Thursday, August 27, 2009
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Life right now is a bit too busy to devote much time to my blog. So here's a rip-off of a blog entry: An excerpt from the Q&A I did with the Gilder Lehrman Institute's blog, History Now. You can find the whole thing here.
Your last two books have focused on an outlaw and a robber baron–Jesse James and Commodore Vanderbilt. Are you generally more interested in writing about the “villains” of history?
A fair question, though I don’t think I would put it that way. I am drawn to iconic figures, to physically adventurous lives, and to those who cut their own paths through life. Certainly both Jesse James and Commodore Vanderbilt are iconic, and they set the terms of their own existence. And their lives were full of conflict, which makes for great drama. But I’m not so much interested in villains as in complicated and controversial individuals. Jesse James could be charming and funny yet ruthlessly murder an unarmed victim. Vanderbilt was honest and invariably true to his word, yet he pursued his own interests regardless of the consequences for the public—consequences that grew to be vast as the Commodore essentially invented big business in the United States. And both men were loved and hated by the public during their lifetimes.
Most important, I am drawn to figures who illuminate the larger themes of American history. Jesse James’s life was shaped by slavery, the Civil War, and the fight over racial equality during Reconstruction. Vanderbilt helped to create the modern economy—and, along with it, such problems as the polarization of wealth and the conundrum of corporate power in a democratic society.
How do you go about researching a biography? Do you begin with secondary sources or primary sources?
Biographical research begins with the last biography to be published. I always start with secondary sources, reading for a broad background, and combing through the endnotes to compile an initial list of sources. Then comes the brainstorming—trying to think of seemingly tangential paths of research, often shaped by the particular interpretation I am providing of my subject. For example, with Jesse James, I looked into the political debates that provided the context for how he was seen by the public during his lifetime. I read the other editorials by John Newman Edwards, the newspaper editor who worked to elevate Jesse James to heroic status, to understand the role that the outlaw played—that Edwards wanted him to play. I read the industry journals of the railroads and express companies to understand his role (or lack of one) as an economic avenger.
With Cornelius Vanderbilt, the task was much more complicated, because the last serious attempt at a biography was published in 1942. There was vastly more archival material available, but much of it was not indexed or linked to Vanderbilt in any manuscript catalogs. Nor did he leave any collection of papers behind. So I had to dig into collections connected to the people or businesses that Vanderbilt was connected to. By looking up papers connected to the Stonington Railroad, for example (the first line that Vanderbilt ever controlled), I found a treasure trove of letters about him for a period of his life that previously was largely unknown. By trolling through the papers of Erastus Corning, I found dozens of insider reports on Vanderbilt’s doings as he constructed his railroad empire. And I stumbled into two absolutely critical archives of civil lawsuit papers. Even when working in papers used by previous biographers, I found numerous letters that had not been cited before.
In other words, I find it essential to think broadly, follow up tangents, and give yourself time to get lucky. Finally, the digitization of material, especially newspapers, has changed the face of research. It is problematic—it takes time, leads to lots of false hits, and requires access to a research library—but research in digital archives can lead quickly to important discoveries.
How do you know when you’ve done enough research and are ready to begin writing?
After I’ve gone through my initial list of collections, then conducted fresh research down those tangents I’ve talked about, the decision to stop comes from a sense that I really get what this life is all about. This relates to interpretation and analysis. What does this activity or period really mean? What is important about it? How does it reflect or shed light on larger themes? When I wrote my first draft of the first chapters of The First Tycoon, my editor told me to go back to work: something was missing. He didn’t know what it was, but I soon figured it out. Vanderbilt’s early life was wrapped up in the downfall of the eighteenth-century culture of deference, and the rise of a more individualistic and commercial, competitive society. More secondary-source research helped me identify the central theme, and fresh research in the archives led me to the point where I thought I could write the story, as I came to see it. And that’s what draws a boundary around research: knowing what the story really is, and sensing that you’ve got it.
Do you have any writing habits or techniques, and was the process of writing The First Tycoon the same as that of Jesse James?
Since I’m not an academic, I can’t afford to work on a manuscript without an advance from a publisher. That means I have to write a book proposal first. But this is a very useful process. I have to identify what’s interesting about the subject, and what my fresh interpretation or approach will be. I have to outline the book, chapter by chapter, and get a grip on what else has been written about the subject. Of course, the chapter organization usually changes in the process of writing, and new books may be published in the interim, but it helps to have a structure at the outset.
Then I begin at the beginning. Since the historical context is so important to me, I sometimes begin before the beginning. For example, Jesse James doesn’t really show up for the first 100 pages of Jesse James. This is because I think it is essential to understand the disintegration of Missouri society in the run-up to the Civil War in order to understand Jesse James’s actions and popularity. I can’t imagine writing the end without fully digesting the beginning and middle. And I have to write about something to really fully digest it.
I proceeded the same way with The First Tycoon, but it was a much more complicated and difficult process, because Vanderbilt lived a far longer life. More than that, he was at the center of American history for nearly seventy years. This was a man who drove Lafayette in a carriage, hired Daniel Webster, sat in Chief Justice John Marshall’s courtroom, was in a train wreck along with John Quincy Adams, gave a ferry ride to Andrew Jackson, advised Abraham Lincoln on fighting the Merrimack, and negotiated with John D. Rockefeller.
As both a historian and a writer, this presented a different set of challenges. I couldn’t honestly strike a single interpretive note, as I did with the short-lived Jesse James. So, too, was there a great deal of change over the decades in Vanderbilt’s personality and private life. But I had to provide an organic unity to both my historical interpretations and my portrait of him as an individual. Though I took years to write it, I had to make sure it didn’t feel disjointed or pasted together. That meant I had to rewrite extensively. One reviewer mentioned that the book is full of surprising turns. That’s terrific, as long as I managed to present them so that they make sense, emerging organically out of what came before, and not as jarring departures. The Vanderbilt of later years, the diplomatic empire-builder, should seem like the same (if changed) person as the combative monopoly-destroyer of his youth; and both should seem to logically reflect the deeper changes in the American economy and society.
But that’s the pleasure of writing biography for me—trying to merge history and literature.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
This photograph shows Cornelius Vanderbilt, seated on the right with crossed legs and top hat, on the veranda of the Congress Hall hotel in Saratoga Springs in the 1870s. I like this image. It nicely illustrates life in Saratoga, the most famous resort town of the nineteenth century. It also shows what a celebrity Vanderbilt was.