The Pleasures of Biography

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

The Pleasures of Biography

Book Cover: Alcott in Her Own TimeWhat attracts us so to biographies? When a college student, I always went right to the biographies of major figures of an era to spice up my research on a historical topic. The broad outlines of history are fine, but it is the life course of the actors of history that compelled my attention. The exploration of one life history, examining the motives and conflicts of a single well-known leader, illumines the landscape of our understanding and allows history to make sense. The root of this interest may be that we are biological creatures who are born, grow and eventually die.

Looking at history through the lens of a personality gives history greater definition. We enjoy learning the telling details that reveal character. The very limitations of the circumstance under which historical figures developed their characters and under which they made certain achievements give their lives a sense of drama. The best biographers give us a view of their inner lives, trying to show how the ambitions and aspirations of well-known historical figures drove them to their chosen courses of life.

We gain a special pleasure from seeking to understand the sources of those inner drives, and considering the results, virtues and flaws of one personality. Two examples of this phenomenon can be seen when reading the biographies of Louisa May Alcott and Lyndon Johnson.

They were both successful public figures in American life, but each was motivated by a particular set of inner drives born from poverty. To consider Alcott first, Daniel Shealy examines her life in a biographical chronicle taken from contemporary narratives and letters and entitled Alcott in her Own Time. From the start we can see that as a child of a philosopher, Bronson Alcott, a major figure among the Transcendentalists, Alcott had certain advantages in the informal philosophical education she was given by her father. However, she also suffered from some serious disadvantages because of the very idealism of her father. Alcott and her mother grew up in conditions of poverty and instability because her father had no sense of the practical and could not earn a living. They were cast upon the charity of others to survive. Their misadventures became the material for her best known work, Little Women.

Louisa grew to be a very independent person who could engage in any type of work to survive and eventually turned to writing as a way of supporting her family. Her background living in an intellectual household helped her to understand her world and the process of child development in a way few could in her time. At the same time, her sufferings helped her to identify with the difficulties of other families. Her writing for children took off, especially her classic, Little Women. In this way she became a public figure admired by millions for her insight into childhood and youth. Yet her life was a series of struggles. Nothing came easily for her. She was a self-made intellectual who had to figure out the best way to live for herself and chronicled her attempts to understand her world in her writings. We can admire her ambition and industry and understand its costs. It is paradoxically the limitations of her life, her wrestling with poverty and the prejudices against activities of women outside the family that make her a fascinating figure.

Book Cover: The Years of Lyndon JohnsonThere was a similar pattern in the life of Lyndon Johnson. The poverty and distress under which the young Lyndon Johnson grew up, according to Robert Caro, his biographer in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: the Path to Power, shaped him in ways that helped form his vast ambitions. Johnson came of age in a family with a father who had failed in business, and in reaction to this shame, he sought to succeed at any cost. Yet his resources were meager. It was humiliation and “a sense of fear,” in Caro’s view, that drove him forward. He suffered from terrible depressions and health crises. He attended a local two-year teacher’s college, not a university. He was known for hard work and discipline as well as having a way of connecting with people while campaigning.

These skills allowed him to rise in the organization of the Texas Democratic Party and eventually in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington. There he used his people skills and hard work to ingratiate himself with Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House of Representatives. There the times and Johnson met. During that period, personal influence was even more important than today, and Johnson rose to become one of the democratic leaders of the House, then the Senate and, finally, the presidency.

Johnson became a passionately committed advocate of certain causes, such as civil rights and eradicating poverty when they were politically feasible. He was accomplished at arm twisting, horse trading and simply convincing others of his cause. These skills enabled him to pass the landmark Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Yet Johnson was driven by an desire for recognition that was never satisfied and that had deep roots in a painful past. With Johnson we are surprised at how such a flawed personality could accomplish what he did.

In summary, we tend to enjoy observing how great persons achieve remarkable things despite their handicaps. Through consideration of their triumphs, we come to better understand how these personalities overcame their flaws and their difficulties.