Thursday, August 28, 2008

Writing Civil War Lives. . .

R.W. Emerson once famously quipped that "All History is Biography."
For those who visit this blog regularly, you know that I have a particular fondness for biography. I've always been more interested in the lives of the Civil War's military and political figures (especially those largely ignored, overlooked, or forgotten), than in the war's grand campaigns and great battles. And over the past two years, I have posted numerous short bio-pieces on various commanders, usually the somewhat obscure. (Take most recently, Hector Tyndale and N.J.T. Dana).
But it seems to me that writing biographies is somewhat tricky. All too often, and I am guilty of this as well, it appears as though the old adage is true: that biographies are just "one d----d thing after another," i.e. birth, childhood, career, death. Perhaps there is no other way around it. So, before embarking on my long-planned biography of a certain Civil War general (and my regular readers know who I am referring to), I thought I would seek some input. . . .
What makes for a good biography? What is it you like to see covered in someone's life story? What was the best Civil War biography you have ever read? The worst? What makes these works memorable, good or bad? What approaches to writing biographies work, and which do not?
Any and all feedback will be most appreciated.

6 comments:

Harry said...

John,

Joe Harsh once told me that "biography is the lowest form of history", and in many ways I believe that to be true. But it's damn fun at the same time. Here's what I find are problems with most Civil War biographies, particularly the most popular ones:

1) Failure to spend enough time on the pre-war lives. I think it's impossible to understand these men and their actions if you don't first have an understanding of how they were formed.

2) The tendency to work backwards from a diagnosis. "Gen. X was afraid to risk failure, or he was an egomaniac, or a moral coward" is set out as a given, then events are highlighted and colored to fit or prove the diagnosis. While as an Antietam ranger I'm sure you can think of at least one example of this, I've also seen it in Symonds' biography of Joe Johnston, where Joe's guarding of his reputation and jealousy of Lee is often referred to as fact, with little to support the assertions but Mary Chesnut "diary" (and I use that world loosely) entries.

3) Failure to examine the post-war lives (if they had one). Let's face it, the civil war was at most 4 years of their life.

Well, there are three what I view as pitfalls of biography. Add to those the obvious ones of becoming and advocate or antagonist. Hope that helps!

Harry

John David Hoptak said...

Hi Harry. . .
Thanks for the feedback. I am sorry to hear that Mr. Harsh has such a low opinion of biography. . .
I agree with your points; the war consumed just four years of these people's lives, so a bio that focuses on just those years is incredibly lacking. And biographers must not set out solely to paint a hero's or villain's portrait.
What I hope to do with my proposed bio is to tell one individual's life and it's reflection of mid-nineteenth century America.

John

mannie said...

John,

Look toward Steven Sears as an example.


And then don't write like him.

Mannie

~ Lindy ~ said...

for me....
i like learning what MAKES the man or woman who they are. WHY they do (or did) what they did. it seems to me that if i learn what inspired or motivated certain people, then from reading their biography, i too may learn or catch a glimpse of that same inspiration (or the opposite). i want to LEARN and so a well written biography, for me, will delve deeply into the real 'person', not just their activities or accomplishments....you know? just my thoughts :) Lindy

Anonymous said...

I like biographies that contain a lot of quotations by the subjects contemporaries. That is sometimes tough to obtain depending on the relative obscurity of the subject. Hal Bridges book on DH Hill's civil war career is an example where lots of quotations are used.

Anonymous said...

I am not a historian or writer, but as a voracious reader, I truly enjoy learning about a person when their personal/inner circles are illuminated along with career-related information--family, personal trials and tribulations, friends, hobbies and interests, and even information about their descendents. I enjoy your blog very much.