I have not always been interested in biographies. As a curator and historian, I look at biographies as pieces of the puzzle: the more biographies I read on a certain topic, the more I understand about that topic. A biography can be a collection of stories: a story of one person’s life; the stories include the life and times of people around the biographer; multiple perspectives on a topic are also included. But at the same time, a biography is a story about a person told by another person. I do not assume objectivity. I always assume subjectivity and agenda.
While it is true we can learn about a person through a biography, we can also learn about the times in which that person lived. Themes illuminated in the last post by John Drabinski included, for example, baseball. When browsing a local bookstore, there are hundreds of options: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, and John Adams. There are hundreds of other options for memoirs or autobiographies: Going Rogue by Sarah Palin, True Compass by Edward Kennedy and Read My Pins by Madeline Albright are the most recent and most talked about. In many of these cases, the popularity and public appeal is based on the media frenzy associated with the person behind the biography. Alas, these are also subjective.
Subjectivity is not a bad thing in biographies, we just have to remind ourselves of the subjectivity.
While I even enjoy biographies outside of work (biographies are historical in many ways), I sometimes find something missing in a biography.
What I miss is the biography of the everyday life. I was recently asked to write a manual for users of a curatorial database. While 99% of me wanted to start off the manual with “Drink many cups of coffee, as you will likely require the caffeine to get through the first several hours of the database,” I, instead, found myself diving directly into the generic directions of database usage. Would it not be most helpful to discuss the day-to-day requirements (of caffeine and concentration), the missteps, the software crashes, and the phone call interruptions? I feel like this provides insight into reality, or a more real depiction.
A collection of oral histories, for example, are autobiographies and biographies. Oral histories contain both stories of the person who is talking about themselves, often answering questions like, where were you born, what was it like growing up, and what was your first job. However, oral histories also contain biographies, or accounts of the people associated with the oral history topic. An elderly man discussing the history of his family will often tell stories of how he and his friends walked to school or work, or what areas they skated in the winter. Those are not only stories about themselves, but also of others. We learn tidbits of all the people in the history.
Oral histories, however, must be put into historical context in order to be better understood. Recently, a woman told me a story of how she was walking home from her job in downtown Holyoke as a waitress. As she was strolling along the river, she leaned over for a better view and her pay (silver dollars) fell into the river. It was at that point, she said, that she understood what it was like to need and appreciate money. We cannot understand this story better until we know that this occurred during the 1930s depression when anyone who had a job was not only lucky but extremely conservative in how they spent money. In her case it was just gone.
Sometimes I think about what historians’ jobs would be like if everyone wrote an autobiography or everyone had a biography written about them. The amount of information to sort through, analyze and put into context would be a phenomenal task: and yet I love the concept of that challenge.
While Drabinski challenges us to think about biography as a chasm “caught between the compulsion to tell stories and give insight into life AND the crazy abyss that lies between what we know about ourselves and others” I rather think that a biography can also be the grey area between what we know about ourselves and what others know of us. When I think of those differences, I, myself, want to write a book that combines biography and autobiography – a kind of nonfictional account of the escapades of a local historian. What do people have to say about work I have done? Changes I have made? Daring adventures in the archives? And what would I have to say about those same questions? The differences in perspectives would be so interesting.
In my case, I would call it “The Life and Times of Your Local Rambling Historian.”