Thursday, March 14, 2013

What is the Job of a Biographer?

I have just finished reading a new biography on Calvin Coolidge.   It is excellent.   The book, in one sense is a precursor to Amity Shlaes re-evaluation of the great depression. (The Forgotten Man)   As I began to read the book, I consulted two reviews  - one from the New York Times and the other from the New Yorker.   The NYT reviewer concludes that Coolidge was "an extraordinarily blinkered and foolish and complacent leader."  The New Yorker described Shlaes scholarship as an attempt at "revisionism."

What struck me even more after I read the book was the thought that both reviewers began their work with a conclusion already written.  From my perspective the job of a biographer is divided into two parts.   First, the writer must do enough research to understand what the person did during their life.   Not everything in one's life is significant but any good biographer needs to understand the breadth of things that happened during the subject's life to get a better idea of why the person took the path he did.

In the Shlaes biography of Coolidge, she does some meticulous research.   We begin to understand Coolidge by understanding his family; the influence that his choice of college (Amherst) had on his life; his role in the Boston Police strike; his relationship with his wife Grace; and the various facets of a long political career.   Shlaes skilfully weaves a narrative together that dives into each of these issues and more.  At the end of the book, you know a lot more about the thirtieth president well beyond the anecdotes and quips of wags like Dorothy Parker and Alice Roosevelt.

Roosevelt once commented that Coolidge looked like he was "weaned on a pickle."  Roosevelt was in her declining years when I lived in Washington.   But the WP would trot her out every few years as a historic and entertaining figure.   The more I read these pieces the more I thought of her as a spoiled child that never quite grew up.  Coolidge could be caricatured but that does not mean he did not have substance.  

One of the best parts of the book is Shlaes extended discussions about Coolidge's role in the 1919 strike of the police in Boston.    A good part of Coolidge's national stature came from his firm role in the strike.  What Shlaes does well is to put all of this in context beginning with some national events like the general strike in the city of Seattle and concern that ran through the country about the Bolshevik revolution.   Labor was trying to extend its record of progress during the teens in the last century.   And at least some of the legislation that Coolidge signed while governor - advanced those goals.  But he drew the line at the ability of police to strike.    Wilson equivocated on the coal and steel strikes but Coolidge chose to react strongly against the strikers.  Yet as Shlaes points out, even after the strikers were fired, he attempted to treat them humanely - they just were not going to get their former positions back.

The second task of a biographer is to relate the person in history to our times.   Why should we know more about the subject of the biography?   But what can we apply to current times from that person's life?   There are odd things in every person's life.  For example, Coolidge once supported a bill in the Massachusetts legislature which would limit the ability of autos which went more than 20 miles an hour to operate.    That is quaint in today's terms but even the story of that bill gives you an idea of Coolidge the politician.  He worked hard for his constituents.   Coolidge's relationship with Teddy Roosevelt waxed and waned over his career and Shlaes does a superb job of presenting the evolution of his thoughts.

But what Shlaes' work does most importantly is give a coherent explanation of Coolidge's fundamental beliefs, animated in both personal and political life, of the danger of hubris and the limitations on the effectiveness of governmental action to solve all our woes.   Both reviewers seem to have started out with the Wilsonian notion that government action is for itself positive.    I understand that a lot of people in this country have lost that essential teaching that was so prominent in the nation's founding but that does not mean that should not be something that our political leaders could relearn.

Shlaes accomplishes both tasks in an extraordinarily readable book.   There are things about Coolidge that tie him to his times - not just the proposal on autos but his support for tariffs and other things which are not relevant to our times.   At the same time Shlaes presents a compelling case that the President who she terms the "great refrainer" has a lot to teach this generation.

1 comment:

kaiology said...

Thank you for an excellent and thoughtful review! I had much the same impression that you had upon reading some of the liberal media reactions.