"It's Not You, Stonewall, It's Me" by Wallace Hettle on History News Network here ponders the biographer's relationship to his subject in a whimsical way. What if you just find out you don't like your subject? This could be a problem, and many have asked me how it was that I made such a good friend of William Temple Hornaday, who has generally been described by historians as an argumentative, vain, whackjob who did far more damage than good. Moreover, he was a racist who panned every non-anglo race he encountered. His comments about the Irish really got my blood boiling. On the other hand, I found him very interesting, and, on many subjects, quite funny. There certainly was not a lack of material in his thousands of pages of letters at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Library of Congress. And, in some ways, I think he had a better plan for the conservation movement. I never remotely considered dropping him as a subject.
"No Biographer Could Possibly Guess the Important Fact About My Life in the Late Summer of 1926" on Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Blog here takes a quote by Virginia Woolf to demonstrate that there is a limitation to biography. Namely, we cannot know all about our subjects, particularly what goes on deep in the recesses of their mind. This was especially true of Chester Arthur, the subject of my first biography. He burned nearly all his correspondence, and his shady record has left room recently for conspiracy theorists to consider that he was not even an American citizen. There was one tantalizing letter among his papers that he received from Senator Roscoe Conkling. "A friend is at the Westminster," Conkling wrote in November 1880, "and it will be very agreeable to me if you will observe the fact promptly." (Chester Alan Arthur Papers, Library of Congress). The wording is curious and one ponders its meaning. This is only one of the many mysteries of Chester Arthur's life, and sits in that gray area just beyond the biographer's reach.
"Driving the Dissertation" by Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt on The Junto here ponders the utility of going where your subject has been. Francis Parkman pioneered this method of historical inquiry over 150 years ago. In Barack Obama: The Story, David Maraniss (which I commented on here ) literally traced the footsteps of the future president, as well as those of his parents and grandparents. Maraniss saw the landscape and interviewed many who knew or met one of his cast of characters. Reichardt drove through Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wester Virginia studying 18th century traveling routes. Of course, much has changed in the intervening centuries, but she felt that this trip did increase her understanding of her subject. I never followed Hornaday's path, which lies closer to Maraniss in time, but perhaps closer to Reichardt in historical space. By this I mean that there was little of what he actually saw left to see. I did see the Bronx Zoo, but none of the other places Hornaday set foot. The Iowa farm and Stamford home are both gone. Perhaps I could have gone to Iowa State University at Ames, but that seemed tangental and beyond my limited means, especially in the dissertation days. Trips to India and Borneo were so far out of the question that they did not enter my mind until just now. Besides, I don't think I need to get malaria in Asia to understand how crippling multiple fevers were to a young Hornaday as he stumbled through the forests of India on a quest for elephants. Perhaps in my next subject I will make a greater effort to visit the sites.