Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Biography in the future

I ran across something the other day in Thomas Carlyle's writings that I found inspiring.
Rich as we are in biography, a well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one; and there are certainly many more men whose history deserves to be recorded than persons willing and able to furnish the record.

Carlyle wrote this near the beginning of his "Jean Paul Friedrich Richter", a German writer. Published in 1827 in The Edinburgh Review, it was one of Carlyle's earliest essays on other authors that focused on the life rather than on some specific published work.

At least, that's how it seems to me at this stage of my Carlyle reading. I haven't yet read the Richter piece.

I like, though, what Carlyle said about biography. There are many more men whose stories deserve to be told than there are people to write the stories.

I confess to having an interest in writing biography. In fact, I've already written one, that of my wife's great-grandfather, titled Seth Boynton Cheney: Mystery Man of the West. Seth went west as a 49er in the California Gold Rush, then turned up thirty years later in the Texas panhandle, going to southwest Kansas a couple of years later. I wrote this in 2006, shortly before a family mini-reunion, and have updated it four times since as I learned new material or as I improved the text, tables, or pictures and maps. The book is just photocopied on 8 1/2 x 11 paper and put together in a comb binding with card stock covers. I give away or sell the hard copies to people that learn about and want it.

I wouldn't call that a complete biography. I haven't done a lot to work in the events of history and thus elucidate the doings of Seth. I need to say more about the discovery of gold in California, how the news erupted on the East Coast, how the people got to California and what they did there. That story has been told often, but more of it needs to be in Seth's bio. Then there's his years in the redwood area in northern California. And what life was like in the Great American Desert, as the Plains were known then. I have some historical references in the book, but not nearly enough.

But, two other biographies I would like to write. One is of John Cheney, the immigrant ancestor in the line. He came to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, settling in Newberry Massachusetts. He lived a mostly quiet life, acquired property, elected or appointed to some town offices, serving on juries, witnessing wills and deeds of neighbors and friends. He supported neighbors during times of their troubles, putting himself at some risk for them. From genealogical research I have learned much about him. I think his story deserves to be told. He probably has a couple of million descendants in the USA, a good number of whom would be interested to know more about him.

The other bio I'd like to write is a joint one about my dad and mom, Norman and Dorothy Todd. Like John Cheney, they lived a mostly quiet life. They left twelve descendants (thirteen including the one very much alive but not yet born). There are many relatives, in addition to those thirteen, who might be interested in the story; and others, yet to be born, who might someday wonder what it was like in Rhode Island in the 1920s through 1990s and want to know more about this couple.

When will I get these done? They are not on the publishing schedule, or even on the writing schedule. They are not commercial projects (though the John Cheney book might have some commercial potential). So we'll see. Maybe they'll be written and I'll become a real biographer some day.

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