The Mom Problem for Biographers

It’s Mother’s Day.  People wish their mothers a happy day, remember mothers now gone, and say much about what their mothers have meant to them and the role their mothers have played in their lives.  Of course, in some cases what one thinks privately may not be what one expresses publicly, and what may be the case may prove more complicated than anyone would like to admit.

The fact remains that we profess to believe that mothers are important (and that the absence of a mother is also important).  How, then, does a biographer deal with the Mom problem?  That is, how do biographers deal with the relationship between mothers and children when one of those children is the subject of the biography?

(How we deal with biographical subjects as parents is also a good topic, but one topic at a time.)

Take some snapshot examples.  There’s evidence that Abraham Lincoln wondered about the origins of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and that it troubled him as to whether she was born in wedlock.  Lincoln reportedly had a warm relationship with his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, although there are few reports of the adult Lincoln having that much to do with his stepmother on a recurring basis.  However, he had a better relationship with her than with his father, Thomas Lincoln.  I suspect that relationship tells us much about how Lincoln was as a father (overly indulgent and playful), but it is much more of a test to figure out how Lincoln’s life, character, and personality was shaped by having lost a mother about whom he knew little and having a stepmother who was capable of encouraging him in his quest to learn.

Or take Ulysses S. Grant.  We know Grant had a troubled relationship with his bombastic, manipulative father, and, like Lincoln, we see his reaction to it in how he was with his children, for he was supportive and indulgent.  But we know little of Hannah Grant other than she was reserved to the point of appearing cold, a woman who never seemed to show any emotion.  Yet Grant cried when he went to bury her in 1883, and said warm things about her.  Was one of the reasons he bonded so completely with Julia Dent Grant that Julia offered him the support and overt love that Hannah did not?  Or are we projecting what we thing parenting should be about in speculating in that fashion, especially as notions of parenting had changed over time?

Sometimes mothers have to play a major role in the absence of fathers.  In the case of Robert E. Lee, one can even speculate that he became something of a mother’s boy, for while Lee wrestled with the legacy of his father, his mother remained a presence in his life.  In contrast, after Charles Sherman died, his widow found it a bit too much to raise several of her children, including one unruly redhead nicknamed Cump: eventually Thomas Ewing Sr. took over as foster father, and, although he lived just down the street from his mother, William T. Sherman grew up in a different house … and eventually married his foster sister, which had all sorts of consequences professionally and personally for him.

One of the complaints I hear from some people about my work on Grant is that they feel I have not delved deeply enough into Grant’s private life, making him come alive for them (others disagree).  I once came across someone complaining that I had not spent enough time on Grant’s pre-1861 life.  I’m not sure what these folks want.  There are thirty-one volumes of Grant’s papers available: a single (and somewhat slim) volume covers his life up until Fort Sumter.  Many of the stories we come across about the young Grant come from the time after Grant became famous, and one has to treat them with some care.  As for Hannah Grant, there are in truth precious few stories about her, very little evidence about her relationship with her son, so any interpretation must be based on a great deal of speculation and creative thinking and very little upon actual evidence.  I’m not aware that anyone linked Grant’s attraction to Julia with his relationship with his mother, and we’d all have to admit that even that is something of a leap of faith, so why would anyone think that a responsible biographer would go further than that?  I have read biographies of Grant that have offered all sorts of speculations, and people claim that they have captured something in Grant, but that is testament to the author’s artistry and creativity and the reader’s uncritical desire to learn something private about the subject, because in many cases there simply isn’t a reasonable basis in fact for such speculation.  These speculations and desires tell us more about authors and readers than about subjects.

The fact is that most people offered very little in reflection about their parents in the nineteenth century, and this is especially true of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Sherman.  People rarely “opened up,” so to speak, especially about their parents in this pre-Freudian era.  Yes, mothers were supposed to form character and morals in their children, but that was more prescriptive than descriptive.  Here and there better evidence helps us reach sounder conclusions (as in the case of Robert Gould Shaw, for example).  Shaw’s letters are more suggestive of how he dealt with the pressures and expectations of his parents, especially when it came to abolition.  In my own work, I had far more evidence about how Henry Adams wrestled with the legacy of being an Adams (and with being the grandson of a president and the son of a leading political figure), so it was easier for me to write about those things with the reassurance that I was not simply fashioning something out of whole cloth.  Still, as to Henry’s relationship with his mother … that remains something of a challenge, although he also speculated on how his grandmother (Louisa Catherine Adams) may have affected him.

Still, the Mom problem remains.  We assume that mothers play a role in the lives of their children (having not written extensively on women, my experience in this regard is confined to male biographical subjects).  But what role does a specific mother play in the life of a biographical subject?  What evidence do we have about this in the nineteenth century?  How good is that evidence?  How far can a biographer go until we have to admit that what we are dealing with are reasonable guesses and assumptions … and little more?

Happy Mother’s Day.

5 thoughts on “The Mom Problem for Biographers

  1. TF Smith May 8, 2011 / 6:13 pm

    Great post, and very thought-provoking about how much of import in a subject’s life, even in a literate age, remains unknowable.

    The only thing I can offer would be a quick thought (courtesy of the my professors for women’s history and social history) would be how the various concepts of women’s roles and parenting – “republican motherhood,” for example – may have influenced the subject’s parent.

    DG Faust’s work on grief suggests some interesting avenues on the same question – how did the private grief expressed by Grant, for example, compare with the public grief? Same for the Lincolns’ over the boys vis a vis their public statements re the war dead…


    • Brooks D. Simpson May 8, 2011 / 7:18 pm

      There’s quite a debate on “prescriptive” versus “descriptive” in women’s history scholarship, including the concepts of separate spheres and republican motherhood. For example, I doubt Nancy Hanks was exposed to that literature. Nor do I see it in Hannah Grant. So the challenge would be seeing not who espoused these concepts to others, but how they were implemented in practice.

  2. TF Smith May 8, 2011 / 9:25 pm

    I’m sure you are correct re Hanks and Grant; it was just the example of a time-appropriate concept that came to mind, and of course was probably something to be considered along class lines as much as anything else.

    I’m fortunate that the eera I’m interested in is closer to the present by about a century…I can actually interview some of the individuals concerned, although that brings its own challenges.

    Thank you for the response.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011 / 10:10 am

      Actually, what I liked about your suggestion was that it reflected the need of biographers to use the literature out there about other things, including gender, women’s history, and so on. Some biographers write about their subject in a sealed box, unaware of these potential connections. One of my insights about Lincoln and Grant as parents is that most of us would concede that perhaps the most important influence on someone’s parenting style is how they were parented. So I see two boys with difficult relations with their fathers becoming indulgent fathers. Given how Lee had to deal with the legacy of his father, perhaps he was quite aware of that in dealing with his sons.

      Again, the male-male aspect of this is something to note: biographers as a rule are weaker on how mothers influence children, and how daughters are influenced, especially by mothers.

      • TF Smith May 10, 2011 / 5:03 pm

        Good point; I am thinking of biographies I have read recently and am thinking about how well (or not) the authors addressed the parenting/childhood issues of their subjects.


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