A new approach to biography and writing and dying in public view: newsletter, August 13, 2021

August 15, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,294) on Friday, August 13, 2021.

In the three or so days during and before this section has been written, the New York Times has published the following sentences: 

– Mr. Trumka’s approach did not appear to be resolving an existential crisis for the U.S. labor movement, 

– . . . which had happened to him briefly years ago and caused a kind of existential crisis.

– . . . both by existential dread, and by the fear of being killed by police.

– It will likely frustrate practical-minded viewers and reward those interested in existential ruminations.

The word “existential” appeared in the Times on average no less than twice a day for the first eight days of August. You get the theme here. Look up “existential” in your online dictionary, and you won’t get much help. At least, that was my existential experience. (If you can get back into the NYT archives, here’s an article by William Safire on the word.)

Journalists love words, and they tend to fall in love with certain words. The problem is that when journalists use a word such as “existential” and, I admit, it’s a lovely and important-sounding word—the imprecise language fails the reader. And that could be an existential crisis. But we don’t know.

Have a great weekend.

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Lytton Strachey blazes a new path for biographers

If you tried to read a biography during the late 19th or early 20th century, chances are it was pretty rough going and very possibly not very enlightening. Biographies during that time adhered to strict Victorian standards of propriety and subservience to the rich and famous. The good qualities and achievements of the subject were inflated, and mistakes or flaws were ignored or explained away.

In other words, hagiography rather than biography.

Lytton Strachey, with the publication of his Eminent Victorians in 1918, pointed biography in a different direction and changed biographical writing for everyone who came after him.

Strachey’s book is a collection of four biographical portraits of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles Gordon that Strachey meant to be the first of a series that would show how Victorians were bound up by their ideas of sex and religion. Strachey emphasized the psychology of his subjects rather than the historical facts, some of which he got wrong.

It was the style with which he wrote about these eminent Victorians that set biography on a new course.

The book appears at number 50 on The Guardian’s 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century, and this is part of what editor Robert McCrum says about it:

Eminent Victorians would transform the art of biography, but it did not do so by force of content or integrity of method. Strachey was a great stylist. His inimitable tone is most in evidence in “The End of General Gordon”:

“The glare and the heat of that southern atmosphere, the movement of the crowded city, the dark-faced populace, the soldiers and the suppliants, the reawakened consciousness of power, the glamour and the mystery of the whole strange scene – these things seized upon him, engulfed him, and worked a new transformation on his intoxicated heart. England, with its complications and its policies, became an empty vision to him; Sir Evelyn Baring, with his cautions and sagacities, hardly more than a tiresome name. He was Gordon Pasha, he was the Governor-General, he was the ruler of the Sudan. He was among his people – his own people, and it was to them only that he was responsible – to them, and to God.”

Biographer Antonia Fraser writes that she first encountered the book when she was 14 years old, and it showed her that history could be fun:

As a child I had quickly decided that I too would write history – I had the complete confidence of the ignorant – and there being no time like the present in the leisure of childhood, knocked off a few works that have mercifully vanished. One thing had never struck me in all of this: that there was an art to the writing of history, beyond the art of ascertaining the facts and expounding the story. It was in this way that the sheer pleasure of reading Lytton Strachey came as a revelation to me. I had somehow never imagined, in the rather stodgy books I had read on my beloved historical characters, that there was pleasure to be had, beyond the voyage of discovery itself. Now I was plunged into a new world. Or rather, since the book consists of four biographical essays, four new worlds.

Strachey was born in London in 1880, attended Cambridge University, and spent much of his early career writing magazine articles. He was a founding member of the Bloomsbury literary circle that included Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. His first great literary success was Eminent Victorians, which had mixed reviews from the critics but was popular with the general reading public. Its publication was followed by a biography of Queen Victoria in 1921. He died of stomach cancer in 1932.

His biographical approach, which deemphasized facts and concentrated on psychological insights, was hailed and denounced by critics, but it freed the next generations of writers from the strict and staid approach of the Victorians.

Hugh Edwards: two Gold Medals in one hour

Hugh Edwards loved two things in life: rowing and flying. One nearly got him killed, but the other probably saved his life.

Edwards went to Oxford at the age of 19 in 1925 and discovered rowing. He was a big guy—  bigger than the average rower—and that earned him the nickname of Jumbo. As a member of the Oxford rowing team, he collapsed during an important race with the Cambridge team in 1926 and was diagnosed as having a hypertrophied heart. If he continued to row, he was told, it might kill him.

Thoroughly dispirited, he returned to Oxford but failed his exams and had to drop out. He couldn’t leave rowing alone, however, and in 1927 he joined the London Rowing Club, which he led to victory after victory.

The recognition he received landed him a spot on the British Olympic rowing team of 1932. There, he achieved something no athlete has ever done. He won two gold medals within one hour.

After that, Edwards turned to competitive flying, and during the 1930s won numerous flying events and competitions. When World War II broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force Coastal Command. In 1943, he had to ditch his plane off of Land’s End and found himself alone with only an inflatable life raft. So, he did what he had always done. He rowed.

