J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Michiko’s Choice

As I wrote yesterday, in his recent Inventing George Washington, Edward G. Lengel contrasted the two major biographies of Washington published in the mid-1900s, finding Freeman’s to be careful but dry and Flexner’s lively but tacitly fictionalized.

New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani recently criticized Lengel for such judgments:

Mr. Lengel has a reductive either-or mind-set when it comes to biographical treatments of Washington’s life, suggesting that on the one hand, there are dry, factual accounts, which lack “the glue of imagination and inspiration,” and, on the other, colorful, popular portraits by the likes of Parson [Mason] Weems, who created narratives filled with dubious anecdotes — like the famous cherry tree story and the Indian prophecy that Washington would never be killed by a bullet — which probably originated in popular oral legends, hearsay or “in Weems’s own imagination.”

However false Weems-like anecdotes might be, Mr. Lengel argues, they “lent to Washington a degree of vibrancy and three-dimensionality that he might otherwise have lost,” whereas more serious scholars, in his view, took “the fun out of Washington and transformed him into a plate of cold fish.” This is absurd: just as it’s irresponsible for a historian to rationalize fantasy-based portraits of a historical figure because they make the individual accessible to the masses, so is it myopic to insinuate that accuracy and compelling writing are somehow mutually exclusive — as absorbing works like Mr. [Joseph] Ellis’s books on the founding fathers have made very clear.
In addition to Ellis’s His Excellency (2004) on the first President, Kakutani also recommended Ron Chernow’s “prodigiously researched” Washington: A Life (2010). Her review suggests that both refute Lengel’s supposed claim that we have to choose between dry factual rigor and vivid portraiture.

But how does Kakutani judge what biographies are accurate? She studied literature, not Revolutionary history, and worked as a reporter before becoming a regular reviewer for the Times. As I noted back here, Chernow is one of the authors who, following Flexner, wrote that Washington deliberately spread disinformation about his army having 1,800 barrels of gunpowder—which turns out to be one of those “dubious anecdotes.”

The Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker about Washington: A Life:
Chernow’s aim is to make of Washington something other than a “lifeless waxwork,” an “impossibly stiff and wooden figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human.” That has been the aim of every Washington biographer, and none of them have achieved it. . . .

Chernow…thinks a whole lot differently about feeling and understanding than Washington did—and that, right there, is the problem. “Washington: A Life” is a prodigious biography, expertly narrated and full of remarkable detail. But it is a psychological profile of a man who lived and died long before our psychological age, a romantic portrait of a man who was not a Romantic…
In contrast, that same magazine’s reporter Hendrick Hertzberg recommended Washington: A Life as “as history, as epic, and, not least, as entertainment.” There seems to be a divide between biographies that academic historians trust, often full of doubt and elision, and those that journalists admire.

Joseph Ellis is, like Lepore, a full-time academic historian of stature. Nonetheless, his methodology is much like Flexner’s and Chernow’s: assembling vivid psychological portraits and compelling narratives by starting from primary sources and adding a lot of sympathetic imagination. In Past Imperfect fellow historian Peter Charles Hoffer suggested that Ellis habitually goes too far in describing what the founders thought and felt, going “places where only a conjurer might safely peer.”

Still, the results of that method are delightful. It’s no surprise that many of the most popular Revolutionary histories and biographies of recent years come from people who trained as journalists: Chernow, Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, and so on. Like academic historians, those authors dig into the available sources, primary and secondary and often documentary. However, their training is to come back with the story, not just the facts and questions. They strive to make the people of the past come to life—as we recognize it today. In contrast, many historians want to remind us of the difficulties, perhaps the impossibilities, of doing just that.

I think Lengel is more accurate than Kakutani can recognize. There is a trade-off between a completely accurate portrait and a completely compelling one. We prefer to relate to the people we read about, even if those people should be really hard for us twenty-first-century readers to relate to. We prefer well-structured narratives with strong protagonists despite how—and probably precisely because—real lives don’t work like that.

TOMORROW: What Washington really did about the gunpowder shortage.


John L. Smith said...

Both historians and historical authors such as McCullough, Ellis and Doris Kearns Goodwin mention that to add some human interest to a particular chapter or story, they take some aspect of an episode (such as the recorded weather on that particular day) and they create a scenario and dialog by the participants to accompany the story, implying that the situation took place as written. I think any reader, if truely interested in historical accuracy, must be able to identify or even forgive the authors for doing so. But always - let the reader beware!

J. L. Bell said...

I think both approaches have strengths and value, but we readers have to be aware (or beware) of the limits or pitfalls of whatever approach an author chooses.

Unknown said...

Inventing stuff and passing it off as nonfiction is called "lying."

Surely the facts we know, the anecdotes that have been documented, the very words of people are enough for a good writer to work with. Having just read the Chernow, I can tell you that it wouldn't have lost anything if Chernow had just ditched the unattributed adjectives.

As a journalist, I can attest that the facts written well are just as exciting as editorializing.

Shame on all the so-called "academic historians" who make stuff up. I get enough of fabrications from Fox so-called "News."

Unknown said...

Embellishing nonfiction in the name of entertainment is called "lying." Surely, the documented and attributed facts, descriptions, and quotes are just as exciting as the weak adjectives that made me cringe in the otherwise exception Chernow book.

JL Bell proves the point every day with his superb writing.

Let's stick to facts, guys, or stop calling yourselves historians.

Charles Bahne said...

I seem to recall that Joseph Ellis got in some extremely serious trouble for, shall we say, "exaggerating" the truth a few years back. Am I correct on that? Is that the same person? If so, then why is he considered an "academic historian of stature"? If what I recall is correct, he seems to have started with the "imagination" and the "conjuring" and let it run until the story he created was at variance with the truth. If that's the case, why should we trust anything he says?

Mr Punch said...

A complicating factor is that many of these "biographies" are actually about "image," especially in Washington's case -- "Inventing GW," "GW Man and Monument" etc. Or, as in the Chernow case, they play off the received image.

J. L. Bell said...

Ellis was detected to be embellishing his life story a few years back, claiming in talks and interviews to have been more involved in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement than he really was. His employer, Mount Holyoke College, sanctioned him, and his reputation suffered.

In Past Imperfect, Peter Charles Hoffer linked Ellis’s personal falsehoods with his historiographical method, both of which involve creating vivid scenes that resonate with their audiences based on limited evidence (or, in the case of the personal claims, none).

Ellis hasn’t been found to have ever falsified U.S. history the same way as his own history, however. Historians disagree with his approach and emphases, and his topics have become less daring over the years, but he starts from solid evidence.

Ellis has won some of the top awards in the profession, including the Pulitzer Prize. I particularly like his book Passionate Sage, about John Adams after his presidency. However, he wrote that one before he started reaching a mass audience.