17 thoughts on “What Kind of Biography Would You Write?

  1. wgdavis January 21, 2012 / 12:19 pm

    Obviously a thorough understanding of the era in which the person lived would be a prerequisite before even starting the bio. Then a thorough research of primary documents and interviews with the individual if possible, and if not, then with the family of the individual, if for no other reason than to ferret out unknown documents and photographs. Of course acquiring the requisite permissions for use of and publishing of those documents and photographs is important as well.

    The research would also extend to the person’s immediate family [parents through children], and friends, coworkers, peers, superiors and subordinates in the professional realm. Again, acquiring permissions is important here.

    Once you’ve reached this point it is time to begin organizing and indexing your research. This included transcriptions of any recorded material. If you have a staff, such stuff can be data entered into a database so it can be easily summoned while writing. [So could the video and audio interviews. I imagine that sometimes it is easy to get carried away with what is said without listening carefully to voice inflections and watching body language, basically looking for and listening for ‘tells’.

    Placing the subject into the layers of context is critical, from early life and education/training, to professional life wherein the context of the times is critical, along with the immediate context of the person’s intimates [family, friends, peers including enemies], and finally the later years. As an afterword I’d define the individual’s legacy in terms of accomplishments, and impact on others, and on society and culture, and of course, history..

  2. Carl Schenker January 21, 2012 / 12:25 pm

    I would reread Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” and Massie’s “Peter the Great” and hope something rubbed off on me.

    I thought Chernow did a superb job of striking the balance between presenting AH’s personal life and presenting the milieu in which AH acted out his public role. By contrast, I thought McCullough’s “John Adams” was a little too heavy on the personal (like touring flower gardens in England) and too light on some of the public issues. I also liked Chernow’s transparency in identifying and discussing uncertainties in AH’s life — like when he was born and who his biological father was. Too often, it seems to me, authors take a position on one side of some point without ever telling their readers there is another side.

    I thought Massie was superb in setting the stage for Peter’s forays in the world — when Peter interacted with other historic figures, you learned a lot about the other figure as well.

    Then, I would brace myself against the prospect of “preempting” publications by others. Stanley Hirshon reported in the preface to his Sherman bio that several other Sherman bios appeared during his work, calling this “the academic equivalent of having the contents of a six-shooter slowly emptied into one’s body.”


  3. Margaret Blough January 21, 2012 / 12:25 pm

    I think it’s an awesome, and, at times, awful task to take on, especially in learning to avoid the two perils of either falling in love with your subject (as much as I respect Bud Robertson, he fell in love w/ Stonewall Jackson and ties himself in Gordian knots trying to put a good face on some of Stonewall’s treatment of others) or learning to passionately hate him (Grady McWhiney & Braxton Bragg come to mind).

  4. Rob Wick January 21, 2012 / 6:39 pm

    Pick a subject who actually left behind enough material to do a decent study. By the same token, someone who kept every document, or copy of a document, can get a bit maddening trying to separate what is important from the quotidian.


  5. John Foskett January 22, 2012 / 8:55 am

    I’d try to define the objective. Is it to focus closely on the subject’s role in his/her times and events? Or is to get as full an understanding as is possible of what actually motivated/drove the subject and of who he/she “really’ was? The first obviously is easier, or at least less likely to leave the author feeling that the mission is somehow incomplete. .I’m not convinced that either has been optimally done with Lee. Margaret’s point is well-taken, because it does seem that most biographers begin to identify a little too much with the subject. The Robertson book is painful to read at times for that reason, and not surprisingly was fodder for that awful charade that Maxwell and Turner put on the screen in “Gods and Generals”..

  6. Carl Schenker January 22, 2012 / 12:03 pm

    John —

    It seems to me that the primary mission should be to focus closely on the objectively knowable facts, the external reality, and secondarily on the unknowable inner reality of who the subject “really” was.

    In Grant’s case, for example, it is more impt to discover and report the drinking in which he engaged and its effects, if any, than to pronounce on whether he was an alcoholic (Longacre) or wasn’t (Simpson, I believe).

    If one goes about it the other way, it seems to me, biographer (and readers) can never really know whether conclusions about the supposed inner reality are correct and the biographer will end up being selective in presentation of the external realities so as to fit inherently fallible conclusions about the inner reality.

    [Brooks: Let me hasten to add that I am not suggesting your Grant bio suffers from such a blemish. You have 30 index entries about drinking, whereas Longacre pushes the alcoholism thesis to the forefront but has only 10 index entries.]

    That all said, I think a critical question in the biography of a Civil War figure such as Lee is what was the inner reality of the decision to renounce the Union (or, in Thomas’s case, to adhere to the Union). On that issue, the external reality is simple in comparison to the inner reality.


  7. Charles Lovejoy January 23, 2012 / 6:57 am

    A Biography of Sherman’s per-war life and career .

