person at the center and “work[ing] with that person’s life in different ways” is fine, if a bit abstract. Concrete examples of two very different books that do that sort of thing might be Charlene Boyer Lewis’s Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. Boyer Lewis uses Bonaparte’s life story, and stunning descriptions of the fashionable world in which she moved, to illuminate the highly gendered culture of celebrity in the early American republic. Greenblatt, too, is interested in exteriors—the sights, sounds, and smells of Shakespeare’s London—but his most important contribution is his innovative attempt to reconstruct the young Shakespeare’s interior life. Both books are about self-fashioning, which is an important topic for biographers, but they approach that process very differently.

MJM: In this context, I cannot resist bringing attention to your first book: Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790. That book focuses on people with some biographical touches; it is almost a multigenerational biography. Traders and Gentlefolk is also very much about their world. I could imagine a different subtitle: “The World of the Livingstons of New York.” Could I ask you to reflect on the choices you made in terms of researching and writing of that book?

CK: Traders and Gentlefolk was a revised version of my dissertation, and I approached the project as a social historian. It was a family study, in many ways analogous to a community study, and I think that shows. The story of my community—the Livingstons—was one about building a business based on land, trade, and eventually also manufacturing, as well as the political and social connections that family members cultivated and, then, how all that played out during the revolutionary era. Although the book is about a lot of people, four generations in all, most of them move in and out of the story according to how much (or how little) they fit into those overarching themes. So, it’s not a biography, or even a group biography, because I don’t really follow members of the family from childhood to grave. Also, I pay much more attention to their external actions than to what drives them internally, aside from a generic desire for wealth and certain sorts of power. While I don’t think that biography necessarily must focus entirely on interiority, conveying some sense of it should be part of the biographical process.

Most family studies that I can think of are not biographies and their authors did not conceive them as such. Family studies tend to have a much clearer and more specific analytical thesis than biographies, which mostly aim to persuade their readers that their subject is interesting and important. That being said, one notable unusually biographical family study is Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello. Gordon-Reed follows her characters throughout their lives and she conveys a sense of their personalities and how and why they responded to various constraints and opportunities they encountered in Virginia, France, and elsewhere. The Hemingses come alive in her book in a way that the Livingstons never do in mine.

This comparison between my book and Gordon-Reed’s brings us back to two central themes in our discussion: how more experienced and accomplished historians are more likely to produce popularly accessible biographical work that is also important scholarship and how having fewer documents can actually be oddly liberating. Gordon-Reed’s book is so great in part because she is such a good historian and excels at interpreting sparse evidence about the Hemingses—though, of course, she had plenty of material about Jefferson.

MJM: We do return to mission improbable—i.e., a researcher and writer just starting out tackling biography with skill and authority. I am not ready to cede the biographical field to a more seasoned cohort of scholars, but I will admit that these reflections on the practice of research and writing suggests that it will take an accomplished junior scholar to write excellent biography.

Cynthia A Kierner is Professor of History at George Mason University and the author of several books, including Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times and, the tentatively titled, “Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from Jamestown to Johnstown” (forthcoming, 2019).

Michael J. McGandy is senior editor and editorial director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press.


Superb discussion, great eye for innovations.
Ken Lockridge  •  November 06, 2018

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