Teaser Tuesday: Why do readers clamor for books about people they’ve already heard of?

Hey, kids:  It’s publication day.  Huzzah!  The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, 2016) has officially dropped!  Now you can read all about the 7-year old Anglo-American girl from New England, taken in wartime by the Wabanaki, who became a student and then choir nun at the Ursuline convent in Québec.  She then became the one (and still the only) foreign-born mother superior of her order.  What a life! Or more properly, what lives, plural.

I’ll be offering a few tantalizing excerpts from the book every Tuesday until it gets optioned for a screenplay, or until I make my massive advance back for the press, or both.  Ha!  So if you want to stop seeing this lady’s pink, squinty face peering out at you from that old wimple, do your part and buy a copy.  If you can’t afford a copy, ask your university and local libraries to buy a copy, so you can share.

Future topics may include:  What did children play with in early New England?  How did warfare affect Wabanaki foodways? How did Esther become a Wabanaki child?  What was it like to be at the Governor’s house for dinner in Québec?  How did girls and women deal with menstruation in the eighteenth century?  Why did the Ursulines call Esther Anglaise rather than Abnaquise?  Did the Ursulines engage in bodily mortification?  What was daily life like for the soeurs converses (lay sisters), who performed the domestic labor in the convent?  Let me know about your questions, too–I take requests.

Regular readers here know that rhetorical questions are a little tic of mine, so I’m going to structure “Teaser Tuesday” excerpts from the book around a question or two, like today’s question:  “Why do readers clamor for books about people they’ve already heard of?”  Let’s find out:

The subjects of most biographies in any national history are men. They are also overwhelmingly men who lived in the modern world, and these accounts reflect our contemporary preoccupation with modern history themes: politics, economics, warfare, the nation-state, and so on.  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.

George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale (1772)

George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale (1772)

American biography, 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 “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.

So why do readers clamor for books about people they’ve already heard of? Why don’t writers or readers look for fresh stories of people they’ve never heard of before? First, historians’ choices have traditionally been restrained by their discipline’s obsession with written information, so we must consider the politics of literacy in early America. Because even most free women in North America were taught only to read and not to write until the middle of the eighteenth century, most people, enslaved or free, couldn’t generate their own archive, let alone possess the social and cultural capital to ensure its preservation for two or three centuries. It’s a lot easier to write about people who wrote endlessly about themselves in journals or diaries, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with friends and colleagues which was then meticulously preserved.

The second reason that biographies of the already well known are more popular has to do with readers’ choices. It’s better business to write about the rich and famous, because there’s already a built-in audience of book buyers for that latest biography of John Adams, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, or Abraham Lincoln. It’s easier and more fun for middle-class North American readers to identify with rich and powerful individuals rather than the victims of history. Schoolyard bullies know this instinctively: we all want to identify with winners instead of losers.

The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, pp. 9-10.

Wow, that passage took a weird turn, didn’t it?  From George Washington to schoolyard bullies–what do they have to do with one another?  Want to know more?  You know what to do!  Close your eyes, and tap your heels together three times, and

Stories about girls who are carried far from home are everywhere in our culture, and there are always new and interesting lives to learn about, if we only look for them.

25 thoughts on “Teaser Tuesday: Why do readers clamor for books about people they’ve already heard of?

  1. Terrific post. We should do a panel together on biographies of the forgotten.

    This is the last paragraph of my introduction:

    ‘The central question posed by this biography is how someone so famous and so important could end up so forgotten. I have thought of many reasons, among them that du Bois-Reymond is hard to pigeonhole, that he clashes with our image of Imperial Germany, and that he resists our condescension. But to my mind du Bois-Reymond arrived at the best answer himself. Reflecting on how few of his generation remembered Voltaire, he suggested that “the real reason might be that we are all more or less Voltair- ians:Voltairians without even knowing it.” The same holds true for my subject. Du Bois-Reymond is hidden in plain sight.’


  2. A talk I gave at the 4S meeting in Denver last November also addressed the issue of heroic scientific biography. I have a slightly different take from you. Here’s my abstract:

    “Biographies have a bad reputation. Historians frequently associate them with celebrity fluff, scabrous confessional, or musty hagiography, the latter genre being particularly offensive to their professional esteem. “By seizing upon those personages and parties in the past whose ideas seem the more analogous to our own,” Herbert Butterfield famously recounted, “and by setting all these out in contrast with the rest of the stuff of history, [the Whig historian] has his organization and abridgment of history ready made….” Does any place survive for Plutarchan lives, Stoic sages, or Existential heroes? Or has the study of the past moved beyond the categories of praise and blame? My own investigation into the life of a Victorian scientist suggests that heroic biographies are still worth writing. In the first place, they reveal how past actors imagined themselves. And in the second place, they show doubt to be an object and not a category of understanding. In other words, if historians really want to avoid anachronism, they have to wrestle with the meaning—or meaninglessness—of individual lives. The result is necessarily heroic.’


