Jonathan Yardley: Duke's William H. Chafe Emphasizes the Personal in Biographical Sketches of Great 20th Century Leaders

Roundup: Talking About History

One of the oddities of conventional biography is that when the subject is a person of great influence and renown, his or her private life is scanted at best, ignored at worst. We know, for example, that Franklin D. Roosevelt's mother was overbearing and dominating and that he was unhappy in prep school and college, but these crucial aspects of youth usually are noted by his biographers and then passed over, so that the march of great events -- the Depression, the 1932 election, the New Deal, court-packing, World War II -- can be given full-dress treatment. Even the polio that Roosevelt suffered in 1921, when he was 39, goes little mentioned once its onset and treatment have been discussed and analyzed.

This is in strange contrast to biographies of writers, artists, movie stars and others of "creative" bent, whose most intimate secrets are explored, often with obvious relish, either in the hope that they can explain the sources of the subjects' art or for gossip pure and simple. Many statesmen, apparently, have neither intimate secrets nor private lives, or so one is left to assume by many people who write their life stories. The result, of course, is that we get only public lives, which is to say only part of the story -- and not, one cannot help thinking, the most important or interesting part. As Gabriel García Márquez once said, to get close to the real truth about another person, one must find out what happens in that person's bedroom and bathroom. But those who write the biographies of statesmen and other bigwigs all too often dismiss that as "mere gossip" and get on with the crucial, thrilling business of describing, say, how the Tennessee Valley Authority came into being.

Private Lives/Public Consequences is an effort to get past that syndrome, to pinpoint the events and influences that helped 10 prominent 20th-century Americans become the people that history knows. In brief sketches -- of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill and Hillary Clinton -- William H. Chafe, a professor of history at Duke University, pursues four themes:

"The first is that family and the circumstances of one's upbringing are critical for the shape of one's subsequent life. The second is that a series of choices, usually in adolescence, form a pattern as to how an individual approaches a challenging situation. The third is that in many instances a profound personal crisis, such as the contraction of polio or the sinking of PT 109, creates a departure point that informs future actions, calling one back repeatedly to a moment in time that profoundly altered one's life. The fourth is that most people's lives play out of all these themes, not in a preordained way, as in a Greek tragedy, but as a process in which we make our own choices and shape our own history."

This may seem obvious, but you'd hardly know it from many biographies of men and women whose influence on history has been significant, whether for good or for ill or -- as in most cases -- somewhere in between. ...

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