Biography (American History Through Literature)
Between 1820 and 1870, authors and critics in the United States began to redefine the purposes and meanings of biography, a genre so popular that several magazines identified an American "biographical mania." Before 1820 Americans who discussed biography had divided into two camps. Most biographers and some critics recommended biography for promoting civic virtue among a rising generation and proclaiming America's republican experiment to the world. Other critics, but few American biographers, echoed the English critic Samuel Johnson: a subject's "character" was found in his "domestic privacies," not in the public deeds that republican ideology would highlight. After 1820 the links between biography and "character"he reader's and the subject'sere transformed in new cultural and critical contexts. A rapidly expanding print culture vastly increased the volume of biographical production, in forms ranging from books to paperbound tracts and periodical articles. At the same time, biography became a significant vehicle for narrating and interpreting the nation's history and particularly for contesting who merited inclusion in that history. By the Civil War era, American biographical critics were arguing that illuminating the subject's character artistically mattered more than providing models for readers to emulate, but few biographers followed their dictates.
Authors and critics had long celebrated biography's instructive power: the life of a worthy subject could encourage readers' imitation or inspire them to higher values and virtuous action. An emphasis on republican instruction was specific to the post-Revolutionary American context. Biographies of American notables between 1790 and 1820 emphasized subjects' civic virtueevotion to the nation above individual interest, simplicity of style in contrast to aristocratic pretension. Character was revealed on the public stage, whether the battlefield or the councils of state. As early as the 1820s, however, biography helped promulgate new definitions of character, particularly gendered notions associated with a rising northeastern middle class. An 1831 writer recommended that young people read "the lives of self made men" for "the several steps by which they arrived at eminent usefulness" (Civis, p. 281). Such biographies proliferated in several forms. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography became the model for the sketches in Henry Howe's collection Memoirs of the Most Eminent American Mechanics (1839) and similar works. Freeman Hunt's New York monthly, the Merchant's Magazine and Commercial Review, regularly ran brief lives of self-made merchants between 1839 and 1846 for the benefit of the thousands of young clerks thronging the metropolis in search of economic advancement. Whereas lives of merchants glorified commercial professions by suggesting that eminent businessmen retained an ethic of public service, biographical sketches of artisans offered a more ambiguous message. On the one hand, books such as Lives of Distinguished Shoemakers (1849) celebrated "manual toil as the true discipline of a man" (p. iii). On the other, they tended to share with merchant biographies an emphasis on self-education and self-making and took as subjects men who had left manual labor for more elevated intellectual or professional pursuits. The most famous American biographer of self-made men was William Makepeace Thayer, a former Congregational pastor whose books included The Poor Boy and Merchant Prince (an 1857 manual for young men that took lessons from the life of the manufacturing entrepreneur Amos Lawrence), The Bobbin Boy (1860, a life of the Massachusetts governor Nathaniel Banks), The Printer Boy; or, How Ben Franklin Made His Mark (1860), and The Pioneer Boy, and How He Became President (1863, about Abraham Lincoln).
Biographies of eminent women offered a range of cultural messages. The lives of women renowned for intellectual or literary achievement, such as Madame Germaine de Staël, empowered women readers to pursue their own intellectual development, often in reading groups or correspondence with other women. Numerous biographies told of women distinguished for benevolent work. Ann Haseltine Judson, a missionary to Burma, became more famous after her death than she had been in life thanks to a best-selling memoir by James D. Knowles and other biographies. Lives of Judson, Isabella Graham (who had founded charitable organizations through successful fund-raising), and kindred spirits provided models of heroic womanhood and authority in the public realm. In contrast, the popular biographies of European queens served largely to reinforce an ideology of domesticity: authors generally presented political power and femininity as incompatible and queens such as Elizabeth I as mannish perversions rather than figures to be admired.
