Writing Biography: Historians & Their Craft

By Lloyd E. Ambrosius | Go to book overview

4. Conception, Conversation, and Comparison:
My Experiences as a Biographer

John Milton Cooper Jr.

My experience as a biographer has taught me one big lesson: There's no substitute for experience. I think that biography is like sports or music or drama. You can enjoy it a lot from a seat in the stadium or the theater. You can also learn a lot about it by reading and hearing the reflections of biographers. But if you really want to be a biographer, you should skip this chapter and get back to your research and writing. If you choose to stick around, I shall try to compensate you for being away from your real work by passing along some other lessons that I have learned in my limited experiences at the biographer's trade.

Before I get to those lessons, let me give you a quick account of what I have done in the way of biography. My experience really started in college. Princeton required a senior thesis, and I had to come up with a topic. I chose the Illinois senator and political associate of Abraham Lincoln - Lyman Trumbull. Trumbull was one of the fabled “Seven Martyrs" - the Republicans who voted against Andrew Johnson's conviction in 1868 and supplied the one-third plus one needed to save him from removal from office. I wasn't foolish enough to try to tackle Trumbull's whole life or career. I restricted myself to his participation in Reconstruction. This was a great experience for me. My adviser was a leading Civil War historian; I learned a lot from him and even more from my own

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