Monday, October 22, 2007

Adventures of a Biographer by Catherine Drinker Bowen

A colleague at the library wished recently that publishers would stop the flood of new books so she could catch up with all the old books. I would not go so far, but I sympathize, as there are many old books that I will never read, and every time I go in the stacks to weed I find more.

I do what I can. So, here is a new review of a book from 1959.

I first became aware of the biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen in August when I was studying the ALA Notable Books lists. Bowen had seven books on the lists, second only to Sir Winston Churchill. When I looked through our library catalog to see if any were still available, I found that they all were somewhere in the Chicago suburbs. The title that caught my eye was her memoir Adventures of a Biographer, published in 1959, before ISBN numbers.

I could tell I had made a good choice from the first page of the first chapter. The year is 1937 and a Russian friend tries to talk Bowen out of going to Moscow to research pianist Anton Rubinstein. She had already written a book about Tchaikovsky without visiting his homeland, but she felt that it lacked authority. Now she is determined to wade into Stalin's Soviet Union to get the goods that she needed to write a great book. Of course, she finds many barriers to her research in the cold capital. She cannot go anywhere without her official translator, who seems at first bent on showing her all the city's factories and communist shrines instead of letting her study a musician who was a loyal subject of the last czar. Eventually she gets into Moscow Conservatory where she is only allowed in certain rooms. During an afternoon concert, when no one is looking, she sneaks into the upstairs archive where an old librarian welcomes her and shows her some of Rubinstein's manuscripts.

Not all of the chapters are as thrilling as the first, but Bowen usually finds people or institutions opposing her work. When she goes to Boston to study Oliver Wendall Holmes in the 1940s, when many people remember him, she is viewed as an outsider and shunned. In Washington, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter tries to discourage her from writing a "popular" book and denies her access to the Holmes papers under his care. He then hires an academic read these papers and write a scholarly book. Bowen is not able to cozy up to Holmes' old friends until she pulls out her family tree.

While writing about John Adams, Bowen attends a conference of history professors. Thinking that she will learn some new techniques for research, she finds herself frustrated by the academic attitude that requires the scholars to be almost without opinion about their subjects. Bowen believes biography should be written with a point of view. She admits to bias. She says most biographers learn to love or hate their subjects.

Of course, my favorite chapter is the ninth, "Salute to Librarians." Early in that chapter is a great paragraph.

"In early days, I tried not to give librarians any trouble, which was where I made my primary mistake. Librarians like to be given trouble; they exist for it, they are geared to it. For the location of a mislaid volume, an uncatalogued item, your good librarian has a ferret's nose. Give her a scent and she jumps the leash, her eyes bright with battle. But I did not know this. All unaware I used to make my way to those long-block municipal buildings, hope in my heart and in my hand a list of ten or fifteen books. Not books to read in the library but to take home, where I could copy at length, with time to think about what I was copying. I did not telephone beforehand and ask to have my books ready at the desk. I took my list and looked up the proper numbers in the card catalog, rechecked each one and carried the cards to the desk. The young woman would glance at the cards and then she would say, "Only two books at a time can be taken from the circulation department, miss." Black hatred would then well up in a heart that had been ready to love."

Bowen continues in this chapter to tell stories about her sometimes difficult but usually rewarding work with librarians. Some are just as reticent as the Bostonian friends of Justice Holmes. Others bend as many rules as they can to widen her access.

In the final chapters, Bowen tells about a dry period when she struggled to select a subject for her latest book. When she finally settled on Edward Coke, an adviser to Elizabeth I and James I of England, she found some English ancestors very suspicious of having an American writer in their midst. They claimed Coke was an English topic for an English scholar. For Bowen, the research was never easy.

Not many libraries have Adventures of a Biographer now, but it is a book worth seeking out. Try out your local interlibrary loan.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Adventures of a Biographer. Little, Brown, 1959.

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