    • I don’t know if our takes are all that different. I don’t entirely reject the notion of heroic biography–I just question why it’s only a very narrow and repetitive slice of early Americans who get that kind of treatment.

      Esther Wheelwright had greatness thrust upon her because of a number of traumas and accidents in her youth, and because she remained alert to opportunities she was poised to lead when her order and the people of Quebec needed her. That’s pretty heroic, but perhaps my emphasis on the communities of girls and women as well as the individual Esther W. herself is what makes you think we disagree?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t know that we disagree…

        I’m serious about that panel. We have a great Early Americanist here at CU Denver (Kariann Yokota), and I’d be glad to advertise or assist any events you’d like to arrange to publicize your book. Have you tried “Colorado Matters” on CPR? Or book launches/signings around the state? How about if I hosted a talk?


      • I’d love to do any or all of these things–I know Kariann, she’s great, and she has come to my classes when I’ve invited her. Email me and we’ll figure something out–I’d love to meet your students in a class or give a talk–whatever you think might be interesting and intellectually useful for them.

        I actually know Ryan Warner of Colorado Matters a little through social connections, but his show is very focused on Colorado–if it’s a subject that’s not squarely on Colorado, he can’t do it. (I did get a rave review in the Maine Sunday Telegram, and am hoping for a notice in the Boston Globe sometime soon–but in my experience, it’s New England and other Eastern places that are more interested in my work.)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations on the book! I (many moons ago) researched men and the concept of “going native” and Pacific frontiers, so I’m still fascinated by these stories of liminality, identity, and race. I look forward to reading it.
    (I assume you’ll be at the next AHA, since it’s practically in your backyard?)


  4. Cheers! Congratulations! My students are doing their bit for your advance 🙂
    Now the rest of the world will be able to find out why I say it’s such a great book.


  5. I’m also trying to write a trade book about an unknown woman’s life, though in a very different context (early nineteenth-century Japan). It’s not easy! I’m looking forward to reading your book so I can see how you did it!


    • I’d love to talk to you about this any time, Amy–just let me know! I can take the hard questions–let me know the places where you think I skate on thin ice (or fall through!)


  6. Even if you find some amazing stuff, and important stuff, and in substantial quantity, about a subject who already has the proverbial “five foot shelf of books” in print about them; or such stuff about a less celebrated subject with a quality recent full-biography in print about them, it should be possible to get credit for the sometimes remarkable amount of creative work that it took to excavate that “stuff” without having to write an entire new (i.e. old) biography around them to report on it. In some cases this is in fact accomplished by means of an article–although the prevailing reward and mobility regimes of the trade tend to militate against such an approach in a lot of scholars’ minds. And maybe editors’ minds too. Articles disappear too easily, or fall between the cracks and don’t get read, it’s thought. So, often there is another biography written about that subject that is generic in every respect except for the chapter with the amazing, important new “stuff.” There should be a way around this problem. Anything that I’ve ever written about anyone that was biographical in any respect (but this is not speaking about book length work) has been about someone who I had literally never heard of until I turned over the stray piece of evidence that brought them to my attention. One of the several occasional “working titles” of my current project has a subtitle that refers to the “Famous (but unknown) Family…” that is the key subject of the book in progress. I like that kind of ambiguity. Editors often don’t.


    • I don’t think we should write biographies of people who have five shelf-feet of books published in the last century. These are the kinds of books (a la DK Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose) that are open to accusations of plagiarism, because really, who has had an original idea about ANY of the So-called “Founding Fathers” in the past forty, fifty years?

      I always tell my students that if you’re worried about being either a perpetrator or a victim of plagiarism, then you’re not doing it right. That is, you’re not trying hard enough to find an original topic. History is so full of possibilities, if only we’d look for them!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know this is not your intention, but it’s pretty hurtful to shame people for their interests. You seem to be complaining about why some people don’t like your book, then blaming them, instead of accepting people’s different interests. You don’t get to point fingers and tell people the things they enjoy are inherently bad. It makes you look smug.


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