Arts & Culture

Life lessons

7 min read

Radcliffe seminar on biography full of life and lives

On a sultry August day three decades ago, historian Jean Strouse ’67 stopped in Harvard Square to buy daisies. She walked on to the nearby grave site of diarist Alice James, who died in 1892.

It was Aug. 7, James’ birthday, and Strouse thought visiting the grave site seemed like the right thing to do. No one else was there, and no one had likely been there since 1943, when Alice’s companion Katharine Loring died.

Alice, despite her flashes of private brilliance and dagger-sharp diaries, had always been overshadowed by her two famous brothers, novelist Henry James and philosopher William James.

“When I put the flowers down on Alice’s grave,” Strouse said in a recent lecture at Radcliffe Gymnasium, “I was astonished to find myself in tears.” Then she recalled saying to the dead Alice, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”

Strouse went on to write “Alice James: A Biography” (1980), which won the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy. “In the end, I did take care of her,” she told an audience of scholars, writers, and history buffs in late June. “I gave her a voice in this family, which is what she wanted.”

The story of Alice’s graveside shows the variety — and intimacy — of approaches a writer can take to capture a past life in words.

Strouse was one of 13 senior historians to give lectures at “Writing Past Lives: Biography as History,” the first Schlesinger Library Summer Seminar on Gender History. (Organizers said there will likely be a summer seminar next year, though on a different topic in historiography.)

From June 25 to 29, plenary sessions were held every morning — public lectures by veteran historians working in both private and university realms. On the first four evenings, there were also intensive private workshops for 36 historians or advanced graduate students selected from a pool of applicants.

Day or night, the sessions offered a glimpse into the normally solitary lives of biographers, who “don’t usually spend a lot of time in the first person singular,” Strouse told a June 29 audience.

The sessions also brought to light the questions that captivate biographers. What are the best sources, and the newest ones? Is biography “microhistory,” to use one presenter’s word — and how do you balance social history with the story of a single person? Should chronology dominate a biographical narrative? Or are there better ways — as one presenter argued — to organize the story of a life? There was also talk about the storytelling potential of photographs.

“Writing Past Lives” was an acknowledgement of biography’s growing popularity. General readers are increasingly fascinated with individual identity and power. After all, said one lecturer, biography already has its modern “dark side” — the near-voyeurism of Internet portals like YouTube or MySpace.

That popularity leaves room for historians to enter a hot marketplace. “I say: ‘Exploit the trend,’” said presenter Joyce E. Chaplin, James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard. That drew a laugh from the June 29 audience, many of them aspiring biographers

Writing history through the lens of individual lives is gaining popularity among veteran historians. About half of the plenary session lecturers are working on, or have recently finished, their first biographies, said summer seminar organizer Nancy F. Cott. She’s the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History as well as the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library.

Chaplin, a 20-year scholar, was one of the first-timers. She’s just finished “The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius” (2006). It revives the idea that science was central to 18th century culture, and that Franklin himself was not a statesman first, but a scientist. The book also outlines how women fit into the cultural norms of Franklin’s time, and how they began edging into a male-dominated world of ideas.

“Writing Past Lives” was a cross-disciplinary event, bringing together readers, writers, students, and veteran scholars. In one workshop, there was a historian who worked for NASA. During the plenary sessions, one writer searched for ways to bring order to a roomful of family diaries, photos, and other documents. Some of those on hand were journalists.

“It wasn’t just academics involved in this,” said self-described “serial biographer” Susan Ware, now working on a life of tennis great and feminist Billie Jean King. “Somehow there was a sense that biography was a big enough tent that we could all fit under it.”

During the morning lectures, as many as 150 listeners crowded into Radcliffe gymnasium to hear working historians spin out biographical plot summaries, as well as share writing tips, research strategies, challenges — and frustrations.

Writing her biography of J. Pierpont Morgan “was like swimming across the Atlantic,” said the Manhattan-based Strouse. Despite years of research, she said, she found herself struggling at times to capture the laconic captain of industry on the printed page. “I was halfway there,” said Strouse, “and I couldn’t go back.”

Her finished book, the definitive “Morgan: American Financier” (1999), took 15 years to research and write. But it rescued this complex man of culture and capitalism from earlier one-dimensional biographies that either lionized or excoriated him.

During the evening workshops, scholars were divided into collegial groups of 12, and pored over each other’s biographical work.

“I worried getting into this — how were these people going to get along?” said independent historian Megan Marshall ’77, RI ’07, who moderated a workshop that included a full professor from Yale and a graduate student. “But they got along amazingly well.”

She knows the business of biography and delivered a June 27 talk on the 20 years it took to research and write “The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism” (2005). The group biography of the cultural, political, and artistic Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody rescues the sisters from obscurity by delving into how their quiet lives influenced the flowering of American literature in 19th century New England. (The book won the 2006 Francis Parkman Prize, and was a Pulitzer finalist.)

Marshall has another historical rescue mission under way, a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s forgotten muse — his brilliant and reclusive older sister Elizabeth.

Good ideas, new friends, and scholarly validation came out of the workshop experiences, said Ware, who moderated another group. “There was a sense of equal sitting around the table, and incredible generosity.”

Collegiality extended to everyone who took part, morning or evening, said Cott, who moderated the third workshop. She told the plenary gathering on June 29 that the event “has given us a wealth of ideas, and personages, methods, and conundrums.”

Those who attended “Writing Past Lives” wrote evaluations, which on a recent July day were piled high on a table in Cott’s Radcliffe Yard office. There was general agreement that the five days were an energizing intellectual experience. And there were frequent pleas to make the summer seminar a Radcliffe tradition. (One evaluation read simply, “Please repeat.”)

On the other hand, participants asked for some tweaking. Many wanted more discussions of the writing process. Others requested postlecture luncheons, to make audience discussion and networking easier.

But praise prevailed. “One wishes that this exact community would just continue as it is,” wrote one evaluator on June 29. “There is a sadness to this last day.”