Seeing Dead People: Biography in the Survey

Robert Cornelius, Phila., 1839. Possibly the first American photo portrait.This fall, I’m teaching a freshman U.S. history survey with a couple of unusual requirements. First, my class covers American history, from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, in a single frenzied semester. Second, and also by school policy, all the readings in the course must be biographical.

That first rule means my class isn’t really a U.S. history survey; there’s a pair of upper-division courses for that. It’s more of an introduction to thinking historically about the United States. It’s a gateway to the whole discipline.[1] So my duty to captivate, I think, outweighs my duty to ensure thorough coverage. Because (being no Tony Robbins in the classroom) I rely heavily on discussions of provocative readings to keep class interesting, this means that the way I handle that second rule, that all the readings must be biographical, is crucial to the course’s success.

But that, as I found when I first taught the course this spring, is where it’s easy to run into trouble.

The key advantages of a biographical approach to freshman history should be obvious. Biography minimizes abstractions, lowers the risk of slipping into the passive voice, gives students a chance to identify with the people they’re studying—in short, biography makes inescapable that history is about people. People are interesting. People are important. People can break your heart. This is good.

But some of the problems with a biographical approach should be obvious, too. They became garishly obvious to me a few months ago when I first tried to map out the course.

First, it’s really hard to avoid assigning a lot of stories about rich and powerful white men. Most of the people who seem imperative to profile in a double-time American survey belong to this category. (Specifically, they tend to be presidents.) There’s nothing wrong with talking about dead presidents in a U.S. history course, but a biographical approach aggravates the risk of making them the nearly exclusive subject.[2]

More broadly, it’s easy for a biographical focus to become an implicit theory of biographical causation. In other words, it’s easy for the course to become a narrative about great individuals doing mighty deeds. The first time I taught the class, this became clear as soon as students started handing in homework. My undergraduates’ fundamental historical instinct was to look for signs that any given individual was “important.” They did this even when I had them read articles about obscure, marginal people. (Deborah Sampson and Joseph Plumb Martin: They showed what you can do when you put your mind to it, and they helped make America the great nation it is today!) Again, this sort of thing has its place, but I don’t want it driving the course.[3]

Third, biographies are among the most formulaic of all writings. Why? They all begin with birth and end with death. Or if they don’t actually begin and end with those things, they imply them. And in birth and death, we are all one, and all our problems resolve. There may be a lot of ways to die, but there’s really only one way to be dead. Even worse, most biographies are about death; the individual’s current nonexistence is the subtext for everything else we say about her. This poses problems if you believe, as I do, that a history course should be about resurrection—about bringing to life what once was happening, and what, except for a trifling detail of physics, could be happening among us right now. I want discussions in my class to happen amid life rather than death. I want to discuss the open possibilities and uncertainties of the living.

Finally, it’s actually pretty difficult to find a lot of short biographies that I consider appropriate to use at a university level. Many of the most accessible sources are either encyclopedia entries or high-school-level puff pieces.

All of which means … I cheat a bit.

Considering all the options, I’ve chosen to interpret “biographical” readings as including memoirs and other forms of primary literature. Instead of using biographies written by biographers and historians, I’m using—with some sensible exceptions—documents people wrote to reflect on their own lives.  These include diary entries, portions of published autobiographies, pension filings, war letters, newspaper interviews, and even (in an experiment I’m trying this fall) graphic memoirs, that is, memoirs and oral histories published as comic books. For the most part—in perhaps three out of four cases—my students have never before heard of the individuals they’re studying.

Most of these readings are included in two published collections: Wayne Franklin’s American Voices, American Lives and Herb Boyd’s Autobiography of a People. They include both famous and obscure writers, they include irony and chaos, and they’re anything but collections of rich white men. I’ve been pretty happy with them so far, and I’ve had positive responses from students. Very positive, in a couple of cases.

But is this approach really “biographical”? Is there anything special happening here, or am I just building a course around ordinary primary sources?