      • Charles Lovejoy January 23, 2012 / 3:35 pm

        I think a lot of his pre-war years are interesting. They give a look at in part made him what he was. I also find some of the history he was a part of like the Seminole Wars very interesting. And I know I’m in a minority on having an interest on the subject of Sherman’s pre-war life.

      • Carl Schenker January 24, 2012 / 6:45 am

        Thanks, Charles.

        I agree that Cump’s pre-war years were very interesting, though I’d focus more on his California days.

        Overalll, Sherman seems rather like Harry Flashman — popping up wherever something interesting was going on in his times.


        • Noma January 26, 2012 / 4:04 pm

          “Overalll, Sherman seems rather like Harry Flashman — popping up wherever something interesting was going on in his times.”

          I presume you must mean Sherman’s confirming the discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill. I just noticed that your comment is dated Jan 24 — the 163rd anniversary of the discovery of gold.

          Just one more comment, I just wanted to say that I haven’t seen anything better than Brooks Simpson’s “Sherman’s War” set of his letters to give an intimate portrait of Sherman at different points of his life. It’s a wonderful book.


          In terms of biography and letters, I find it fascinating how different military figures revealed themselves by the way in which they wrote to their wives. Sometimes the parallels are very amusing. Like Meade writing to his wife about how Grant had so much disdain for him, at the same time Grant was writing to his wife about how competent and knowledgeable Meade seemed to be.

          I’d like to see a book which collects (and comments on) correspondence between 4 soldiers and their wives.

          I think both Sherman and Theodore Lyman specifically told their wives to save their letters for posterity.

        • Carl Schenker January 27, 2012 / 6:35 am

          Noma —

          As you may know already, there is a published volume of letters from Sherman to his wife: “Home Letters of General Sherman.”

          The letters are full of political and military discussion. Mrs. Sherman was the daughter of the distinguished Thomas Ewing, senator and cabinet officer, so there was politics in her blood. Many of her letters to WTS are available on line via the website of the Archives of the University of Notre Dame.


        • Carl Schenker January 27, 2012 / 7:00 am

          Noma —

          Yes, Sherman on the scene when gold was discovered is one of the things I had in mind. But there is much else —

          Seminole Wars (as Charles noted).

          Picnic with Zachary Taylor shortly before his death.

          In San Francisco during the vigilante years.

          Running a southern military academy as secession occurred.

          Visiting Lincoln in the White House during 1861 inauguration week.

          Fighting at Bull Run and so many of the other pivotal battles, in a great loop –Bull Run to Shiloh to Vicksburg to Chattanooga to Atlanta to the sea and through the Carolinas to the Grand Review — from the beginning of the war to the end. I don’t know if any other officer quite matches the geometric elegance of that. (Of course, there was the setback of going insance along the way.)

          With Lincoln again (by accident) two weeks before the assassination.

          Witness in the Johnson impeachment trial (I believe).

          Important in the Indian wars.

          Important in railroad construction.

          Rcd a letter from Garfield’s assassin after his arrest, I believe. (Don’t know what it said.)

          Of course, he was not in Mexico with Lee, Grant, etc. and thought that would hold hiom back professionally. But, I suppose Harry Flashman’s CV is even more impressive.


          • Noma February 5, 2012 / 12:49 pm

            Okay, Carl — that is very amazing!


            Also, re Sherman’s letters to his wife — I actually read a great many of them in Brooks’s “Sherman’s War” compilation of letters. That is a big thing that inspired me to think of the topic of letters that generals write to their wives.

            Interactions between leaders (usually men) and their spouses (usually wives) is pretty interesting.

            In this context, I can’t help mentioning Maureen Dowd’s comparison between the Newt/Callista relationship and the Obama/Michelle relationship, in the NYT a couple days ago.


            Something along these lines — but with Civil War generals — would be fascinating.

  8. Carl Schenker January 26, 2012 / 9:58 am

    wgdavis wrote: “Obviously a thorough understanding of the era in which the person lived would be a prerequisite before even starting the bio.” I agree, of course.

    One thing that strikes me about the twenty years before the Civil War is that the country, and West Pointers in particular, were still “building out” the country — adding Texas, California, Oregon, etc. Thus, the United States was more plastic than it seems in our experience.

    I have often wondered how the “building out” phenomenon affected the West Pointers when it came time to make decisions in 1860-1861. Did people like Lee and Bragg who had helped expand the U.S. feel they could just as well subtract from it (more so than they otherwise would have)? Did people like Grant and Sherman feel a proprietor’s stake in what they had helped build up (in addition to other factors that aligned them with the Union)?

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen commentary on this exact point, though I imagine it’s out there somewhere. This is part of what I would try to look at in a bio of a Civil War figure.


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