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?”