Chernow Keynote Speech Highlight of Fourth BIO Conference

With the non-stop buzz of midtown Manhattan as a backdrop, more than 200 biographers from eight countries attended the fourth annual Compleat Biographer Conference on May 18 at the Roosevelt Hotel. The day featured 19 panels, and attendees were treated to a keynote speech by Ron Chernow, winner of the 2013 BIO Award.

Chernow received his award after the conference luncheon from Will Swift, author of the forthcoming Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage and a member of the BIO Award committee. Chernow’s most recent book, Washington: A Life, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. His previous books include a look at J.P. Morgan and the financial empire he established and biographies of John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton.

In his speech, Chernow reviewed his immersion into the lives of several of these major figures in American history, explaining his interest in subjects who, he found, tried to keep their inner lives hidden. He called them sphinxes and “strangers to introspection,” and his role was to strip away disguises and probe beneath their secrecy. Rockefeller, Chernow said, often wrote letters in what seemed like a code, leaving out explicit details that might have shed light on his financial dealings. Hamilton avoided sharing information about his illegitimacy and years as a youth in the Caribbean—years Chernow called a “dark undertow” that pulled on the brilliant man throughout his life. (Chernow saw that brilliance in Hamilton’s writings, and five years of pouring over his subject’s prolific work sometimes left the biographer feeling like “a dithering idiot.”) Chernow’s suggestion to others: Follow the silences of a subject’s life, the people and events they won’t discuss or choose to discount, to find keys to their personality. On the other hand, a subject’s own writings can obscure who he or she really is: “Personality can disappear behind a fancy cloud of words.”

With Washington, Chernow was dealing with a subject whose life had been explored in depth many times before. What he wanted to do with his biography of the president was to find what his predecessors had missed: Washington’s suppressed emotions, his carefully cultivated image of himself as man always under control. Through the writings of Washington’s contemporaries, Chernow found the anger the leader usually tried to hide. Biographers, Chernow said, need to look behind stereotypes and “received wisdom” about their subjects to truly understand them.

The voluminous archives of Washington’s documents helped Chernow achieve that understanding. As with Hamilton and his other subjects, he spent several years doing research. Chernow said that searching long and hard enough can reveal the essence of a biographer’s subject.

For a link to an AP article covering Chernow’s speech, go here.