Posts Tagged ‘Biographers International Organization’

Research Methods to Ignore

December 2, 2012 2 comments

I may be a History Nerd, but I proved today in spades that I am not the smartest researcher. I’m writing this from Minneapolis, where I’m gathering information for a new book. A few months ago back in my office, doing some preliminary research online, I became convinced that the Internet and the books I had found would not be enough—or at least “authentic” enough, whatever the hell I meant by that—so I planned a trip to the Twin Cities to dig into the primary sources.

Victoria Woodhull-- one helluva woman, at least until she moved to England and became respectable

Victoria Woodhull– one helluva woman, at least until she moved to England and became respectable

I’ve worked with primary sources before, of course. Back in college, I spent countless hours at the microfilm machine, poring over old Hartford Courants and government documents for papers on immigration, among other topics. For my first bio, on Madeleine Albright, done while she was still serving in the Clinton administration, I made requests to Colorado libraries for clippings about her father’s academic career, and trekked into NYC to look at her dissertation. (I tracked down a sibling too, hoping for an interview, but word had already come down from on high: No talking to the media. But it’s for a kids’ book I explained. Still no dice. So heartless.) Then there was the train trip from Chicago down to beautiful Carbondale, home of SIU, where I went through some of the paper of Victoria Woodhull, spiritualist, advocate of free love, first American to publish Marx’s Communist Manifesto in English, presidential candidate almost 40 years before all American women could vote (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate), first woman to crack the male-dominated world of Wall Street. The work was for a historical drama still unwritten.

So, I am no stranger to archival research, if not exactly a master of it, as some of my colleagues in BIO are. But I was not prepared for the sense of “WTF am I doing here?” that crept up through me as I approached the desk of the library at the Minnesota Historical Society (an aside—the facilities there, which include a history museum, are stunning. I am not a state historical society maven, but I would bet few states have something that rival what the North Star State has.)

Yes, despite my usual attention to detail and planning, I got there today—the only day I could go, since the library is closed on Sunday and Monday, something else I failed to explore in my usual OCD-like way—and I really didn’t know what I wanted. Thankfully, I knew there was one collection of research material there I couldn’t find anywhere else, and I blurted out its name.

OK, the librarian said, which box?

Which box? Now I really felt out of my element. I imagined all the BIO folks snickering a bit. I made a stab, wrote Box 4 on the slip, and waited for the staff to wheel out a box. My random choice wasn’t totally bad; I actually found some folders with some useful information. But before I could go through it all, I had to leave for a semi-hokey bus tour related to my subject. All right, BIO bastards, stop laughing. I know: Like you could get any useful information for a serious history book from a—bus tour! Well, I like to have an idea of the geography of places I’m writing about, and while the book is about all of Minnesota, a lot of the action takes place in St. Paul. So I headed to the Wabasha St. caves, not far from the Mississippi, and let myself be driven around and lectured to for two hours.

John Dillinger slept--and was almost killed--here, at this St. Paul apartment building.

John Dillinger slept–and was almost killed–here, at this St. Paul apartment building.

I doubt, though, that most people would call it a lecture. The tour guide was more about schtick, though there was some substance. And without that little excursion, I wouldn’t have learned about Summit Avenue, supposedly home to more Victorian mansions than any other street in the country and to authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.  And there were a few tidbits I heard along the way that might prove useful. I had been hoping for pictures that might be appropriate too, though that was a bust (the gray sky and fog didn’t help with that either).

The tour over, I went back to the historical society to finish going through my box. There was little useful left, but also not enough time to get another box, so I headed back to the hotel with only one brief detour—to buy some beer. I needed it.

Tomorrow, it’s back to the research, though this time to one of the libraries at the University of Minnesota. I doubt there will be boxes of material to comb through, but at least I can access old copies of the local newspapers that aren’t available online. Maybe. You see, I didn’t think through that part of this research adventure too well either. But that’s what makes it an adventure—and me less than a professional historian. But I will muddle through the book, and I’m sure it will be fine. And if all goes well, there may be another book on the same topic. So this time next year, look for the befuddled-looking guy stumbling around the Wisconsin Historical Society library.


All Bio, All the Time

May 9, 2012 2 comments

At least that’s how much of my life has felt the last week or so, as work has led me to write another biography of another president (I’ve lost track how many this is; suffice to say, I know more than I care to about a lot of presidents).

You mean I can’t mention the threesomes?

