Ron Chernow, 2013 BIO Award Winner, Talks About His Work

Ron Chernow Alexander Hamilton Washington

Chernow Talks Shop

Here is the interview of Ron Chernow conducted by BIO board member Will Swift, to recognize Chernow’s selection as the winner of the 2013 BIO Award.


Swift: You have said that a biographer’s subjects should have a “natural relation to each other” and “should flow out of one another in some interesting way” that brings the reader “along on this journey.” Using the arc of your biographies as an example, can you tell us about the value of this approach?

Chernow: When I was writing my first book, The House of Morgan, in the late 1980s, I decided that I wanted to have not merely readers but a readership—a group of loyal people who would follow me from book to book and would expect a distinctive experience from me. So I wanted my books to bear a family resemblance to each other, united by a common mood, voice, style, and sensibility. I also hoped that my biographies would possess a cumulative impact, adding up to a composite portrait of the evolution of American society.

Swift: How did you make the transition from writing about 20th-century financial titans to 18th-century Founding Fathers? What led you to make that shift, and how did you first undertake it?

Chernow: As I said, I wanted to create a line of continuity from one book to the next, but that literary strategy runs the grave risk that the books will become stale and repetitive. After I published my third book, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr., I began to sense the danger of becoming stereotyped as the chronicler of American tycoons. When I finished a lecture, people in the audience would start shouting out, “Do Carnegie next! Do Vanderbilt next!” as if I would go on knocking off Gilded Age moguls for the rest of my career. I knew it was time to make a switch. Alexander Hamilton was the perfect transitional figure for my next book, because there would be financial history galore while also opening up vast new subjects for study: military history, constitutional law, foreign policy, and dozens of other topics. And his story transported me back to a different century, a different era.

Swift: How do you approach your research? And do you write an outline?

Chernow: For me the first order of business is to steep myself in the earlier biographies of the subject. Some biographers avoid this and head straight for the original sources, but I like to see how the person has traditionally been portrayed. Historical figures tend to become caricatured over time. By mastering the earlier biographies, I find that as I then plunge into the primary materials, I am sensitized to the ways in which the subject differs from the consensus. And that discrepancy between the stereotype and the person I encounter firsthand in the papers is to me the sweet zone of biographical research. I never use outlines since biographies are fortified by the backbone of chronology. How wonderful and handy always to have a beginning, middle, and end of your story waiting ready-made for you.

Swift: You are now writing a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. How did you make this choice? What new challenges and satisfactions are emerging in this book?

Chernow: Once you complete a biography of George Washington, you realize that you have scaled a very tall peak. You look around and no other mountain seems quite as lofty. Washington was the towering figure of the Revolutionary War, followed by a two-term presidency, and I thought that Grant was the analogous figure of the Civil War, albeit followed by a more checkered two terms as president. Grant presents a challenge because he was often closed and taciturn, but I had already faced that problem with Rockefeller and Washington. Perhaps the bigger challenge lay in the inconsistency of Grant’s life: so many highs and lows. An Alexander Hamilton was born to thrive and succeed in any environment. By contrast, Ulysses S. Grant could only display his greatness under a precise set of circumstances.

Swift: Can you describe a couple times when you faced major obstacles or doubts in the course of writing your books and explain how you surmounted them?

Chernow: My first two books, The House of Morgan and The Warburgs, were sprawling, multigenerational sagas, teeming with characters and covering several generations of each banking dynasty. The inescapable problem was how to endow these disparate stories with a sense of cohesion and prevent them from feeling overloaded with episodes. The answer was to have a powerful thematic structure that would bind together the many personalities and periods. Chronology gives shape to stories; themes lend them the essential depth and shading.

Swift: What is the through line (or what are the major themes) in your body of work?

Chernow: I believe strongly that a biographer has to do more than just spin an interesting yarn out of a colorful character. People approach me constantly with fascinating tales of this or that individual, but their meaning doesn’t transcend the life of that person. I want each of my subjects to embody a bigger trend in American life. With J. P. Morgan it was the rise of Anglo-American finance, with Rockefeller the rise of big business. With Hamilton and Washington, I dealt with the forging of the nation from the Revolutionary War, through the Constitutional Convention, to the creation of the federal government. These people fashioned the building blocks of American society, and their lives illuminate that larger process.

Swift: You believe biographers “need to pursue those things the subject never mentions and generally seeks to avoid.” Could you elaborate on this point, giving some examples from your biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and other?

Chernow: In my keynote speech, I plan to explore the ways that subjects try to resist and evade their future biographers. Most people are secretive about large portions of their private and public lives. Even someone as chatty as Alexander Hamilton—one of the most verbal figures who ever lived—almost never referred to his early years in the Caribbean, which covered a full third of his life. Perhaps Rockefeller was the supreme example of someone ducking his future biographer: he wrote every business letter with extreme caution, as if it might someday fall into the hands of a prosecuting attorney. In my speech, I will try to explain how I penetrated these sphinx-like characters.

Swift: What dangers does a 21st-century biographer face and what advantages does he/she have when using a modern psychological approach to create a visceral appreciation of a character from an earlier century?

Chernow: As someone with a special interest in psychology, I have always wrestled with this question of how to introduce modern psychological concepts when writing about 18th- or 19th-century personalities. My first rule is to avoid the terminology of modern psychology, which can be jarring and anachronistic when introduced into a world where those terms didn’t exist. I don’t want to break the spell of the period in that way. My second rule is never to assume that the same psychological syndromes that exist today were present in earlier times. I guess that I try to grasp my characters with the standard tools of the novelist or dramatist, showing how character emerges under the stress of events. One falls back on timeless truths about human nature. Think William Shakespeare instead of Sigmund Freud.

Swift: How do you write consistently beautifully and sharply amid decades of chronology and detail?

Chernow: One secret of writing biography is to figure out how long to spend on the book. Spend too little time and you haven’t mastered the material or added anything significant to our knowledge of this person. Spend too much time and you will begin to grow weary and lose the sparkle of your prose. One way to stay fresh is to immerse yourself in the period. Listen to the music or read the literature of the time, rather than maintaining a relentless focus on the person. That will produce a rounder and richer portrait in the end. Any biography worth the name is a story of both the life and the times.

Swift: Who are your literary role models?

Chernow: I always hesitate to name biographers I admire, lest I inadvertently omit and offend people whose work I genuinely cherish. So let me single out a dead historian. Right before I began my first book, I read Arthur Schlesinger’s New Deal trilogy, and it became my model of superb historical writing. Schlesinger always places FDR in the context of his time and aims to satisfy both the lay and the specialist audience by combining a crisply paced narrative with subtle, astute analysis of the intellectual forces molding the New Deal. I have tried to straddle both the academic and the general audience, and it was Schlesinger who inspired me to attempt that.

Swift: What are the key components which distinguish a great biography from a good one?

Chernow: My ideal biography makes the person come alive to the point that if the person were suddenly resurrected and walked into the room, I would know exactly how she or he looked, sounded, talked, walked, and behaved. Rather than trying to force the subject into a mold by omitting things that might make the reader like or dislike the character, I strive to present a multiplicity of viewpoints. I am never afraid to introduce the objectionable sides of my subjects; great figures, I trust, can carry the weight of their own defects. A top-notch biography should provide so much information, so many perspectives on the character, that the reader can draw a conclusion quite different from that of the author. To me that is testimony of just how alive the character has become.