Skeptical Biographer

One of the great reasons to live where we do is the Phillips Exeter Academy Library.  I can WALK to the library, indeed when I walk our dog Sunny, we generally walk to the library and back, just to enjoy the view from there of the Academy Building.  I have been known to tie Sunny up outside and just pop in to check something.

I went to the library this morning to check the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson:  I am speaking tomorrow in Concord, and wanted to add a detail or two about the meeting between the Sage of Concord and the Statesman of Auburn.  How many high school libraries have not the abridged journals of Emerson but all fifteen scholarly volumes?  Exeter does, up on floor 3M, along with the biographies and essays of other literary figures.

As I often do, I looked at a few other books while I was in the library, and pulled down one by Wallace Stegner, a biography of Bernard DeVoto.  Both are authors I know slightly; I have read Stegner’s Angle of Repose and DeVoto’s Year of Decision.  Both are authors I would like to know better; indeed sometimes I dream about retiring and reading all day every day.

Anyway, as sometimes happens, a page from a book I pull down from the shelf speaks to me, almost SCREAMS to me.  Here is the opening quote in Stegner’s biography of DeVoto:

“Biography is the wrong field for the mystical, and for the wishful, the tender-minded, the hopeful, and the passionate.  It enforces an unremitting skepticism—toward its material, toward the subject, most of all toward the biographer. . . . His job is not dramatic; it is only to discover evidence and analyze it.  And all the evidence he can find is the least satisfactory kind, documentary evidence, which is among the most treacherous phenomena in a malevolent world.  With luck he will be certain of the dates of his subject’s birth and marriage and death, the names of his wife and children, and a limited number of things he did and offices he held and trades he practiced and places he visited and manuscript pages he wrote, people he praised or attacked, and some remarks made about him.  Beyond that, not even luck can make certainty possible.  The rest is merely printed matter, and a harassed man who sweats out his life in libraries, courthouses, record offices, vaults, newspaper morgues, and family attics.  A harassed man who knows that he cannot find everything and is willing to believe that, forever concealed from him, exists something which, if found, would prove what he takes to be facts are only appearances.”  Bernard DeVoto, the Skeptical Biographer.

I am feeling, as I work on Edwin McMasters Stanton, somewhat harassed.  There is a great deal of material to review:  as Secretary of War, Stanton received thousands of reports, issued thousands of orders.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of newspaper articles about Stanton, both positive and negative and just reporting.  And there are some (not enough) Stanton personal letters, although even in these he tended not to answer the questions I would like to pose to him.  But I often have the sense that somewhere, just over the horizon, is the key to this mysterious man.