Thursday, April 8, 2010

Whipped Syllabubs

One of the greatest joys—and challenges—of researching and writing biography is uncovering the man (or woman) behind the myth.

Writing about a person no one has ever heard of, as I did in the mid 1990s when I wrote about Waterhouse Hawkins, can be tricky: it’s often difficult to find enough research material to write your book, and even if you can, you then face the challenge of convincing a publisher that your ‘never-heard-of-him’ subject will be enticing enough to get noticed by readers.

Writing about a person everyone has heard of presents a different set of challenges. (I never imagined, as I searched and scraped for tidbits of info on Waterhouse, that I would one day bemoan having too much material to wade through while writing a biography, and yet at times, in the years since Waterhouse, I have been buried up to my eyeballs in primary and secondary sources about Walt Whitman, Alice Roosevelt, and Mark Twain.)

Famous people tend to have a lot of stuff written about them, and so while you might be able to convince a publisher that there will be plenty of interest in a book on your subject, you also need to have a fresh approach to counter the ‘already-know-too-much-about-him’ reality of today’s tight marketplace.

Famous people also tend to have a kind of mythology tied to their fame. I say “Mark Twain” and an image pops into people’s heads of a brilliant, funny man with crazy white hair and an exuberantly full mustache, dressed in a white suit and smoking a big cigar. And Twain was brilliant and funny, with crazy hair, a huge mustache, a white suit and often a big cigar. But he was a lot more, of course. And it is the job of a biographer to dig deeper and present a richer portrait, to take readers past the myth to the man.

How does a biographer do this?

Research, and lots of it.

Secondary sources are invaluable to paint an overall picture and provide a cultural and historical perspective. But my favorite source of information is primary sources—what I think of as ‘eyewitness accounts.’ That’s where all the juicy details come from.

I’m currently working on a biography of not one but two famous people, stuffed into the same book. (Yeah, I know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.) John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Talk about mythology! Jefferson is carved in stone on Mt. Rushmore, for heaven’s sake! And it is in primary sources that I am finding details to help uncover just who these men were.

And so we have Adams, portly Adams, detailing in his diary all the culinary wonders he experiences as a new delegate to Congress in 1774:

“A most sinfull Feast again! Every Thing which could delight the Eye, or allure the Taste, Curds and Creams, Jellies, Sweat meats of various sorts, 20 sorts of Tarts, fools, Trifles, floating Islands, whippd Sillabubs &c. &c.”

The champion of democracy had a real sweet tooth.

And we have Jefferson, elegant Jefferson, meticulously noting in his Memorandum Book his expenditures as he shops the Philadelphia markets in 1775 and 1776:

“Pd. Starr for shoes 21/”
“Pd. for handkerchiefs 6/8”
“Pd. for pr. of gloves 7/6”
“Pd. Currie for leather breeches 35/”
“Pd. For a straw hat 10/”

The author of the Declaration of Independences was a bit of a clotheshorse.

Biographies are built around the whipped syllabubs, the shoes, gloves and handkerchiefs, which take men and women off the pedestal (out of the portrait, off the face of Mt. Rushmore) and place them squarely before us, to be admired not as mythological figures, but as the extraordinary and all-too-human people they were.


Deborah Heiligman said...

Can't WAIT to read this one, Barb!

Carol Hinz said...

John Hancock was another huge clotheshorse. He was briefly involved in the fighting during the American Revolution, and most of his battle planning involved figuring out how servants would transport his dirty clothes from the battle site at Newport, RI, to Boston and return with clean ones! (Yes, I learned that from editing a NF book for children. Isn't nonfiction grand?)

Barbara Kerley said...

Deb -- Thanks!

Carol -- Hah, love your anecdote. Thanks for sharing it!