Biographers of the Future

This seems like the appropriate place to post these thoughts. The irony does not escape me.

I have been reading biographies lately, including one of Patricia Highsmith, and the classic “To The Finland Station” by Edmond Wilson. In these works the authors had access to the copious letters of the subjects in addition to their more public writings. These days far fewer letters are written. I know this in part because my wife used to work for the post office, and letter deliveries are down – way down – enough so that the post office relies on advertising fliers and bulk mail for much of its income. This trend of course started back in the 1990s with the popularization of email, and now it has gotten to the point that the only time most people send “snail mail” letters is perhaps a holiday letter or special occasion card. Even then many people just email or text a greeting. I must confess that I rely totally on email and messaging these days, and have for nearly two decades.

So it seems to me the job of the biographer will be if not more difficult, at least different in the future. When most folks, even writers, communicate through email or networking sites, the job of the historian or biographer will entail gathering perhaps critical insights and personal information from the internet. Much of this is fleeting. How many times have we changed our email providers, only to loose all of our email exchanges – sometimes years worth. Whether this will make the biographer’s job more difficult or easier is hard to say. In many ways much of what used to be private correspondence between two people is now much more public. In the past one might have written to a close friend or trusted relative. Now similar personal information is given to everyone (even strangers) on facebook or other networking sites, but those revelations may be more censored or deliberately dissembling then the contents of a personal letter. The word “friend” itself has changed its meaning in the context of the internet.

This does not negate the need for the well written and insightful biography. In spite of the proliferation of personal information on the internet, there will still be the desire and need for distilled and cogent appraisals of the lives of certain individuals, and it will still take a sensitive and skilled writer to pull all of the scattered threads together to create a narrative from the parts and pieces. The narrative is what we crave. The idea that a life is in some sense a story, and story is life. We will always need talented and perceptive writers to create this narrative, but those writers will find the cacophony of voices on the internet to be a problematic, albeit necessary resource.

Theatre in 1880’s Montana

“Our stage was in an old shed next to a pigpen, and our curtain was a white sheet Johnny Spiker had swiped out of their hotel. The ‘theatre’ was just the back of the Spiker Hotel and Saloon, and we borrowed empty beer kegs for our audience to sit on. The curtain was fixed to be drawn along a wire in front of the stage. When the show opened the curtain was drawn across the wire to the edge of the pigpen. As the weeping leading lady finished her song, and fell to faint to the floor, the curtain was then to be drawn back across the stage, hiding the stage so we could prepare for the next act. It never happened, for when the boy who was tending to the curtain reached for it, it was gone. It seems one corner of the sheet protruded into the pigpen. It looked to the pigs like it might be edible, so while the acting was proceeding on the stage, the pigs ate our curtain. The audience, judging by their applause and laughter, evidently thought this was the best part of the play. That first act was the one and only one, and the show ‘did not go on.’”

That was how my great-grandfather, Roy Fitzgerald describes their childhood efforts at producing their own play in 1880s Gardiner, Montana. (See my previous post for more on the discovery of this autobiography.) Those of us who have ever produced, directed, performed in, or in any way participated in community theatre will be sympathetic!

My Current Writing Project

“It was early in the spring of 1863, when the wagon train which was captained by my grandfather, Selleck Madison Fitzgerald, left Keosaqua, Iowa, on its way across the plains. The train consisted of twenty wagons, and about one hundred seventy five men, women and children. The wagons were drawn by horses, four to a wagon—not oxen, as many of the trains were. My grandfather was twenty-two years old, and was said to have been the youngest man to captain a wagon train across the plains to California.”

So begins the biography of my maternal great-grandfather, Roy M. Fitzgerald, raised by his grandfather, Selleck, and his wife after Roy’s mother died during childbirth. This fascinating biography, which among other things, recalls Roy’s boyhood in 1890s Montana, and his years as a tourist coach driver and trail horse guide in Yellowstone Park during the early 1900s, was recently re-discovered by a family member in a box of papers, where it had languished since 1972, the year of Roy’s death.

Although Roy Fitzgerald had only an eighth grade education, and worked as a coach driver, trail guide, miner, millwright, carpenter, rancher, and laborer his narrative is ambitious and lively, covering most of his life (1887-1972) and comprising over 105,000 words. It was his intention to have this work published, both as his legacy to his family, and to document the early years of Yellowstone Park and nearby Gardiner, Montana, where his grandfather, Selleck, had been an early settler and owner of the first hotel.

He wrote the draft in longhand and in pencil, covering first one side of a notebook, then turning it over and continuing on the back side. Despite this, and his advanced age (Most of the manuscript was written in the three or four years before is death.) the original is quite legible, so I am able to compare it with a typed first copy, which he completed with the help of a friend and his daughter.

My purpose in transcribing his autobiography is two-fold. First: To record the entire work in pdf format for easy distribution to all family members. Secondly: To create an abbreviated version, corrected, foot-noted, edited, and with some repetitions left out (but still preserving Roy’s voice) for possible publication.

The original notebooks will be scanned, preserving the images for family members and interested historians of turn of the century Montana, Yellowstone Park, the Klamath Falls area of Oregon, and the early mining towns of Goldfield and Tonopah, Nevada—all areas he describes in this record of his wide-ranging travels through the early twentieth century West—a place and time which he documents with insight, humor, and an eye for  detail which is the equal to any description of family life in that era that I have encountered.

Starting out…

I suppose it’s high time I started my own site. Word Press seems to be the “place” now. Years ago I attempted (with mixed results) a site on i-web, now defunct or not supported. I am hoping this site proves to be more long-lived and useful. It will most likely take me some months to do, so please be patient—I am most certainly not an expert on web site design!

My plan, at least for now, is to focus on the following:

1. My writing (novels, stage plays, editing, essays)

2. Music (the bands I’ve played in, and my recordings)

3. Sailing (my sailing adventures in the Northwest)

Of course things could change and evolve here. Undoubtedly there will be diversions and side roads to explore (those “snake’s hands,” as a favorite author, John Crowley, calls them).