He rowed through mine-infested waters and after several hours was finally picked up by a British cruiser.

After the war, Jumbo Edwards was invited back to Oxford to coach the rowing team, and he coached the British Olympic team in 1960. He died in 1972.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.  https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

From the archives: Ulysses Grant—writing and dying in public

His memoir was eagerly awaited by the public while he was still writing it.

His death, for several months before it occurred, was tracked almost daily by the newspapers of the time.

Both occurred at the same time in the spring and summer of 1885.

Ulysses S. Grant (watercolor and line)

For more than a century after his death, the presidency of Ulysses Grant rated barely one-star with most historians. His generalship had been a major factor in defeating the Confederate forces of the South during the American Civil War and thus preserving the Union. He had been honored as a hero of the republic and had been swept into the presidency by an adoring public in 1868.

But he was a political neophyte, and some of the men whom he appointed as president betrayed him with their avarice. Grant was an honorable man. No one has ever believed that he personally benefited from the graft that occurred during his administration. But he assumed the honor of his friends, something he should not have done.

In the past few years, historians have reassessed Grant and found him to be more than just an honorable neophyte. His actions in support of voting rights for blacks and against the actions of the Ku Klux Klan have led current biographers to cast his presidency in a more favorable light. Ron Chernow’s recently published Grant has given the general many benefits of doubt he rarely ever received. (Chernow’s book was reviewed in the New York Times by former president Bill Clinton, which makes the review fascinating in itself.)

Grant’s life had been filled with extraordinary acts and events. During his post-presidency, Grant had tried to do what he had always done—live a quiet life and gain financial security for his family. He had vowed many times that he would never write his memoirs because he believed that no one would be interested in them. Indeed, for a time, he might have been correct in that assumption.

But by the 1880s, situations had changed. There had been a revival of interest in the Civil War, and many of the participants were publishing books or magazine articles about their experiences. In 1885, one of the major surviving participants who had never been heard from was Ulysses Grant. His personal situation had also changed. Grant had been involved in business dealings that had gone sour, and he was in debt. He had to do something to relieve the debt and secure his family’s future.

Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), a friend of Grant, had urged Grant to write his memoirs for some several years, and when the time was ripe for Grant, Clemens offered him a contract that would guarantee his wife’s future security. At around the same time, however, Grant began to feel a scratchiness in his throat. He had rarely been without a cigar for much of his adult life, and the habit was catching up with him. His doctors eventually concluded that what was causing his discomfort was a tumor, that it was malignant, and that it would get worse—much worse.

The New York Times story about Grant’s illness on March 1, 1885, four months before he died. The story is a highly-detailed—and not always accurate—account of the president’s condition and activities.

Grant began working on the memoirs in his Wall Street office in New York City in late 1884 and continued there through the spring of 1885. Word had gotten out that he was writing his autobiography, and newspaper reporters latched onto the story. Grant had become a revered figure in America—even in many parts of the South—and what he had to say about the war stoked speculation and anticipation.

Grant had a couple of research assistants who provided him with the documents he needed. He found the writing somewhat easier than expected, and he was able to make substantial progress. But the pain in his throat grew, and he got weaker, especially within such a busy environment as New York City. Grant moved to his house near Saratoga. He tried various treatments to relieve the pain, none of which were satisfactory. He received visitors and visited with family. 

Through it all, he continued to write.

It was as if he willed himself to live until he could satisfy himself that he had finished the memoirs. When that finally happened, he took his leave from his family and died on July 23.

The memoirs were hugely successful both with critics and with the public. Historians have praised them for their simplicity and straight-forwardness. Grant’s unadorned and unassuming writing style mirrored the way in which he presented himself throughout his life. Here is the section where he describes Robert E. Lee in his meeting at Appomattox Courthouse to accept the surrender of the Confederate Army in April 1865.

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sa

d and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us …

Great dignity and power exist in such writing. In that, Grant won a final victory.

His memoirs, published in two volumes, became an immediate best-seller and ultimately netted the Grant family $450,000 (about $12 million in today’s dollars). They are highly valued by historians and have been in print since they were first published, more than 130 years ago. Grant did all of this, as he had done much of his adult life, in public view.

Illustration: The New York Times story about Grant’s illness on March 1, 1885, four months before he died. The story is a highly detailed — and not always accurate — account of the president’s condition and activities.


The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)

A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:

DEFAME, v.t. To lie about another. To tell the truth about another.

DEFENCELESS, adj. Unable to attack.

DEGENERATE, adj. Less conspicuously admirable than one’s ancestors. The contemporaries of Homer were striking examples of degeneracy; it required ten of them to raise a rock or a riot that one of the heroes of the Trojan war could have raised with ease. Homer never tires of sneering at “men who live in these degenerate days,” which is perhaps why they suffered him to beg his bread—a marked instance of returning good for evil, by the way, for if they had forbidden him he would certainly have starved.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Blount County Courthouse

 Best quote of the week:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. 

Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet (1792-1822)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The soldier poet, the woman who helped make the Revolutionary War, and ideas for writers: newsletter, August 6, 2021



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