It is a truth universally acknowledged that a so-called “Founding Father” in possession of a good fortune must be in want of the twentieth biography written by a man in this century!
Why do I say this? I was alerted to this interesting fact sheet via Marla Miller on Twitter yesterday. Go ahead and click it–I’ll wait.
Yes, that’s right: of the top 23 best-selling history titles in 2014, (13 hardcover, 10 in paper), two were written by women, and twenty-one by men. Here’s the reply I sent to Marla. Here’s an excerpt from the draft of the book I just finished:
. . . . The subjects of most biographies in any national history are men. They are also overwhelmingly about men who lived in the modern world, and they reflect our contemporary preoccupation with modern history themes: politics, economics, warfare, the nation-state, and so on.[i] These biographies are also invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will. He’s a man of singular genius, one whose fortunes aren’t made by his family, community, or the times in which he lived.
American biography, and especially early American biography, offers no exception to this rule. Historians of the earliest decades of U.S. history have churned out biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” for audiences whose admiration for these men knows no limits. This vision of biography is literally inescapable: every day as I walk to my office in the Huntington Library to finish writing this book, I must walk the entire length of a larger-than-lifesize, hallway-length display on the life and career of George Washington, the man the exhibit calls “America’s greatest leader.” It takes thirty of my brisk, purposeful strides to traverse the length of this tribute to Washington. Traditional biographies like these commemorate only some kinds of power and politics, and avoid the rest. The focus of these books is on both personal and national greatness, not the patriarchal, slaveholding world that permitted these privileged white men to rise to the top of their colonial society long before independence from Great Britain was ever imagined. Stories about the sagacity, virtue, and political genius of our so-called “Founding Fathers” sell like hotcakes. Stories that focus on the cruelty and exploitation of the many by the few in colonial North America might receive respectful reviews in academic journals, but they don’t move product.
[i] Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998; 2004); Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). See also Joan Scott, “Back to the Future,” a review of History Matters in History and Theory 47:2 (2008), 279-84.
As we learned last month, being a man while teaching is something for women to consider as well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go reserve historiandrew.com as my new domain name. While I’m away, please leave your peer reviews in the comments below.