For both men and women, religious biographyrobably the most widely disseminated category of biographies in nineteenth-century Americaimed to shape readers' character as Christians. Some religious biographies were the literary handiwork of the subjects' friends or ministers, who wanted to memorialize a person (often a woman) noted for piety; these books might be locally published or adopted by a regional or national publisher. Others were the product of religious tract societies or the American Sunday-School Union. These organizations reprinted biographies first published by English tract societies and published newly written lives of American subjects. Inverting biography's usual mission to "record the incidents connected with the life of some distinguished individual," many religious memoirs told the lives of little-known subjects, whose very typicality could serve as the best inspiration for similarly ordinary readers (Clark, p. 3). Biographical sketches of exemplary Christians also appeared frequently in religious magazines and newspapers.
Tract societies were the most prolific, but far from the only, organizations that employed biography to create and mobilize imagined communities of readers. For abolitionist societies and publishers, the testimony recorded in the pages of slave narratives was the harshest literary indictment of the South's "peculiar institution." Although narrative and biography differednarratives" tended to be first-person accounts of a series of adventures or experiences (such as Indian captivity narratives) rather than full life storieshe authors and publishers of slave narratives, most famously Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), capitalized on the power of individual experience that gave biography much of its appeal. Political parties, which developed their own networks of publishers and newspapers in the 1830s and 1840s, used biography to promote not only presidential candidates but also larger political and social ideologies. Democrats' biographers portrayed candidates whose industry had raised them to candidacy within the political party, an ostensibly democratic institution. Their Whig rivals, who argued that party loyalty forced men to sacrifice independent judgment, depicted Whig candidates as men above party, elevated to leadership by innate qualities. At the same time, biographers of both parties emphasized candidates' devotion to the Union, implying that the party system itself had become a bulwark of the republic and an institution of republican education for a rising generation of men.
INTERPRETING AMERICAN HISTORY
If the presentation of charactersnd different notions of "character"or readers' emulation and for the promotion of various collective identities was one major purpose of biography, the definition and elaboration of American history was the other. Through biography, American writers offered multiple interpretations of the nation's past. The first generation of American historical biographers, who included Jeremy Belknap (American Biography, 1794), John Marshall (The Life of George Washington, 1804807), and William Wirt (Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, 1817), all sought to tell the nation's story through individual lives. After 1820, as most states and even some localities founded historical societies, their successors emphasized the centrality of documentary research for historical scholarship. Jared Sparks (1789866), a former Unitarian minister and editor of the North American Review, became a leader among these mostly New England historians. Sparks argued for a clear distinction between "truth" (gleaned from research in written documents) and "tradition" (usually oral lore, passed down by subjects' descendants and acquaintances). Tradition, Sparks argued, had no place in serious historical or biographical writing.
The Library of American Biography, which Sparks edited in twenty-five volumes (1834848), revealed not only his ideas about the genre but also shifting visions of American history. As Sparks explained the project in his journal on 28 July 1832, "The purpose is to select some of the most prominent lives, from the first settlement of the country down to the present time. . . . The series will thus serve as in some degree a connected history of the country, as well as to illustrate the character and acts of some of the most illustrious men in the nation" (Adams 2:189). Sparks expected his authors to consult original sources but not to write biographies in the "life and letters" form replete with long documentary extracts. Instead he wanted easily readable narrative so that the volumes would sell. The first ten volumes (1834838) testified to the New England interpretation of American history dominant in the 1830s. Most of the authors in this "first series" of the Library were Harvard graduates like Sparks; the twenty-six subjects were predominantly New England figures, from Puritan times to the Revolutionary era and the early Republic. Many authors evinced a Unitarian, Whig bias: critical of Puritan theology and practice, troubled by Anglo-American (especially proto-Jacksonian) treatment of Native Americans, virtually silent about matters south of Pennsylvania. The second "series" (1844848) was different. Perhaps because historical societies now existed in southern and western states, Sparks engaged writers from across the nation, who wrote on subjects from every region. As a result these fifteen volumes told a different story, of a United States comprised of diverse local histories and individuals whose local or state eminence had contributed to building the nation.
