Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Doing History: The Power of Biography

· November 26th, 2018 · 1 Comment

Today’s post accompanies the Doing History 3 series on Ben Franklin’s World. You can find supplementary materials for the series on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.

Biographies serve as a gateway to history. They serve this role because, as all of our guest scholars in the Doing History: Biography series related, biographies humanize the past. At their core biographies are about people, and as people, we are naturally curious about how others lived, worked, and experienced life.

Well-written and thoroughly researched biographies can be powerful as they make the past come alive for many readers. They also impact the way people understand and interact with history. I had the opportunity to see this phenomenon first hand in the early 2000s.

Between 2001 and 2005, I donned the green and grey uniform of the National Park Service and worked as a seasonal interpretive ranger at the Boston National Historical Park. It was an amazing job. I got paid to spend my days researching and talking about history. In the morning I might work a four-hour shift at the Bunker Hill Monument and then split my afternoon hours discussing early naval history around the Charlestown Navy Yard, conducting tours of the USS Cassin Young, a Fletcher-Class destroyer that saw action in the South Pacific during World War II, or assisting visitors at the “VC” or Visitor Center. I loved my job.

Working for the National Park Service taught me a great deal about the practice of public-facing history. It taught me how to read an audience, how to meet visitors where they are with their knowledge of the past, and that how we communicate history matters a great deal. History has power when communicated well and between 2001 and 2005, I had the unique opportunity to witness the great power of well-communicated history.

The Boston National Historical Park serviced between two and three million visitors each year during the period I worked there. This gave me the opportunity to interact with a lot of different people. Although there were always visitors who wanted to engage with history, I remember being surprised by just how many visitors seemed to visit our park simply because they were walking the Freedom Trail and our sites happened to be on it. Their quest to complete the 2.5 mile walk that connects many of Boston’s revolutionary-era historic sites really seemed like an effort to check off a box on their bucket lists rather than a quest to explore the early American past. I remember thinking this because I would try to engage people in discussions about different historic sites and they often avoided my invitations to converse. Instead they asked me for directions to Cheers, Fenway Park, and the Hard Rock Cafe. I found it annoying. They were in Boston! The city of my birth, a city that I love, and they had a fantastic opportunity to visit a great collection of historic sites associated with one of the most interesting periods of history, and yet, a great number of visitors just seemed uninterested.

The idea of the Freedom Trail as a bucket-list checkmark continued in 2002. But beginning in the spring of 2003, I noticed a significant change in visitor engagement with Boston’s historic sites and the history of the American Revolution. That spring I noticed many more visitors approaching me and my coworkers with questions about the Revolution. And the questions they posed asked for specific details: Where and when was Joseph Warren shot and killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill? How did the British set Charlestown ablaze during the battle? What was it like for the people of Boston to be occupied by the British between 1775 and 1776? These questions made for interesting and engaging days. I spent a lot of time talking about the Revolution and recommending books and museums where visitors could learn more.

Over time it became apparent that the increased visitor interest in the history of Boston and the American Revolution came from a specific source: David McCullough’s biography John Adams. McCullough published his book in the fall of 2002 and I witnessed its amazing impact between spring 2003 and late summer 2005.

At first visitors who read the book would ask their questions and then mention that they’d read McCullough’s biography. As time went on, more and more visitors would declare something to the effect of “you know I used to think history was boring, but then I read David McCullough’s biography, John Adams.” Or, “I used to hate history but now I love it because I read John Adams.” Or, my favorite declaration: “I didn’t used to like history, but I love it now because I read that book John Adams, which I only read because all of my friends had read it.” David McCullough’s biography created FOMO (fear of missing out) about history!

I recognize McCullough’s biography has interpretive problems, but that doesn’t change the power I witnessed. McCullough’s book inspired a great deal of interest in early American history. It also inspired my fascination with how scholars communicate the past.

I read John Adams a few times to try and better understand its power to inspire. Ultimately it left me with many questions about how we communicate history, including: could a historian steeped in professional methods replicate the “David McCullough Effect” and inspire a like interest in our early American past? I knew if I wanted to answer my question I would need to attend a graduate program where I could work with historians who excelled as both interpreters and writers. In the end, I accepted an invitation to work with Alan Taylor at UC-Davis.

Alan taught me many valuable lessons about how to research, interrogate sources, and write. I use these skills on a daily basis and my original intent had been to employ them to answer my question of whether a historian steeped in professional methods could write a book that replicated the “David McCullough Effect.” I haven’t had a chance to work on this just yet because along the way I discovered podcasts and decided to experiment with some other questions I had about engaging the public with scholarly history. These experiments have also proved powerful and I intend to stick with them for the foreseeable future.

For what it’s worth, I do think it’s possible for a professionally-trained historian to replicate the “David McCullough Effect” I witnessed in the early 2000s. I think the effort will involve a character-driven story, written in a clear and engaging style that borrows from the narrative techniques employed by McCullough, which ultimately allowed McCullough to create a sense of intimacy between him and his readers. Will the attempt have to be a biography? I’d like to think it could be replicated with a traditional, narrative history. With that said, after speaking with our guest scholars in the Doing History: Biography series, I can’t help but think a biographical study would make the attempt easier. After all, people are interested in people, and at their core, biographies present the lives of people using thorough archival research and the sound interrogation of sources. It’s this last part that makes me think a historian could replicate the effect with a traditional history. Historians excel at conducting thorough archival research and the sound interrogation of historical sources.

One Response

  1. Virginia Hall-Apicella says:

    I have always been a history geek, a gene inherited from my father who never passed a historical marker on a road without stopping to read it. My husband, an engineer, could have cared less. Then we scored tickets to Hamilton the musical and he decided to read my copy of Chernow’s book. Now he has read Issacson’s book on Ben Franklin and several of Joseph Ellis’s books. History will win out!

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