This is one is about the much-beloved and –reviled JFK. I’ve written one about him before, and plenty about his involvement in the Cold War. I started this round of research with Thomas Reeves’s A Question of Character. Reeves said he spent much of his life enamored with Kennedy, but as a professional historian he wanted to puncture the myth of Camelot and get at the true essence of the man. And as most historians now know, even if most Americans don’t, it’s not a pretty picture: Papa Joe’s spending to help buy influence (and votes), the Mafia ties, the philandering, the lies about his health (and about his authorship of a Pulitzer-Prize winning book), the drug use. You read this and think, “This is the caliber of person we elect to the most important political position in the world?” Of course, all presidents have flaws. But if the truth had been known about JFK in his lifetime, would he have been the 35th president? And could he have taken on the saint-like characteristics  that some still cherish today if not for his assassination?

Probably not. And no.

But my book, alas, will not delve too deeply into the sordid underbelly of American politics and this president’s life. Though I do hope to show the kids how a public image can be oh-so-artfully manufactured. Surely that has only become more relevant in the 50 years since Dallas.

My other biographical endeavor has a totally different angle. I belong to a group called Biographers International Organization (BIO), the only craft guild/support group for those scribes who attempt to document others’ lives for a living (not that more than a handful actually make a living at it). Last year, in my defunct blog, I chronicled my experience at the BIO national conference in Washington, DC. I was moderator of a panel on writing YA bios, got to meet lots of interesting writers, and developed the sense that what we biographers do is something special, if not always as impressive to others as what novelists or poets or reality-TV stars do.

I’ll be at this year’s conference too, an unexpected development thanks to my new role in helping put out BIO’s monthly newsletter. I wrote some of my first pieces for the May edition, and found it quite gratifying to research all things bio and then write about it for adult readers who share my passion for biographies in particular and reading/writing in general.

Here’s some of my first scribblings for The Complete Biographer, commenting on the release of Robert Caro’s fourth volume of his The Years of Lyndon Johnson:

Along with the recent praise for the book have been profiles of the author almost everywhere you turn: a long piece in Esquire, stories by CBS and NPR. Some of the attention for both book and author, one BIO member swears, is simply the media’s excitement over getting to use penultimate so often, since Caro plans one more book to close out Johnson’s life (due in two or three years). Yet even the casual fan of biographies can see something approaching heroic in a man devoting almost 40 years of his life to trying to capture the essence of such a towering political figure as Johnson.

Caro’s dedication to and skill at his craft was apparent at the 2011 Compleat Biographer conference. Winner of that year’s BIO Award, Caro delivered a keynote speech that addressed the importance of place in defining a subject’s character. He had immersed himself in the West Texas hill country of Johnson’s youth—just one part of the research that has made Caro so admired. But don’t, Esquire writer Chris Jones says, call Caro obsessive. The biographer told Jones, “That implies it’s something strange. This is reporting. This is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to turn every page.”

When The Years of Lyndon Johnson is done, readers will have turned several thousand book pages—and know Caro has turned every page in the former president’s life.

40 years. Thousands of pages. The LBJ bio does strike some as obsessive, but to biographers, Caro is a master of our craft: a dedicated researcher, a striking writer, a seeker of the truth—as much as any historical writing delivers “the” truth.

My book on Hooke, scientist and coffee addict…

My new BIO gig got me reflecting on biographies in general: Reading my first in elementary school, almost always of athletes. One of Sal “the Barber” Maglie has always stuck in my mind. Writing biographies, from the long list of presidents to Robert Hooke (about whom I knew nothing beforehand) to a graphic-novel treatment of the life of Muhammad Ali.

Plutarch; yeah, they’ll still be reading my bios in 2,000 years…

Thinking about the biographers through ages, especially Suetonius and Plutarch. Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars was the first history book on ancient Rome that I ever read. As to Plutarch, his Lives still reach us today, even if we don’t know it, since Shakespeare used him as a source for some of his historical plays. Then there are the ancient biographies of a guy who had some worldwide impact: Jesus Christ. You may have heard of him? Of course the writers of the Gospels were not exactly trained in the nuances of objective historical writing…

I find it interesting that the primary biography of the New Testament, along with Plutarch’s writing, were intended to show the lives of other to make moral statements. Biographies often try to show the goodness in others to inspire us, as we immerse ourselves in their courage and wisdom. And other times they are cautionary tales that warn of the dangers of hubris and roads taken that lead to perfidy.

Every life is a narrative. We all crave narratives to explore, whether our own or others. I may never be a Robert Caro, but when I write my 5,000-word, watered-down presidential bios, I still aspire to reach the standards set by the best practitioners of my craft. And give my readers a narrative that satisfies some deeper need.