Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Biography, and the eternal fascination of learning about people

I wasn't well today and stayed home. In the midst of rests I spent some time filling in a few gaps on my history of New England. I have decided to try to complete at least a first rough draft by the end of the year.

I have always loved a well written biography. I like the way they bring a person's life alive, providing us with a window into another world. This is not a post about biography, more my changing attitudes to the craft.

When I first came across biographies in an Australian context, I found them like a still photo, flat and without real emotion. Later I re-read some of these and found them interesting, but by then I had a context and was interested in that.

Looking back, their core problem was lack of texture, the detail required to bring their subject alive as a person.

When I was doing my PhD thesis, a biography, there was a strong school among historians that said that biography was an inappropriate subject for a thesis. You had to write and surmise about things that could not necessarily be supported by the evidence.

To a degree, but only to a degree, they were right. To present a person you have to attempt to understand not just how they think, but also what they feel. To a degree, that's the province of fiction. Yet you can still present things in a way that your conclusions can be tested.

In writing about New England, I would love to have the capacity to bring the people alive as people outside their roles.

What was it like to be Annie Baxter who had an affair with Crown Land Commissioner Robert Massie? Was Annie a selfish person who placed her own needs first, or was she someone adrift in a new world where realities lay far outside her romantic sensibilities, trapped with an insensitive husband?

He could not have been all that insensitive. He destroyed only those sections of Annie's diaries relating to the affair. Yet he was a deeply troubled man who finally killed himself.

Robert Massie himself appears in the historical record because of his official reports. Yet he was clearly more than this. In the wording of some of his letters in trying to resolve land disputes he could be a modern public servant, part facilitator, part conciliator, part coercer. As an educated man, I suspect that he was also lonely, dreaming too of financial success.

Suicide, despair, illness, failure and accident litter the historical record along with success and even great happiness.

What was it like to be a women who lost eleven of her twelve children in sickness? What was it like to be an ill man who started the six day walk to find medical help only to stop half way through, returning to die?

You see what I mean?

The writing of history is necessarily selective. The issue is how to select, how to present.

The best histories are also good literature.

I should qualify that statement. Some brilliant and influential histories are far from literature. They are great because of the ideas they present.

This is not the type of history I want to write. I simply want to bring a slice of the past alive in a way that will interest, even enthral. But there's the rub. To do this requires not just good writing but also discipline, the capacity as necessary to write in bare bones, to say just what is required and no more. That's hard.

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