By the 1840s too, other historical biographers used scholarly methods to challenge the narrative that Sparks and his New England compatriots had built. Some writers sought to broaden the range of biographical subjects. The New York historian William Leete Stone (1792844) wrote biographies of the Iroquois leaders Joseph Brant (1838) and Red-Jacket (1841), traveling as far as Montreal and Quebec for documents and employing an early form of ethnography in describing Native American customs and family structures. Stone argued that Anglo-American historians, and even the public documents in which they might seek "truth," distorted the true history of Native Americans. As a corrective, he published long extracts from Brant's own manuscripts. He also compared his method to those employed in John Marshall's Life of Washington, Thomas Moore's Life of Byron, and John Gibson Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scottlacing Native American subjects within an Anglo-American biographical tradition. To write the three-volume Women of the American Revolution (1848850), Elizabeth F. Ellet (1812877) collected documentary records of her subjects but found that women's contributions had often gone unrecorded in writing. Therefore she turned to descendants of her potential subjects for information, even as she recognized the difficulties of substantiating their family "traditions." Ellet aimed to elevate the Revolutionary-era women through the medium of historical biography and to connect two literary worlds: scholarly historical writing, often perceived as men's domain, and domestic literature that focused on women's struggles and influence.
Southern biographers of the 1840s and 1850s went further, not merely proposing additions to the national pantheon but arguing that the surfeit of New England biography skewed Americans' comprehension of the national past. William Gilmore Simms (1806870), the foremost southern writer and editor, penned lives of Francis Marion and other South Carolinians and pungent biographical criticism in his Southern Quarterly Review. Southerners' historical indifference, Simms lamented, had ceded the field: "Our histories are slurred over by Yankee historians, the most important truths suppressed; our heroes receive but cold applause. Shall the warm and generous nature owe the record of its virtues, its uncalculating patriotism, its noble self-sacrifice, its oratory or its valor to the cold and frigid biographies of the unsympathising bigot of another and a too hostile region?" (p. 197). Sectional lines also emerged in the response to New Yorker Henry Stephens Randall's sympathetic Life of Thomas Jefferson (1857858): southern reviewers embraced this biography of their native son, while northern critics faulted Randall's Democratic bias and even his writing style.
In the mid-1850s Herman Melville (1819891) employed another genreictionalized personal narrativeo criticize Sparksian biography. In 1853 Melville had commented on biography in his short story "Bartleby," whose narrator laments, "I believe that no materials exist, for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. . . . Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small" (p. 3). Israel Potter, a veteran of the battle of Bunker Hill who became a London chair maker and dictated his life story to a Providence printer, had left more. Melville used Potter's 1824 "narrative" as the basis for Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855). Dedicating the book to "His Highness the Bunker-Hill Monument," Melville wrote that ordinary men like Potter were missing from "the volumes of Sparks." The monument, he argued, was truly America's "Great Biographer: the national commemorator of such of the anonymous privates of June 17, 1775, who may never have received other requital than the solid reward of your granite" (pp. 3). Even if Israel Potter was largely Melville's invention, the novelist echoed the questions that Stone, Ellet, Simms, and other contemporaries were asking: whose life stories biography ought to capture, and whether an insistence on documentary evidence excised some Americans from their rightful place in history.
DEFINING BIOGRAPHY AS "LITERATURE"
In the 1840s and 1850s, critics in several American literary magazines argued that most biographies were defective as literature. Their criticism, derived from English Romantic arguments, imagined biography differently than did most Americans who wrote and read in the genre. To authors and readers, biography was either a didactic instrument of character formation or a branch of history. When earlier American critics had discussed the literary properties of biography, they had emphasized its distinction from the novel: biography offered rational, instructive amusement that fiction did not. Historians in Sparks's vein emphasized the quest for documentary truth more than any literary rules for presenting subjects' character. Few Americans wrote literary biography, the lives of American authors, in the vein of Lockhart's Life of Scott. But after 1840 literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic increasingly took issue with biographical practice.
