Penn State professors explain the biographer's challenge

August 28, 2006

University Park, Pa. -- To most people, being a biographer toiling away in library archives and among dusty volumes would not seem like the stuff of high drama. But consider this: The biographer's task has been described as locating the moment in which an entire age seems to see its meaning through the moral drama of a particular life.

And if that's not a daunting enough challenge, consider writing a biography of a person who already has had a plethora of articles and biographies written about him or her. But Penn State professors Carla Mulford and Lori Ginzberg are meeting this challenge head on.

"Well, sometimes studying a well-known figure can work to your advantage," said Mulford, an associate professor of English who is writing a study of Benjamin Franklin's theories about empire that will be largely biographical. "From the 1990s on, about three biographies of Franklin have appeared every two to three years. Suddenly people are discovering Franklin, creating a market -- both for academic and a general audiences -- that's still going strong."

One way to differentiate one's work is to focus on a particular time and aspect of someone's life. Mulford's focus on Franklin's views about empire suggests her interest in the social and economic fabric of Franklin's day. The recent recipient of a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, Mulford has been interested in writing about Franklin since she was in graduate school. Her adviser was writing a multi-volume biography of Franklin at the time, and it piqued her interest.

"Doing annotations for my adviser's book was the first time I'd read Franklin," she recalled. "My adviser was incredibly knowledgeable about Franklin -- his biography of the man was projected to be six volumes long. But I knew we had diametrically opposed viewpoints of Franklin and that I had a very different understanding of his actions."

Mulford was -- and continues to be -- especially interested in Franklin's writings about peoples globally dispersed, Franklin's efforts abroad to negotiate peace, and his final decision to join the colonists in their bitter fight against Britain. So now, about 20 years past her doctoral thesis on Joel Barlow, British North America's second international diplomat (in Mulford's words, "the next best person to working on Franklin"), she finally is fulfilling a long-awaited goal: reinterpreting a key period of Franklin's life.

"People always believed that Franklin was enamored of Britain and that he wanted to be a British statesman and leader. I don't hold with that view," she said. "In his day, leading ministers to the Crown offered to put Franklin up for the British Parliament, if he'd remain in England. Franklin refused; he considered himself a Briton, but a Briton of North America, not of England. I think when he saw the paucity of laboring opportunities in England and the poverty of the working people in England, Scotland, and Ireland -- which had a manorial plantation system not unlike British North America's -- it was an epiphany. I believe this is when he began to critique the entire system of empire and England's vaunted liberalism."

One key to Mulford's perspective lies in some letters Franklin discovered while in England in 1773. He'd always believed that the British should not impose governors on the American colonies, because he thought that governors should come from the colonists themselves. The letters, written by an American who was employed, in effect, as a British governor for Massachusetts, complained that the colonial Americans were recalcitrant and would not accept England's role -- so oppressive measures should be taken.

"Franklin knew immediately that this meant force by British militias," said Mulford. "He made copies of the letters and sent them to Boston -- where they were circulated and published. Franklin was discovered to be the vehicle by which these letters appeared, and he was roundly denounced in the King's Privy Council. He was lucky; he could have been tried for treason and hanged."

All biographers must make decisions about their subjects -- and their actions -- and draw conclusions. Bias is a given; the recording of history is a subjective task and no one would claim total objectivity. There is fair and balanced history, said history and women's studies professor Lori Ginzberg, but no such thing as writing history that lacks perspective or point of view.

Having recently won a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Fellowship Award to write a biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ginzberg is grappling with her subject's point of view on her own accomplishments.

"I'd always known that the idea of equal rights didn't spring full blown from Stanton's head," she said. "Yet this is what she implies in her memoirs and it has long influenced both her and our notion of the history of women's suffrage."

In her previous book, "Untidy Origins," Ginzberg wrote about six entirely unknown women in upstate New York who publicly demanded women's full equal rights two years before Stanton's demand at the Seneca Falls convention. Intrigued by this very radical thought by these women who lived in an isolated region on the Canadian border and then began the process by petitioning their state constitutional convention made Ginzberg think about rewriting the standard narrative of the women's rights movement. In her own memoir, Stanton completely neglected these women that, Ginzberg said, she had to have known about.

"She shaped her personal history to reflect both her own singular leadership and a particular way of thinking about women's rights and equality," said Ginzberg.

This new work is Ginzberg's first venture into the life of a famous person; her past publications all have been about largely unknown women.

Another aspect of the Stanton book has to do with the issue of women's history writing, which only became a serious topic for academic study 30 years ago -- barely a blip in the realm of history.

"There hasn't been a serious biography of Stanton written since the bulk of the last wave of women's history writing," she explained.

The variables a biographer must deal with when undertaking a new work of a famous person -- the political and social tenor of the time both for the subject and the writer, already-written materials, commonly held beliefs, just to name a few -- are vast and can be intimidating. Ginzberg said that for her, the main challenge is the prospect of taking on a person's life when that person has become an icon.

"Different biographers ask different questions and reach different conclusions," she said. "The best history is clear argument and interpretation and, most of all, a great story."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009