Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale

Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale

Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale

Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale


The task of editing and annotating a nineteenth-century diary seemed straightforward at first, but as Robert Root assembled scattered fragments of lost history and immersed himself in background research, he became enmeshed in unexpected ways. When doubts arose about who really wrote the journal, Root found himself plunged into a mystery of lost identity, drawn ever deeper into the drama and complexity of forgotten lives and engaged in a quest at times both compulsive and quixotic. Part memoir, part meditation on the nature of biography, Recovering Ruth is the absorbing story of recovering a hidden past--and of learning firsthand the complications of intimacy that develop between a biographer and his subject.


Mrs. C. C. Douglass, Detroit, Michigan, Jan. 1st 1848

Mr. Douglass brought in this book today and presented it to me,
saying, as we should probably be moving about some the coming year
it would be well to keep a journal of our migrations. I very willingly
acceded to this wish, but shall not attempt to carry out the design
of the author by keeping a regular daily journal but will endeavor to
record incidents as they may occur.

Not the design of the author. By the time I stood before the weathered, stained white obelisk that marked her final resting place, Mrs. Douglass’s expression had come to mean something different to me than it had to her. She had used her opening remarks in her journal to explain (to herself? to an unspecified reader over her shoulder?) that she would only note events out of the ordinary rather than reflect on whatever she encountered in her daily life. When I first read the phrase I was mildly disappointed, suspecting that her journal would be only a superficial catalog of mundane minutiae. in time, as I’d grown increasingly fascinated by the journal, I’d come to see that it had exceeded the design of its author—it had become, inadvertently, a lively work readable on its own terms. Now, at her graveside, I understood how the phrase applied to me as well. Surely the turmoil I was feeling hadn’t been part of my design.

Her tombstone was the earliest of her family’s markers. Behind and above me loomed the heavy black monument to her parents and siblings, topped by the seated figure of a woman. the woman’s pose was relaxed and reflective. Perhaps unintentionally, her granite gaze faced the east, as . . .

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