Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Ghosts of Biography Past, 1909

I have been thinking recently of launching a web-based newsletter to report on the world of biographical books and media, including advance notice of promising titles. I thought I might call it Biography Beat. I could make a PDF that people would either read online or download and print. My inspiration is Cites & Insights by Walt Crawford. Walt has a following who enjoy knowing when an issue of his newsletter is coming out. I had my eye on doing this January 1, 2009. Well, that is today, and it has not happened. I have been involved in several other projects instead, but I have been gathering biography content. Perhaps it is more timely if I just go ahead and blog what I have found.

A week or so ago, as I nestled under the covers as I woke one cold morning, I thought about the world of biography in 1909. I wondered what were the trends of that year. I imagined that there was not as great a variety of biographies as there are today. My thoughts on this had begun a few days earlier when I examined Brothers in Arms: The Kennedys, the Castros, and the Politics of Murder by Gus Russo and Stephen Molton, which is a investigative four-person biography. I cannot imagine such a book being written in 1909. I assume that one hundred years ago, preceding the 1918 publishing of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, most biographies were straight, laudatory accounts of prominent people. But, I did not really know for sure. How would I learn about 1909?

As I showered, I remembered that my library card for the College of DuPage Library gives me access to the Historical New York Times database. I surmised that the book review section, if it existed in 1909, might identify the popular biographies of the day. The trick would be to identify the best keywords to search. "Biography" might not be adequate as the word might be pretty widely used.

Luckily, I found that there was The New York Times Saturday Review of Books in 1909. If fact, it celebrated its thirteenth year in October of that year. Like today, it published reviews of new titles, many of which seemed to come from the abundance of New York publishing companies. There also seemed to be a regular column about Boston publishing news and many letters from readers. Revising my search, I found each week's table of contents. While there did not seem to be a chart of bestseller (maybe I missed it somehow), there was something even better for my purposes - a weekly list "Latest Publications," which identified the books that The New York Times had received from publishers each week. I knew I had hit pay dirt when I looked. The list was organized by topics, including "History and Biography."

What did I find?

1. 1909 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Publishers in that year were marketing the anniversary just as much as they are in 2009. In the first two months of the year, these books were received by the editors of the book review:

  • Lincoln the Citizen by Henry W. Whitney
  • Abraham Lincoln: Tributes from Hist Associates
  • Abraham Lincoln: An Interpretation in Biography by Denton J. Snider
  • Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel: A True Story by L. E. Chittendon
  • Abraham Lincoln by Brand Whitlock
  • The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Its Explanation by David Miller DeWitt
  • The Death of Lincoln by Clara E. Laughlin
  • Lincoln's Love Story by Eleanor Atkinson
  • How Abraham Lincoln Became President by J. McCan Davis
  • Ancestory of Lincoln by J. Henry Lea and J. R. Hutchinson

2. There were biographies of people who would not be widely known 100 years later, many of them clergy. Most of the titles sound laudatory.

  • The Life of James Robertson: Missionary Superintendent in the Northwest Territory by Charles W. Gordon
  • Charles W. Eliot: President of Harvard University by Dr. Eugen Kuehnemann
  • The Honorable Peter White: A Biographical Sketch of the Lake Superior Iron Country by Ralph D. Williams
  • A Memorial of Alice Jackson by Robert E. Speer
  • Recollections of Baron de Frenilly, Peer of France
  • David Swing: Poet-Preacher by Joseph Fort Newton
  • Comrade Kropotkin by Victor Robinson (Lives of Great Altrurians)
  • Bartholomew de las Casas: His Life, His Apostolate, and His Writings by Francis Augustus MacNutt
  • The Apostle of Alaska: The Story of William Duncan of Metlakahtia by John W. Arctander

3. Figures from European history and culture appeared as subjects of biographies in 1909, when wealthy American still took extended European tours.

  • Maid of France: Being the Story of the Life and Death of Jeanne D'Arc by Andrew Lang
  • Grieg and His Music by Henry T. Finck
  • Sir Walter Raleigh by Frederick A. Ober
  • Johannes Brahms: The Herzogenberg Correspondence
  • The Love Affairs of Napoleon by J. Lewis May
  • William Blake by Basil de Selincourt
  • The Court of Louis XIII by K. A. Patmore

4. I did not see dual biographies to compare with Brothers in Arms.

Of course, this is not really an in-depth study of biography in 1909, but I do think it gives us a peek at that time. It occurs to me now that my library still has a 1909 edition of Book Review Digest. I wonder what I might find there?

To be Dickens-like, I will soon report on ghosts of biography present (2008 titles) and ghosts of biography future (2009 titles). Stay tuned.

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