Hey, Kids–go to iTunes or just click here to hear my interview with The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling about my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. We all had a great time recording this and talking to one another. I was extremely gratified to hear how much John and Drew like the book, especially because John is an important historian of religion, and I’ve been a little nervous about what those folks might think of my treatment of the subject (which is pretty extensive, given that there is a giant nun face on the cover of the book!)
The subject of this episode was not just Esther Wheelwright, but biography in general. John’s first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), was a biography of a young early American diarist. In the podcast, he reflects on some contrasting reviews this book received. One review described it as a “deeply sympathetic” biography, which made him reflect on whether or not he had achieved objective distance from his subject; and another, which called Fithian “an insufferable prig and schlemiel,” which made John feel defensive: “How dare this historian describe Philip this way? I felt like I needed to defend a friend from a bully.”
Writing about an individual who left so little of her own writing behind–and none of it autobiographical (just a few business letters from her term as mother superior)–makes it pretty easy to avoid sympathetic identification with a subject. I think it’s when you have a diary, or a stack of letters that let you into their heads a little bit that you risk becoming an advocate or a partisan instead of a historical biographer.
It’s not difficult to empathize with Esther Wheelwright’s experiences and challenges, considering that she endured so much trauma and disruption in childhood. Perhaps in some respects, NOT having a stack of personal papers to use in writing my biography was a gift: I had to struggle to get inside her head, instead of worrying about getting sufficient critical distance, as John’s comments imply.
Check out the full interview, “Episode 11: Biography: An Appraisal,” and subscribe! And if you haven’t seen John’s blog lately, check out some of his recent posts, which will surely be of interest to readers here, such as “Has Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party?”
2 thoughts on “Historiann on The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast!”
If I’m remembering anything from early childhood, a nun with a ruler in her hand can let her biographer roam at will, free to avoid becoming a hovering defender. Anything that I’ve ever done, am doing, or contemplate doing that revolves substantially around reconstructing a specific life course I still don’t think of as doing “a biography,” because I always drift into deep context, or at least context, and I don’t tend to have issues of identification. Even when making a case, I think I can at least affect objective detachment. One does have, of course, to identify with the facts and the record as uncovered, and a couple of things that I have on the bench now involve treating figures who have been reduced to caricatures of one sort or another, often across a whole range of previous biographical treatments. In that case, you *do* have to advert to the facts and the record, perhaps even tendentiously in some degree, which may come across as a form of defending the subject. In one other thing that I have in process, I’m seeing the original “subject” of the study slowly all-but-dissolve into the context, like a “tiny time pill,” or an antacid tablet in a bubbling glass of water. Maybe it would be better to say a bankroll-able film star becoming more and more of an ensemble player in his own script, or even a wizened character actor, or a candidate for a “best supporting” trophy. As Clio once said, what happens, happens.
Heard the podcast and highly recommend it. As also with the Boston radio interview.