American documentarian Ken Burns has written a new book for children called Grover Cleveland, Again! The book is colorful and fun, and the title is taken from his own children’s lyrical recitation of the American presidents in chronological order—and the need to say Grover Cleveland’s name twice (he was the 22nd and 24th president).
Each president in Burns’ book gets a summary and some quirky facts: Thomas Jefferson had two bear cubs as pets, James Madison weighed only 100 pounds, James Monroe also died on July 4 (along with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams), Martin Van Buren never went to college, and Millard Fillmore and his wife started the first White House library.
Burns’ book is a lot like many other biographies marketed to children these days—a mix of off-the-wall factoids and humorous personal idiosyncrasies for kids who love to dominate a family game of Trivial Pursuit. Such books seek mostly to inform rather than inspire. And perhaps in our age of feelings and abstractions, we should not undersell the virtues of just learning the facts, even the more inconsequential ones.
But biographies for children used to have loftier ambitions: to illuminate the lives of great men and women as a way of educating the souls of the young.
In 1973, R. Gordon Kelly observed that children’s biographies had changed over the past century. Biographers writing for children between 1870 and 1900 stressed patriotism and character, focusing especially on qualities such as integrity, self-reliance, perseverance, and courage.
Biographies written during this period did not reward the wayward child or lost soul; they portrayed children of good character becoming adults of great character. The straight path was much exaggerated, to be sure, but it was exaggeration with a moral purpose. “Character, the biographies affirm and reaffirm, is formed for service,” Kelly wrote. “In the lives of Washington, Franklin and Lincoln especially the signs of grace were manifest at a very early age.” In the Gilded Age’s “genteel” tradition, there was a clear message in children’s biographies that character “is valueless if not expressed.”
When today’s biographies reach beyond the mere cataloguing of fun facts, they often aim instead at a hyper-partisan purpose—more indoctrination than moral pedagogy. This tone of partisanship is reflective of the culture at large and driven of course by the prejudices of the parents who buy the books. Biographies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sit on bookstore shelves right alongside Bill O’ Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. A culturally and politically divided nation buys the books that reflect the version of America they want their children to embrace.
Part of what is lost in this narrowing of the imagination and focus on factoids is the capacity for children to be surprised by lives utterly different than their own, and to be awakened to circumstances they cannot imagine in the straight-ahead course of their own lives.
My daughter read an autobiography of world famous chef Marcus Samuelsson this summer. Samuelsson grew up poor in Ethiopia, and writes about the death of his mother and his adoption by another family from an entirely different culture. Reflecting on Samuelsson’s adoptive Swedish grandmother, the woman who taught him how to cook, I asked my daughter if she thought a single person can irrevocably shape or alter a person’s life. “Yes and no,” she said. Yes, she said, because they can introduce you to something entirely new. “But no,” she said, “Because you have to have the will—and the skill—to go along with the chance.” And someone may have to teach you those skills, someone very different from yourself.
Contrary to the modern view that we must see ourselves—our gender, our class, or culture—in everything we read, biography showcases our differences and yet asks us to admire lives and achievements we can never exactly emulate. A good biography says: I do not have to be like you—look like you, speak like you, have been raised like you, have been hurt as you have hurt, or be interested in the same things as you—to learn as you have learned.
The value of the biography is seeing the landscape of a life—the backdrop of time and place and circumstances—overlaid with the portrait of the individual whose path is shaped by chance and drive, by great purposes and un-chosen events. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, President John F. Kennedy explained how his fascination with the “most admirable of human virtues”—courage—led him to write biographical portraits of senators:
I have attempted to set forth their lives—the ideals they lived for and the principles they fought for, their virtues and their sins, their dreams and their disillusionments, the praise they earned and the abuse they endured…But there was in the lives of each of these men something that it is difficult for the printed page to capture—and yet something that has reached the homes and enriched the heritage of every citizen in every part of the land.
That something is the heart and soul of biography, and its lessons are vital, for young and old alike.