Photo collage of Frederick Douglass

Past Imperfect: Lives in the Biographer’s Mirror

Author, historian, and journalist Tom Chaffin joins us Wednesday, March 13 to discuss his recent book Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary, which tells the tale of Douglass’s 1845-47 lecture tour of the British Isles, a journey that would prove pivotal to the growth of Douglass as an activist and international celebrity. This special program is presented in conjunction with our temporary exhibit Frederick Douglass: AGITATOR. To view the exhibit and attend Chaffin’s lecture, reserve your ticket here.

The following piece written by Chaffin first appeared on the New York Times Opinionator blog February 18, 2015. In it, Chaffin describes the challenges and benefits of writing biography, and what it takes to portray historical figures as accurately as possible while acknowledging the limits of perspective. Read on to learn more.

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“Life,” Soren Kierkegaard observed, “can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” At first glance, that observation would seem to accord biographers of departed souls an advantage denied their works’ subjects.

To wit, unlike memoirists, the author chronicling someone else’s life after it’s over enjoys the luxury of knowing how everything turned out, as well as the advantage of distance. It thus follows that once that biographer has completed the research and written the biography — Voilà ! — here is the life story captured between two hard-bound covers.

Would that it were that simple!

The problem begins with “the life story,” the notion that any life is reducible to a single tale. There is no “the life story.” All individual lives entail many stories, and the biographer must choose which to tell. Consider your own life: Ponder the most obvious milestones by which lives are parsed — graduations, new homes and cities, weddings, jobs, births and deaths, illnesses, memorable trips.

Do such events in your life truly trace all of the signal, dramatic turns — what screenwriters call the “plot points” — of that life? Think, too, about your own résumé or, for that matter, if you have one, your Facebook timeline. How useful a guide would those be for a biographer intending to comprehend your life? Do they fully record all of the key forces, people and events that have shaped your works and days?

After all, most public versions of a life elide intimacies, embarrassments and disappointments, as well as the seemingly trivial events — the chance encounters and random acts — that we later come to understand (in that aforementioned Kierkegaardian retrospect) to have presaged important turns in life.

When teaching, I advise aspiring biographers to seek out and make careful use of primary sources, and to be open to moments when those voices take them to places that violate preconceptions about their subject’s life. But I also warn of the mirage that a biography — or any book, for that matter — can cover every aspect of a subject. Even if the biography’s scope is cradle-to-grave, and the research is painstaking and seemingly comprehensive, “definitive” is at best a provisional title.

After all, assuming the given biography’s subject is of continuing public interest, the coming years are likely to yield new information about, and new interpretations of, that life, and a subsequent biography is bound to focus on aspects of the life now deemed unimportant but of interest to future readers. In other words, do the requisite research but, equally important, know when to stop digging; no writer can examine, or even know about, every extant, relevant document out there.

Like other writers who reject the axiom “write what you know,” I gravitate toward projects that explore milieus that I want to know better; or that offer Walter Mitty-like experiences otherwise denied to me. While writing a biography of the explorer John Frémont, I savored wandering through the California of the 1840s that he saw — the sublime landscapes, untainted by freeways, cellphone towers and urban sprawl. Similarly, research for my recent book “Giant’s Causeway,” which is focused on Frederick Douglass’s British Isles lecture tour of 1845-47, allowed me to spend time in the splendid company of a heroic but infinitely complex man too often rendered as a saintly stick figure.

All of my books draw extensively on primary sources, letters, newspaper reports, diaries and the like. And I pride myself on weighing the provenance of those materials and using them judiciously. Even so, as I’ve completed each of my books, I’ve grown increasingly aware that my narratives, like those of any biographer or historian, can impart only a version — the author’s version — of a life.

That recognition is alternately humbling and exalting: you’re constrained by what the sources do and don’t reveal; and you’re aware that you can never inhabit your quarry’s skin. But then again, though bound by those constraints, you are the spinner of the story being told — and they don’t call it the omniscient voice for nothing.

Such speculation often rebounds into knocks against narrative for being “inauthentic.” Critics charge that narrative, by imposing a beginning, middle and end — and attendant literary conventions (e.g. foreshadowing, plot, rising action, climax) — on an otherwise messy tangle of events, constitutes an intellectual flimflam. Narrative, it is charged, represents an epistemological stacking of the deck. Forcing facts and events into an Aristotelian formula yields an artificial version of the past.

Yes, narrative does yield an artificial version of the past. But what writing does not? All writing is, by its nature, artifice. All writing, even such nonnarrative works as research papers, entails stacking the deck — selecting words and the order of their presentation. And many subjects, more than often realized, if handled adroitly, can be conveyed in narrative form. Besides, isn’t narrative the favored mode of humankind, from time immemorial, for preserving accounts of the past?

Even so, no writer, even with unlimited time and resources, can ever retrieve the past or, for that matter, fully convey the present — except as a conceit of the imagination.

In “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Wallace Stevens writes of the limitations of the guitarist — of any artist — to fully represent any reality:

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

As legates, however imperfect, of the past, biographers and historians offer vicarious solaces: they quarry out accounts of lives and events that educate, entertain, disturb, fascinate, comfort, caution and inspire — and somehow make us feel less alone. But, as Stevens reminds us, artists, including biographers and other practitioners of narrative, “cannot bring a world quite round”— only, in the end, “patch it as I can.”

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Tom Chaffin is the author of seven books of history and biography, including the forthcoming Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship that Helped Forge Two Nations, to be published in 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. The work tells the story of the enduring relationship between the American Founding Father and the French aristocrat and how their collaborations helped to shape events associated with the American War of Independence and the French Revolution of 1789-1799. Chaffin presents his book Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary at the American Writers Museum on Wednesday, March 13 at 6:30 p.m. Get your tickets here!

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