But storytelling alone is not enough, at least not for a book that is meant to be more than a throw-away diversion. There's a question that the biographer must constantly ask, and continually answer: Why does this matter?
In The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I tried to combine storytelling and a search for significance on the opening page. The events I describe there are depicted in the illustration in this post, which shows Dr. Jared Linsly, Vanderbilt's personal physician, testifying in December 1877 on the opening day of the trial over the Commodore's will. Vanderbilt left the bulk if his estimated $100 million to his oldest son, William Henry, and the other children were not pleased. One sued to break the will. The trial was a media sensation (revealing the Commodore's prominence in American culture), and led to a fascinating but fragmented and not-always-accurate exploration of his life and character.
So, I pat myself on the back. In fact, a set-piece like the will trial makes the story-significance balancing act seem easy, but it's not. For example, when I wrote about Vanderbilt's role in the business and legal battle that led to Gibbons v. Ogden, the Supreme Court's landmark first commerce-clause case, I struggled for a long time. I got bogged down in petty details (which I thought were important—merely because they hadn't been written about before—but they really weren't). I got caught up in the standard story-line about this episode, which can be summed up as "All hail the downfall of a government-sanctioned monopoly."
I only emerged from this mire when I paid attention what what the participants were saying and thinking, and began to connect it to the broad stream of historians' thinking about the period. Instead of recording every injunction and service of papers in this complicated legal mess, I had to turn to the larger social, cultural, and even political implications. The destruction of a monopoly was indeed one important result of this story, but it also represented a profound shift in American society. Once I made that breakthrough, I saw everything that followed in Vanderbilt's life in a different light.
For all I know, my analysis may not be well received by critics and other historians. What I do know, though, is that it was not an easy process getting there. I had to fail with my first draft of those early chapters before I really worked through what I was seeing in the mountain of evidence I had compiled. But if those (revised) chapters do succeed, then it is because I was able to intertwine the discussion of the larger significance with well-paced storytelling. If I did that properly, then the dramatic events are all the more compelling, because we can see what was at stake.
Well, that's the sort of thing that I like in a book. And it's good advice to write what you like to read.