How to Study the Lives of Difficult Subjects

Allen Guelzo has written a new book review of Calhoun: American Heretic by Robert Elder. The whole review is worth checking out.

In the review’s introduction, Guelzo ponders the task of treating problematic historical subjects with fairness without becoming sympathetic co-conspirators in their faults. While I’ve never written a biography, I’ve heard many historians speak of the natural empathy that develops for the subject. My doctoral supervisor, John D. Wilsey, has just completed a religious biography of John Foster Dulles (which you should buy!). He has written elsewhere that the historian’s task involves extending love and empathy to the dead by resisting the temptation to use them for our own purposes. However, he also notes that our love is not blind; we are not loving them if we do not tell the truth about them.

It is the historian’s job to contextualize her subject. That is, the reader must be led to understand the character, ideals, and actions of historical figures within the contexts of their own times. It is unfair to judge the figures of yesteryear by today’s standards just as it would be unfair to judge us by the standard’s of yesteryear. However, Guelzo sounds an opposite warning. The historian must also, in his contextualizing, not lose his ability to use moral discernment. Guelzo writes:

Yet, context is as much a necessity in biography as judgment; the one, in fact, has no meaning without the other. “The biographer’s mission,” wrote Paul Murray Kendall, “is to perpetuate a man as he was in the days he lived—a spring task of bringing to life again, constantly threatened by unseasonable freezes.” But context is itself a slippery task, and contextualizing a difficult subject sets up a different hazard for the biographer, that of being misunderstood as a co-conspirator in the subject’s project, so that both the subject and the biographer are heaped with opprobrium by a drone of self-congratulatory criticism.

For such a task, the great literary critic John Gardner laid down this rule: No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion. Without the will to judge, as Kershaw recognized, any empathy is suspect, and will be regarded that way. Without compassion, however—without a deep understanding of motives, times, places, losses, sorrows: context, again—the result will never rise above sanctimonious caricature. In fact, without biographies of difficult subjects, it might not be possible to write biographies at all.

History is complex. Studying history as a Christian committed to love and truth demands attention to that complexity. Guelzo reminds us that writing biographies carries a complexity of its own. The call to maintain tension between the will to judge and compassion is a good one.

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