To be honest, I’m not certain. Some of my “biographies” are snapshots rather than full narratives of lives. Some are unreliable. (I’m quite happy about that when they’re unreliable in interesting and useful ways.) Some are profiles of people we really don’t know much about. Some are life stories of scoundrels. So I’m not entirely sure what the people who designed the rules for this course would say about my approach. Maybe they would have objections.

What I’m trying to do, though, is create a course in which American history becomes not just a droning of facts but a murmur of different voices, some clearer than others. When I lecture about an abstraction or an aggregation, I want my students to imagine faces. When I talk about people by the million, I want my students to ask themselves about the individuals the million included. When we talk about why certain things have happened in certain ways, I want my students to conjure hope and anxiety and fate—the same things they will contemplate as they face their own futures. That’s what I think it means to teach history through life stories.

When I show my students an old cameo portrait or daguerreotype, I want them to recognize something in the eyes staring back at them. Perhaps then they will see something new in the eyes of the people they know today.


Image: Self-portrait by Robert Cornelius, Philadelphia, November 1839. Generally credited as the first American photographic portrait. Courtesy of the Library of Congress and of Dave at

[1] See this week’s Inside Higher Ed report on a study by Christopher G. Takacs and Daniel F. Chambliss, which suggests that a student’s first exposure to a college subject (including the personal influence of that first professor) is an important factor in what major that student will choose. Scott Jaschik, “‘Majoring in a Professor,'” Inside Higher Ed, 12 August 2013.

[2] Me, looking at the contents of a potential reader for the course: “President. President. President. Rich woman. President. Ooh, Martin Luther King! President. President ….”

[3] Actually, helping my students question this set of assumptions is one of the few non-negotiable historiographical goals I set for this course.

5 responses

  1. Thoughtful piece. I love a good biography but the biography *requirement* seems a bit odd. It might be useful to have students read a traditional biography, typically concerned with measuring the impact of the subject’s life on his/her times, and also a microhistory, typically intended to use the person’s life as a window into understanding the times. I’m thinking of books like Martin Hershock’s *New England Prison Diary,* Wilentz’ and Johnson’s *Kingdom of Matthias* and (shameless plug) my *Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard.* In my view microhistories, as opposed to conventional biographies, can be great tools and elucidating multiple, broader themes often covered in survey courses.

  2. I agree. I’ve been including a book review assignment at the end of the course. When I taught in the spring, I gave students a list of options (including The Kingdom of Matthias, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers, and other short books that stretched the term “biography”). In the summer, I had to assign one book for everybody to make sure they could get their book in time, so I just picked The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin—not necessarily my first choice, but I wanted something pertinent to Philadelphia, where I’m teaching. It was a good assignment for most students, I think, but I’m still experimenting with it.

  3. I recommend an essay by Anne Firor Scott originally published in the festschrift for Oscar Handlin, but later also in a collection of her essays: “Self-Portraits: Three Colonial Women,” about 25 or 30 pages, on Jane Franklin Mecom, Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, and Eliza Lucas Pinckney–great, great essay, which nicely compares Congregational New England, Quaker Pennsylvania, and the plantation elite of Barbados/South Carolina, but also stresses the common features of women’s lives in the 18th century.

  4. What are the graphic memoirs you intend to include? I’m only familiar with Maus and Peresopolis and would love to have a wider pool to point to.

  5. This fall, I gave my students a list with three options: Maus (both parts), Alan’s War, and Vietnamerica. I think they all worked pretty well, but my favorite was Alan’s War because it was the most low-key book, the one that worked most like a typical oral history, and the one that most resisted an overall interpretation. Responses to the other two followed a more predictable pattern. And Maus is assigned a lot in high school, so it wasn’t an ideal choice anyway.

    I wasn’t actually trying to write an assignment about wartime and immigration. I just didn’t find any other really suitable graphic memoirs of comparable length in time to add them to the list. (There are a lot of other good 20th-century American graphic memoirs now, but not so many that would work in this context.) But overall, I was pretty happy with the results. And I recommend both Alan’s War and Vietnamerica to anyone who might be interested.


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