June 17, 2013
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This last few weeks has been all about reading Washington biographies. Not the whole things mind you, and not a total list (close to 400 by one good count), but rather a wonderfully selective handling of the earliest pages from about 70 tomes. I am only interested in how the childhood years are handled, and a few crucial moments later on depending on the book. I mostly took photos of the 30 some odd pages I needed from about four libraries’ collections. That allowed me to sit in relative peace and read with headphones on and hot chocolate at the ready. I arranged them chronologically and then waded in to what began as about 15, but amounted to 70 when I was done with the list. Some were penned by the famous names including Humphries, Marshall, Ramsay, Sparks, Bancroft, Irving, Lodge, Wilson, Hughes, Woodward, Fitzpatrick, Freeman, Flexner and the newer ones as well.
A portrait of Washington Irving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But add to those the more understandably forgettable players such as Wister, Whipple, Hill (twice for the love of Pete!) Thayer, Norwood, and the inexplicable Randall. Of course I also dealt with the fabulists like Weems, Lossing, and the producers of a very odd early 20c genre that created a fictionalized childhood complete with dialogue, all adorned quotation marks. I have more to do before I am ready to finish off the chapter this research supports, but here are some early freebie observations. So much of this is by and large a crap literature. It is derivative, slapdash, and deeply canonical. It all hangs on certain set piece moments (that is what the chapter is arguing) and each of those takes on lives of their own. What is worse, they are desiccated moments—received concerns that even the authors have a hard time getting worked up over. It is a smug literature, filled with a cloying self-satisfied air enabled by the need to navigate “fact” and “fiction.” Nothing makes the historian, or worse, the biographer, more odious or more slap worthy than when they are self-congratulating over their ability to be wiser than those who have repeated “myths” whereas “I” have the real truth at hand. This is made worse—or perhaps made humorous and therefore made this work fun, (read ‘doable’) –by the fact that no sooner does a biographer snark over a myth here and a fable there, than they simply repeat some other cherished canard uncritically. It really is quite remarkable to see unfold over time. It has made me all the more committed to not debunking but discussing.