Several of their complaints seem at first glance contradictory. On the one hand, critics defended the privacy of the subject against the prurient curiosity of the reader or the hack biographer. On the other, they faulted biographers for lapsing into eulogy that told too little of the subject, a lament that dated back to the eighteenth century. Romantic critics of biography offered another path, founded on different definitions of "truth" and "character." Truth now meant "truth to life": a sense of the subject's individuality. Only a biographer who wrote con amore phrase also used to describe the true poet's relationship to his subjectould capture what critics now called the "inner man." As Thomas Carlyle wrote and many American critics echoed,
If an individual is really of consequence enough to have his life and character recorded for public remembrance, . . . the public ought to be made acquainted with all the inward springs and relations of his character. . . . In one word, what and how produced was the effect of society on him? and what and how produced was his effect on society?" (Quoted in "A Biographer at Work," p. 222)
The biographer's responsibility lay in interpretation, not merely the collection of documentation or anecdote. English and American critics of the 1850s defined biography writing as literary artistry that required craftsmanship in arranging materials, vivid depiction of character and scene, and appreciation of the subject's character and accomplishment.
James Parton (1822891), a New York journalist for Nathaniel Parker Willis's Home Journal, did not immediately seem the sort of writer to meet the critics' standards. His first biography, The Life of Horace Greeley, which appeared in 1855 (a year before he married the novelist and fellow journalist Sara Payson Willis Eldredge, known to readers as "Fanny Fern"), displayed literary talent but resembled the myriad lives of self-made men written for aspiring youth. His second, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr (1857), became the most controversial biography of the 1850s: critics divided over whether Parton's brisk narrative presented a balanced portrait of a still-mysterious character or palliated the faults of a bad man in order to sell books. Parton's three-volume Life of Andrew Jackson (1860) established his reputation as America's premier biographerndeed, the first American author known as a biographer. The hallmarks of his style included deep research in documentary and published sources (the Life of Jackson opened with a thirteen-page annotated bibliography) and animated prose that owed something to his journalistic roots.
Several critics noted that Parton pioneered an approach appropriate to telling an American life story. They suggested, too, that Parton wrote con amore, seeking the "inner man" as Romantic critics prescribed. This approach was most evident in Parton's long, interpretive articles on notable American politicians and entrepreneurs of the previous generation, which appeared in the venerable North American Review in the mid-1860s. At the same time, Parton's fame as a biographer afforded opportunities to write in other corners of the genre. For Robert Bonner's New York Ledger, he wrote brief, often didactic articles about famous men and women. He continued his career in American historical biography with a two-volume life of Benjamin Franklin (1864). He also capitalized on the fascination with Civil War commanders with General Butler in New Orleans (1863), a book not unlike the emerging "dime biographies" of contemporary figures published by the dime-novel publishers Beadle and Adams.
After the Civil War, biography in the United States remained as diverse as it had been for the previous half century. Critics might desire works of liter-ary polish and interpretive depth, but far more biographies adhered to familiar formulas. Didactic works continued to target aspiring self-made men and religious strivers, political parties still produced biographies of presidential candidates, and historians wrote the "lives and times" of historical figures. Beginning in the late 1860s, subscription publishing companies promoted several new sorts of biographical production, all with antebellum roots. Thick compendia of brief life sketches, including several volumes edited by Parton, reached back to collections about self-made men or eminent women but increasingly emphasized celebrity as much as instruction. The lives of Civil War generals, most famously Ulysses Grant's 1885 Memoirs, helped place the recent conflict into the nation's historical narrative. And ornately bound compendia of local history and biography, the so-called mug books that were compiled for hundreds of midwestern and western counties in the last quarter of the century, provided a site for ordinary individuals to have their achievements (and sometimes their pictures) recorded for posterity. Americans' "biographical mania" showed no signs of decline.
See also Book Publishing; Civil War; Education; English Literature; History; Literary Criticism; Political Parties; Religion
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[Civis.] "Art. XII.iography." American Annals of Education and Instruction, and Journal of Literary Institutions 1 (June 1831): 281.
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Lives of Distinguished Shoemakers. Portland, Maine: Davis and Southworth, 1849.
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Scott E. Casper