- Historic Sites
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
Biography is an almost writer-proof art. Structure and raison d’être are taken care of in advance. The form—someone is born, does stuff, dies—is as rigid and soothing as the sonnet. Authors write biographies, and we read them for the same reason we gossip: the unquenchable desire to know other people’s business. No wonder the shelves of bookstores groan with biographies. What could be more compelling?
A great biography, however, requires something more: a striking voice, belonging either to the subject or the author, ideally to both, for a voice is what keeps us company after episodes and conclusions have fallen away. Eloquence, wit, and style strengthen a voice greatly, but plain conviction (what Whitman meant when he wrote, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there”) can make its way all by itself. With a strong voice in our heads we gladly surrender to other paraphernalia: births, deaths, dull accounts of dullness.
My list of best American biographies is heavy on memoirs, since by conflating author and subject, they simplify the task of hitting the right note. My list also includes a number of quick takes, books that look at only one phase of their subjects’ lives. The slice of life can stand for the whole; the lightning bolt can be as bright as high noon. Many of these books are biased, crotchety, or unfair. But they are all unforgettable.
by John Williams (1707; Kessinger Publishing). In 1704 the Reverend John Williams, a minister in Deerfield, Massachusetts, was kidnapped by a raiding party of French and Indians and taken, along with several dozen of his neighbors, through the wintry forests to Canada. The action begins with enemies banging on Williams’s door; it ends in Boston, after his return in a prisoner exchange. Williams’s story is full of incident: Two of his children are killed immediately, and his wife dies by the wayside. But the drama of the book is in its ongoing dialogue among Williams, the crush of events, and the purposes of Almighty God.
“The trouble with Franklin,” the historian Forrest McDonald once told me, “is that he lies all the time.” More charitably, we might say that Franklin is a spinner of tales and a shuffler of personae. But what compelling tales, what influential masks! Franklin’s Autobiography, started several different times when he was an old man, never makes it to the American founding. It recounts different foundings—of the capitalist personality, eating not to dullness, drinking not to elevation, and its indispensable companion: the self-help book.
by Henry Adams (1882; M. E. Sharpe). This book is like the circle of hell in which the damned gnaw one another. John Randolph of Roanoke was a brilliant, unstable politician whose years in Congress stretched from the Presidency of John Adams through that of John Quincy Adams; Randolph detested them both. Henry Adams, the brilliant, unstable historian, repaid every insult to his ancestors. The only thing these two ferocious patricians shared was their alienation from the mainstream of American life.
by Ulysses S. Grant (1885–6; Random House). When the military historian John Keegan was asked if Sherman was not actually a better general than Grant, Keegan replied that Grant was the greatest general of the Civil War, the greatest of American history, and one of the greatest of all time. Perhaps this was excessive. But the Personal Memoirs do show how Grant won his war. The prose is clear, tireless, and undistractable—the very qualities that drove Lee into his defenses and then out of them, to Appomattox.
by Booker T. Washington (1901; many editions). This is another founding myth of self-help, though the black Franklin started from farther back than the white one. The moment when the hero’s admission to school, and thus his entire future, depends on how thoroughly he can clean a room is heartrending. Washington’s program of work, self-reliance, and scorn for politics, balked at in his day, still resonates in unusual places, from the Nation of Islam to Justice Clarence Thomas.
by Wallace Stegner (1954; Penguin). Stegner is the proud and touchy regionalist, always telling us that the West has nothing to feel inferior about. Certainly nothing could top the story of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who navigated and surveyed the Colorado River and then spent years warring over land and Indian policy in the corridors of official Washington. If Captain Ahab had been a scientific bureaucrat, he might have completed his voyage too.