Welcome to Other People’s Business! As the subtitle indicates, the purpose of this blog is to consider what we can learn about life in general through the genre of biography. At first glance, this may seem strange to many. What is so special about biography that we can examine life through its lens?
In our time, as in various times in the past, there exists a great tendency to divorce our experiences from the experiences of people throughout history. Every age, it seems, has a tendency to be positioned by some as the apex of human civilization, and to be vilified by others as undeniable evidence of civilization’s decline. We either ignore what came before as irrelevant to our present circumstances, or we long to return to some “golden age” from which the present day has been severed.
It is my contention that biography has a unique way of helping us to understand what we are like as people. There have been true Golden Ages and Reigns of Terror in the fabric of human history; but, by examining the lives of real, flesh-and-blood human beings who inhabited those places and times, we can see the similarities and the constancy of human nature throughout that history.
So, how does biography accomplish this in ways that other genres cannot?
Biography de-mythologizes its subjects. We are prone to think of prominent figures of history as somehow being “larger than life,” whether we idolize them as flawless heroes or demonize them as horrendous monsters. When we place these men and women on either pedestal, we tend to separate them from the humanity they share with you and me.
Good biographies present people of the past as just that: people. They were born in the same manner as you and I. They were raised in environments with varying levels of opportunity, just like we were. Some overcame great obstacles to become notable. Others squandered the privilege that they inherited, or they let greed or ambition or prejudice influence them and others for ill. Still others were provided with providential opportunities by “being in the right place at the right time.” Whatever the case, we can identify with historical figures through biography, because biography reminds us that its subjects were not superhuman, but rather individuals sharing many of the same opportunities and limitations that we possess.
Biography can inspire. When we read about the lives of those who came before, we see how those humans-like-us had doors opened for them by birth or by circumstance. We also see the doors that were slammed shut in their faces and how they responded to having to change course. We are often presented with those who in effect kicked open closed doors or even made doors for themselves where none existed. If they could do it, why can’t we?
We are certainly not omnipotent, but each of us has the ability to respond to one’s present circumstances in a number of ways. Biographies provide us examples of success which we can adapt to our circumstances and emulate to some degree. Of course, human life is not an exact science, but biographies provide us with useful role models in order that we may be better at living.
Biography can serve as a cautionary tale. Just as we can learn from the successes of those who came before, we can see their fatal flaws and perhaps avoid making them ourselves. For example, Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin extols his diplomatic skills, his inventiveness, and his entrepreneurship. However, it also paints a picture of a man who accomplished all that he did at the expense of loyalty to his wife and children. Likewise, Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow, presents a man whose pride and lapse into adultery were impediments to even greater success than he experienced.
Contrary to popular notions today, one does not have to make every mistake oneself to learn from it; we can learn from the mistakes of others, and biography provides us with this opportunity. Just as we can be inspired by the success of those who came before, with biography we can see in ourselves the same tendencies that, unchecked, brought about ruin in others.
Biography puts a human face on history. What was it really like to live during a certain time period? Considering the sheer volume of material that history teachers are expected to squeeze into their courses, most students only get a smattering of dates and places and no real coherent understanding of the people and forces that contributed to key periods in human history.
Even if someone picks up an excellent historical treatment of, say, the Second World War, it still will lack something that only biography can provide. A biography of Winston Churchill will give the reader a front-row seat to a key player in world affairs and the events and people responsible for shaping his decisions. Likewise, a biography of a Londoner who lived an “ordinary” life during the Blitz can paint a crystal-clear picture of what daily life was like for those who did not occupy a prominent place in history, but who no less were participants in it than world leaders. Both of these works remind us that history did not just “happen,” but that it was inhabited by — and shaped by — human beings for whom it was “the present day.”
Biography puts historical figures in their proper historical context. The flip side of “putting a human face on history” is to realize that people not only shape history, but also are shaped by it. Often, when we are examining the decisions made (or not made) by people of the past, we slip very easily into the role of “Monday morning quarterback,” judging historical figures from our far-removed vantage point. We will ask why certain figures weren’t more feminist or why an otherwise great political figure held views that were undeniably racist. We will criticize people of the past for not being more prescient when it came to seeing the outcome of their actions.
Good biographies help combat this tendency by helping their readers to realize that everyone is born into a social world brimming with attitudes and perspectives that are generally taken for granted. We are no exception. Like the proverbial fish in the aquarium, even the greatest among us cannot completely remove themselves from their environments, totally shedding every ingrained notion therein.
Likewise, biographies help us to forgive the errors of the past that were made as a result of being less-than-omniscient. Even in our time, where almost limitless information is literally in the palm of your hand, we are still finite human, confined to one place and time with no absolute certainty of what the future might bring. What we see in hindsight is not what was seen by the people living through those times. Biographies help us see the wisdom and folly of those who came before, but they also help us to understand critical errors made by even the wisest.
So what is so special about biography? In short, biography teaches about us. It shows us our humanity in the present day by examining the parallels between our lives and those who came before. While biographies present to us those who were innovators and inventors and world-changers, in another, very real sense, we can agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes that there truly is “nothing new under the sun.” In understanding the successes and shortcomings of the subjects of biographies, we get a glimpse at ourselves and what we are able to accomplish, either for good or for ill.
And that is the raison d’etre of this blog. As we look at particular biographies, as we interview writers of these biographies and scholars who study and teach utilizing biography, and as we view and comment on biography-related matters around the Web, we will be raising the question: What can we learn about life from those who have already lived it?
I am excited to have you along for the ride.