Thomas H. Wilson
In 480 BC, the Persians under Xerxes invaded Greece. A small Greek army assembled at Thermopylae to oppose the Persian hordes. Plutarch records that Xerxes wrote to Leonidas, King of Sparta and leader of the Greek forces: “Lay down your arms,” to which Leonidas famously replied, “Come and take them.” Trying another tact, the Persian emissary to the Greeks threatened, “Our forces are so numerous, our arrows will darken the skies.” In reply, Leonidas’ general remarked, “Then we shall fight in the shade.” The Spartans died to a man at Thermopylae. Herodotus records Simonides’ commemorative epigram, inscribed at the site in ancient times:
“Go tell the Spartans, thou who passeth by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
Why do such stories so captivate us? There was high drama and a lot at stake at Thermopylae, for Leonidas personally, for the Greek army particularly, and for Greek civilization in general. Leonidas honored his commitment to stand firm, and he and his men died to protect their homeland. We know elements of the story from Plutarch (AD c. 46-120), who was one of the world’s first biographers. His view that "The world of man is best captured through the lives of the men who created history" is perhaps the first expression of great man historiography. Also, Plutarch’s emphasis on the moral aspects of his subjects more than biographical facts is certainly an important aspect in the history of biography.
Why write biography or autobiography? In autobiography, the author controls the story and may introduce whatever slant he or she wishes. The autobiographer may wish to relate the story objectively, but this is difficult even with the best of intentions. Julius Caesar wrote his war commentaries on the campaigns in Gaul in the third person.
This allowed Caesar to claim a greater objectivity than perhaps existed, and to praise himself more fulsomely than might be possible in a first person narrative. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who accompanied Cortés on the conquest of Mexico, declared his objectivity and stated his motivation in telling the story of the conquest (writing c. 1568):
That which I have myself seen and the fighting I have gone thorough, with the help of God, I will describe quite simply, as a fair eye witness without twisting events one way or another. I am now an old man, over eighty-four years of age, and I have lost my sight and hearing, and, as luck would have it, I have gained nothing of value to leave to my children and descendants but this my true story, and they will presently find out what a wonderful story it is.
Jacques Barzun suggested that the technique of outlining can be used two ways: the most common, to map out where the author wishes to go in a piece of writing; the second, outlining after you write to discover what you have written. Applying the second approach to reading revealed the areas of autobiography and biography significant to me. You can do this to explore your own intellectual history. I find that I mostly read biography and autobiography in areas of interest, study and thought that I already hold, such as history, art history and literature. Call me narrow, but it is unlikely that I will be reading about modern politicians, persons in the entertainment industry, or most sports figures (an exception: Roger Bannister’s The Four Minute Mile).
Interest in a subject can lead to investigations through the eyes of participants, and the reverse occurs when study of a particular individual draws one into broader exploration of a field. Narrative and analytical histories of the Civil War led me to biographies of Lincoln, Grant and Sherman.
In addition, Grant wrote his own memoirs of the Civil War and these are justifiably considered among the best war memoirs ever written. Similarly, three major histories of Russia, and interests in Russian fiction from about 1860-1970, suggested biographies of Peter the Great, Tolstoy and Stalin, and from the other side, Hitler and Napoleon. Villains are as captivating as saints.
Biographies of talented individuals, who, either because or in spite of significant flaws, accomplished great things, can be compelling reading. As young British scholar interested in archaeology, T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935) made a study of Crusader castles. When the First World War came, Lawrence was a natural for service in the Middle East because of his knowledge of its geography, cultures and language. His book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, tells the story of the Arab revolt, which he facilitated. He writes:
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dark recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.
Lawrence was with the Arabs when they took Damascus, only to see his hopes for the revolt dashed at the peace conference. Perhaps only now, more than ninety years after the efforts of Lawrence of Arabia, and outside the penumbra of colonialism, are the true fruits of the Arab revolt ripening.
