Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A written record

Augustus Saint-Gaudens
As I read The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, I wondered why David McCullough gives so much more attention to some of those Americans in Paris than others. Why, for example, do Elihu Washburne, appointed minister to France by President Grant, and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens get chapters to themselves, and more, while painters John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt get just a few paragraphs here and there?

The answer to my question soon became evident. Washburne, who served in Paris during very turbulent times in the mid-19th century, kept a detailed journal in which he wrote about those times and his own significant role. Saint-Gaudens and, to a greater degree, his wife wrote excellent letters, which survive and provide great source material for any historian or biographer. Sargent and Cassatt apparently wrote less about their own lives, giving future scholars less to write about. What McCullough says about Sargent mostly comes from what friends and art critics said about him.

Winston Churchill was a great man, but I wonder if those long, in some cases multi-volume, biographies of his life are partly due to the fact that he wrote so much about himself, giving his biographers more material than they can fit into a single volume. Meanwhile, William Shakespeare, for all the great plays and sonnets he left behind, apparently wrote little about himself, giving biographers next to nothing to work with.

Mary Chestnut
Some people are famous today only because they kept excellent diaries. These include Samuel Pepys, Mary Chestnut and Anne Frank. When I was in Amsterdam in 2003, I visited the home where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. It was a moving experience, but it is unlikely anyone would visit that site today if not for this teenage girl's diary. Otherwise she would have been just one more anonymous victim of German death camps.

Moving closer to home, if you should happen to discover a diary kept by your great-grandmother, or perhaps letters she wrote to a friend over decades, you will know much more about her life than that of any of your other great-grandmothers. Leaving a written record of your life, even if it's nothing more than writing your own obituary and putting it where your children will find it, improves the odds that you and your accomplishments will be remembered.

I wonder about historians and biographers of the future. Will e-mails, texts, blogs and Facebook pages, if they are even available for study, provide the same kind of source material that letters and diaries provide?

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