American biography in the age of the Human Stain

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

As you while away the hours today waiting to vote tomorrow, and/or obsessively clicking on political news stories and the latest, last polls–click on over to my refreshing, totally non-political chat with Sara Damiano at the Junto about The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright.  Sara asked what I’d like people to take away from my book about a woman I say has been “doomed to obscurity:”

I’m not optimistic that anything is going to change any time soon. Take a look at Bonnie Smith’s book about the discipline of history systematically erasing women in history and as historians, then take a look at the books that win the Bancroft Prize, the National Book Awards, or really any list of prizewinning books outside of prizes specifically for women’s and gender history. Books with “Empire” in the title have been doing really well (#BecauseEmpire!) Biographies of male political and military leaders are still huge.

I know I chose poorly in writing about Esther Wheelwright. I chose to write about a little girl and a woman in a man’s world using the tools of a male-dominated discipline. I wrote about a Catholic in a language and historiography that privileges Protestant men and sees Catholics as superstitious, backwards, and anti-democratic. I wrote about a victim of warfare and captivity in a culture that privileges winning and winners at all costs. I wrote about someone who crossed borders and so doesn’t fit into any one national history or historiographical tradition. What was I thinking?

I was thinking that what we see as important and who we see as central to the story are choices, not self-evident truths. Nothing is inevitable. Everything is eminently evitable.

Check it out, and consider where the intellectual tradition of the Great Man has wrought on our current politics.

2 thoughts on “American biography in the age of the Human Stain

  1. This post put me in mind of the hot new theoretical subgenre of braided counterfactual biography. On this, the last full day of his political career, the human stain would probably say, “Well, she got captured, didn’t she? I prefer colonial kids who didn’t get captured. If she had just thought to smear on some bear-grease before the siege at Wells, and run like hell, she would have stayed out of trouble and had about nine kids, on average.” The fictive obverse would be (speaking of the would-have-been senator from an about-to-be-blue state) “So the guy got shot down, right? I prefer fliers who don’t get shot down. But if he’d just ‘checked out’ of that ‘hotel’ in Hanoi, and met with General Giap for a few rice beers, he would be a senior defense advisor by now to the quietly pro-American regime over there, working on deals to buy American destroyers to help bottle up Chinese territorial ‘claims’ in the South ‘China’ Sea. Instead of a sunburned hack senator, carping and quibbling every time Sheriff Arpaio comes up with a new idea to keep the streets safe down there.”

    The New York Times reports today that Trump’s staff “took away” his Twitter account, helping to explain his recent ability to stay (somewhat) “on-message.” I hope somebody got video on that. I’m making my way west right now to hammer one more blue nail into the Keystone Coffin, and staying off of 538!


  2. “And not the perfectly desexualized Christian man-god and his uncontaminated mother and all the guilt and shame that an exquisite unearthliness inspires. Instead the Greek Zeus, entangled in adventures, vividly expressive, capricious, sensual, exuberantly wedded to his own rich existence, anything but alone and anything but hidden. Instead, the divine stain.” – Philip Roth, The Human Stain

    This is way better than Bob Dylan.


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