Do We Need To Like The People We Write About?
How one historian tries to be transparent about biases
On May 28, Pulitzer Prize-winner Gordon Wood reviewed Pulitzer Prize-winner Alan Taylor’s new book, American Republics. The reviewed caused quite the Twitter brouhaha among historians, journalists, and readers. The line that stuck out the most for me is this one: “It is startling to witness just how much the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor at Jefferson’s own university dislikes its patron, Thomas Jefferson.”
For starters, it’s not a job requirement that we like the people that started the organizations or universities where we are employed. Cassie Good commented that this isn’t part of our historical training. That would be a bit silly. Really successful people could often be jerks.
But it brings up a larger question about whether we need to like our historical subjects. This subject has been in the news a fair amount, and last month I wrote about why the Founders are useful for historical study, even if, especially because they weren’t perfect. But how to actually do that is a separate question. This concept has been on my mind a lot lately as I dive head first into book two and naturally have to consider which figures I want to spend the next several years writing about.
Someone once said that when writing a biography, you should never fall in love with your subjects (as a side note, I spent a fair amount of time Googling trying to figure out who said that? I think maybe Jill Lepore?). That’s great advice. Just like it would be hard to write honest biographies of our mom or our spouse, so too it’s a challenge to write about someone when you are absolutely besotted with their personality.
That’s not to say we can’t like aspects about the people we study. It certainly helps! For example, I loved that Washington adored dogs, I find John Quincy Adam’s snarky-ness endlessly hilarious, and John Adams’s love letters to Abigail can’t help but warm my heart. Enjoying these small details helps us get through the long hours of research and writing.
Yet, I also acknowledge it would also be the height of human arrogance to assume that we can treat our subjects with complete objectivity. That’s impossible. We aren’t machines. We all have ingrained biases, preferences, and…