Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Doing History: A Biographer’s Dilemma: Can We Make Arguments Out of Lives?

· November 13th, 2018 · 2 Comments

Today’s post accompanies “Researching Biography,” episode 212 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 3 series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.

By Catherine O’Donnell

Always be arguing. It’s the historian’s version of David Mamet’s line for salesmen, “Always be closing.” I know that rule, and I know another one, too: don’t oversimplify. Because historians are not, to put it mildly, Occam’s Razor kind of people. We don’t think that the simplest answer is best; the simplest answer is the one we give three points out of ten on the midterm. The more causes the better, in our book. There are historians who readily combine these two directives to create bold arguments and to make those arguments reflect the complexities of human society. I am not one of them. Working my way through an archive, I become entranced by nuances and exceptions to the rule. “What is your argument?” I sternly ask myself. “My goodness, will you look at this,” I answer, helplessly.

Wonderfully for me, historians (at least after our first books) are allowed to write biography, and biography is a genre of details and moments, of accretion rather than summation. The Second Great Awakening, gender conventions, the Napoleonic Wars, post-Tridentine Catholicism: as a biographer I investigate them on an intimate scale, and on that scale, like a human hair placed under a microscope, familiar contours break into unexpected ridges, curves, and color. Arguments do emerge under the biographical lens; the historians we’ve heard from in this series advance brilliant ones. But because it’s impossible to press a human life into the shape of an argument – more impossible, really, than fitting 1,000 human lives into an argument — biographers linger in the messy plenitude. Look closer, and this person is not who you thought. Because none of us is.
This is all well and good, I imagine readers thinking: your subject is not who we thought. Who is she? The biographical genre is not all latitude and absolution; that question demands an answer. If readers never feel the person on the page (I write about religion, and the word that comes to mind is presence), a biographer has failed. It’s not just that biographies are allowed to overflow arguments and analysis; I think they are required to.

There are scholars, Annette Gordon Reed and Ann Little among them, who have brilliantly demonstrated how to tell life stories in the absence or paucity of direct sources. Lucky for me, I did not have to work so hard. My subject, Elizabeth Seton (1774-1821) left a trove of letters, journals, reflections, and annotations. She is everywhere in those documents. And just about everywhere, she is visible in relationship to others: as a daughter seeking a father’s attention, as a wife soothing a fragile husband, as a Mother Superior guiding women with whom she lived and worked. Piecing together Seton’s relationships, I felt that my own two roles, that of historian and biographer, merged. Seton’s relationships were distinctively her own, creations of her sharp intellect, humor, and character. But they were also forged by the conventions of Manhattan merchants’ gentility, by the gendered architecture of the Catholic Church, by the demographic probabilities of a time before antibiotics, and by a hundred other things. The concatenation of the specific and the general, the chosen and the imposed, is for me the ghost in history’s machine. When I try to lay out those concatenations in argumentative paragraphs, the ghost tends to flee my clause-ridden clatter; only the machinery remains. My hope is that somewhere in the moments of a long friendship or a vexing collaboration with clergy, the ghost shimmers, at least fleetingly, into view.

I relished the work of seeing and describing my subject through her relationships. Still, I found myself wondering, who was Elizabeth Seton when she was alone? This was my way of wondering what Seton’s authentic self was, but it was in the end not a very good question. Seton believed – as she makes clear throughout the sources – that she was most authentically herself not when alone but in her relationship with the divine. That relationship—painful, uncertain, and ecstatic by turns—required that she constantly attend to others. Seton willed herself to live as profoundly as possible in community. The theory and practice of relationship is a signal way in which Seton affected the world. Detachment is traditionally a central tenet of Catholic monasticism, but as Mother to her community, she actively cultivated connection at every turn and created a religious community that did, and does, the same. “I am not enabled as Jesus Christ to do miracles for others,” she wrote, “but I may constantly find occasions of rendering them good offices and exercising kindness and good will towards them.” Such “offices” required specific, loving attention to the people she helped. “Am I interested for [others],” she demanded, “sharing in their sorrow, compassionating their pains or rejoicing in their joy?” Relationships were Elizabeth Seton’s life, and they were also her life’s work.

Biographers have their own relationships with their subjects, too. Although here I have alit on the lovelier elements of Seton’s life, I unhesitatingly believe in another of our historian rules: we must resist falling under the sway of our subjects. The vita (an account of the life of a holy person written by one seeking to promote his or her cause for sainthood) is one of several ancestors from which modern biography has firmly distanced itself, and no one is more eager to reject hagiography than someone who’s just written a biography of a saint. And yet (you knew that was coming) I can’t help noting that vitae often have a marvelous urgency and intimacy. Their methodology is not ours, but from their authors’ unabashed insistence that we attend wholeheartedly to a life – to its kindredness and to its strangeness – biographers can still draw sustenance. That, at least, is my argument.

Catherine O’Donnell is the author of Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, and is grateful to have participated in a WMQ-EMSI workshop on Early American Biography, guided by Annette Gordon Reed, at an early stage of that project  She was an Omohundro-NEH Fellow and published her first book, Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship, with the Institute in 2008. She is now an Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University.

2 Responses

  1. What a delight that this sacred reminder of the personhood of our subjects comes indirectly from Annette Gordon-Reed’s meeting on biography. Is it that ever better thought comes slowly and well? Or do historians naturally separate out, partly into biographers? Thank God they do, for Annette O’ Donnell is one. I missed that wisdom by a single telling quotation, one a colleague had reminded me to use, that I forgot. Now I am graciously reminded of who biographers must be. Thank you.

  2. Correcction: “now Annette points to Catherine” O’Donnell, “who” is another.” (Age, my Samsung, and early morning in dark Sweden do not improve my prose at all. Time for coffee.)

Leave a Reply