Moderator Cathy Curtis began by posing several questions, including, how can a biographer fairly assess a life that has both great achievements and moral failures? and, can a subject’s flaws offer new insights into his or her contributions? Panelists Joshua Kendall, Barbara Will, and Evelyn Barish addressed these and other issues through the prism of their experience on their most recent books.
Kendall, author of American Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation, argued the negative aspects of compulsive behavior he saw in creative people also explained their successes, whether it was Ted Williams’s obsession with hitting or Charles A. Lindbergh’s constant desire to be in control of all situations. He also noted that speculating about a subject’s dark side can upset the purveyors of conventional wisdom. Fawn Brodie, he noted, was attacked for suggesting that Thomas Jefferson slept with Sally Heming, though science later vindicated her.
Will and Barish have recently written about people who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. For Will, giving some historical context for the era helps show the shades of gray in what many have perceived as a black-and-white moral picture. Gertrude Stein, though Jewish, sought the protection of a Vichy official. For Will, providing context is not meant to justify a subject’s actions, but perhaps bring some understanding to them.
Barish’s subject, literary theorist Paul de Man, was not only a collaborator but also a felon and a bigamist who abandoned his first family. She knew what she revealed would upset the many supporters de Man garnered after he came to the States and began his academic career—supporters who didn’t know the details of his past. For Barish, the key was to simply let the facts speak for themselves and document them well—an approach Will seconded. For Barish, her bigger concern was “the children will be hurt, and that truly bothered me.” But in the end she realized, “You either do the book or you don’t.”
At one point, Will wondered if seeking a subject’s dark side was the biographer’s own dark side: “We want to know the dirt.” An audience member asked if biographers have to fight the urge to judge or come off as morally superior when dealing with subjects’ dark side. Kendall said the biographer can avoid that by having empathy, by trying to understand the role of early traumas, or, again, understanding the historical context. For Barish, presenting facts does not equal passing moral judgment.
Will called on biographers to be willing to tackle the possible dark side of canonical figures of the twentieth century. But for professors contemplating such a move she advised, “Don’t write the controversial book until you have gotten tenure.”