I love reading and I love history. That combination of things brings me regularly in contact with some very fascinating and moving biographies about some complex and extraordinary people. I love looking deeper into the lives of people who affected big changes in the world; that just fascinates and intrigues me. Some of them may be well known figures-political leaders, artists, writers, musicians and more. Some of them are people I just stumble across whiles searching something else (in looking up some things about WWII a few years ago, for example, I stumbled across the story of magician Jasper Maskelyne, who used his powers of deception and illusion to help Britain counter Nazi air power in the latter three years of the war.) People and their stories are of great interest to me, and I am glad there are so many excellent and compelling biographies to read. It is one of my favorite genres of writing.
We are often given brief snapshots of famous people in their political and social lives, but we rarely get beyond a few well-known events. I like to get beyond the known events and get more into the stories behind them. These can be things in a given person’s life that led to some of those known achievements and explain the motivations behind the actions they took. Or they can be things that raise more questions than they answer-contradictions that can give us a more nuanced look at somethings we thought we understood. I loved Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson precisely for those reasons. Johnson was one of the most complicated men ever to be President, and he was full of contradictions that Caro fully explored. Caro looked at the impact Johnson’s poor white upbringing in rural Texas during the Great Depression had on him with its contradictory ideas about wealth, race, color and what “success” meant. Caro also looked at how Johnson both resented and built a powerful political machine in the state that catapulted him to power and the US Senate. And he looked at how the architect of the “Great Society” and signer of the Voting Rights Act only won Senate election in the 1940’s because he campaigned in a more overtly racist manner than his opponent.
Likewise, Taylor Branch’s volumes on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King got into much more than the “I Have A Dream Speech” and his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It looked not only into his school and college experiences, but also at family dynamics, class and color prejudice and struggles within the Black community, and the role relatively unknown people such as E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson played in getting the boycott started and then fooling King into getting involved and ultimately leading it. It is an absolutely wonderful 3 volume biography that illuminates the man and the times in a real and through way.
I am mentioning those books because I am currently reading a biography about a person I knew a little bit about, and I recently read an excerpt from a new biography I plan on reading about someone else I knew a little about. Dr. Benjamin Rush is the subject of the new biography I will read. I knew Rush first as the doctor who gave some medical advice and training to Lewis and Clark before their epic trek exploring the Louisiana Purchase territory, as one of the early staff at Pennsylvania Hospital, as an abolitionist, and as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. What the excerpt also revealed was that Rush, often called “America’s Hippocrates,” was one of the first medical people in the country to recognize alcoholism as a contributor to many physical and mental illnesses and diseases he was seeing in many of his patients. He spent time analyzing the condition and trying come up with ways to teat it. He was also the first to try what we now call “talk and listening therapy” in dealing with people who had severe mental problems, as opposed to locking them up and charging people money to watch the “lunatics” in cages. Clearly, he was ahead of his time in some very important ways, and I look forward to reading the book and learning even more about him.
LIThe book I am reading now is The Road to Dawn a thoroughly researched and well-written look at Josiah Henson, the man who I knew as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a runaway slave who made it to Canada. I had read some excerpts from his published autobiography years ago, which was one of the many slave narratives published in the mid 1800’s as the battle to end slavery raged across the country. This book goes into much more detail about his life both during and after slavery, including his complicated and contradictory relationships with two of his owners, the surprisingly intense and nasty conflicts between Methodists and Baptists over which group should play the leading role in the abolitionist movement in general and in Josiah’s 500 person settlement in Ontario for runaway slaves very specifically, questions about how involved should white people be in a movement to help Black people build active lives for themselves, and much, much more.
I am in awe at how Josiah, who spent 40 years in slavery, spent just as much time establishing a town, teaching runaways the basics of finance and building a business, traveling the world to get help for his town and business, and attempting to start an industrial arts school for blacks years before Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. It is almost too amazing to be true, and I cannot put the book down. It already has me making a list of things, people, events and issues I want to look at in greater detail. There is also a documentary about Josiah, and I will look at that once I finish the book. What a great find for me! I am excited and moved and amazed-all the things a great book can do for a person-yet again.
So I will continue to explore the lives of people, some famous and some not and gain insight into them and into the world at the time in which these folks lived. New learnings, new insights, new discoveries; they keep coming, and I love it.