Many of us inhabit professional fields. In addition to reading the academic literature of those disciplines, it is natural to want to know of the leaders and interesting characters that preceded us. My professional field is archaeology, my main geographical areas are the Southwest, Mesoamerica and Eastern Africa. No surprise, then, to read books by or about Adolph Bandelier, the great explorer of the Southwest; Richard Wetherill, who with his brothers investigated and some might say plundered the Mesa Verde area; Edgar Lee Hewett, founder of the Museum of New Mexico; Charles Lummis, great booster of Southern California, prolific writer, and founder of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles; Neil Judd, versatile archaeologist of the Southwest with the Smithsonian Institution; Earl Morris, who worked at Aztec Ruins, New Mexico, and Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, and helped close the gap in tree-ring dating in the Southwest; and A. V. Kidder, one of the great leaders in the field of American archaeology. In Mesoamerica, Sylvanus Morley scoured the region for Mayan inscriptions, led the work of the Carnegie Institution at Chichén Itzá, and wrote a seminal book on The Ancient Maya. J. Eric Thompson was for years the doyen of Maya archaeology, an elegant and prolific writer on all things Maya. Earlier in my career I was lucky enough to direct the Southwest Museum and the Museum of New Mexico, and thus to follow in those positions Charles Lummis in Los Angeles and Edgar Lee Hewett and Sylvanus Morley in Santa Fe.
Sometimes reading interests simply reflect time and place. I lived for seven years in East Africa, and worked for Richard Leakey at the Kenya National Museums. Naturally I read Louis Leakey’s White African and By the Evidence, Mary Leakey’s Disclosing the Past, and Richard Leakey’s One Life. That’s a lot of Leakey autobiography, but two of them were my friends. Other rousing stories are Beryl Markham’s West with the Night and Isak Denesen’s (Karen Blixen) Out of Africa.
Growing up on a mountain ranch in New Mexico, the years in East Africa, and now working as director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History whetted my taste for literature of exploration, natural history and the environment. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and the environmental movement, loved nothing better than sojourning in the high Sierras. John Wesley Powell explored the Colorado River and influenced the United States land and water policy at the Bureau of Ethnology and the United States Geological Survey. Theodore Roosevelt set aside more than 230 million acres in National Parks, Monuments, Forests and other preserves for future generations, including the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest among others in Arizona. Paleontologists of interest include Roy Chapman Andrews, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.
Biographies of artists help understand their work. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, 1550/1568, is to the artists of the Italian Renaissance what Plutarch is to the lives of the noble Greeks and Romans. European artists that interested me enough to read their biographies include Goya, Cezanne and Van Gogh; in the United States these include Church, Moran, Dixon and Borg.
One recent book that takes a biographical approach to its subjects is Simon Schama’s The Power of Art, which presents studies of Caravaggio, Bernini, David, Turner, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko. Many works on the history of art include biographical information because of the often close relationship between an artist’s life and work.
Two compelling biographies with very different stories come from American and Mexican history. John Marshall is perhaps America’s greatest Chief Justice of the United States (served 1801-1835). In Marbury v. Madison, Marshall established the doctrine of judicial review of congressional action. In this and other cases, he favored a robust judiciary, supported strong federal power and made the court system a coeval branch of government. Emiliano Zapata led southern forces in the Mexican revolution. He and Villa took Mexico City in 1914, and Zapata could have established himself in power, but rather like Cincinnatus, he went home, only to take up arms again when reactionary forces usurped the revolution.
He never abandoned his dream of agrarian reform, until Federal troops shot him to pieces at Chinameca plantation in 1919.
Can biographical literature change society? Biography and autobiography can greatly aid in understanding other individuals, peoples and cultures. Knowledge of the struggles of others can increase understanding, build empathy and possibly lead to action. Had more members of the majority culture in this country read the stories of individuals from minority groups, the history of those relationships might have been more positive. An earlier generation of literature exposed the experiences of blacks in America. Richard Wright’s Black Boy (American Hunger) tells the story, shared by so many, of his boyhood in the Jim Crow South and migration to the North. “This was the culture from which I sprang,” wrote Wright of the South, and “This was the terror from which I fled.” In the North, he did not find the promised land that so many sought on the great migration, but rather encountered other forms of oppression and hunger both spiritual and physical. James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver wrote passionately of racial injustice and explored diverse solutions. Baldwin saw the full extent of inequality in America, but he also saw room for hope. He offered the old slave song as prophesy, should blacks and whites fail to solve the problem of racial injustice:
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”
Native American literature provides one more example. These are the words of Black Elk (1863-1950), a holy man of the Oglala Lakota, who was at the Little Big Horn as a youth and at the slaughter at Wounded Knee in 1890:
When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.
These are just some of my humanities. What are yours?
Thomas H. Wilson is Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council and Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.