The Power of Biography
by Hal | March 1st, 2012
- If we ignore the lessons of history, we’ve been warned, we’ll be doomed to repeat them. I would say in addition, if we ignore the lessons of biographies, we’re likely not to repeat them. And given the right lives to study, missing their example would be a tragedy indeed.
The little South Carolina town where I grew up was the site of not one but two significant (and for the patriots, pretty disastrous) Revolutionary War battles. The Civil War only arrived with General Sherman, and late in the game. If you were interested in local military history, it involved redcoats and patriots, not the Blue and the Grey.
Baton Rouge was different.
When I brought my family there after a year of exile on the West Coast, we were just a few miles from Port Hudson and a morning’s drive from New Orleans and Vicksburg. All the history buffs in the neighborhood were students of the Civil War. Even my best friend, as truly Yankee as ever set forth from Maine, bought a grey frock coat and a reproduction Enfield rifle, to fall in with his erstwhile Confederate buddies in the frequent historical re-enactments.
Surprisingly enough, my public school textbooks seemed discreetly embarrassed to talk much about heroes of the South, so I decided it was high time to get to the bottom of the mythology of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Were they really as great as all that? Or were they just figureheads in a historical grudge match – the star players in the partisan give-and-take of the re-enactors’ world I had encountered?
I turned up a couple of biographies written by men who were close to the subject. As it happened, both of them were chaplains who served with the two generals, writing their accounts within a few years of the two men’s deaths. Who better to judge their real worth?
It was eye opening. I was gratified to learn that Lee and Jackson truly were men of honor and character, and with their flaws and failings in the balance, there were many admirable traits that still shined through. As I read more widely, I found some Federal commanders to admire as well. Fair’s fair.
But more importantly, as dove into these biographies, I found myself asking – how would Lee have approached the situation I’m in? How did he deal with disappointment, setback, opposition from his own side, misunderstanding? How did Jackson live out a Christian profession (literally) under fire? Looking at the near-awe that men felt for them, what kind of life did they live in front of their soldiers to earn that respect? What could I apply to my own life as a father, a husband, a staff member, a believer?
I suddenly realized that, without intending it, I was getting an education in character for myself. I found it in the life stories of Lee and Jackson; I found it in the lives of George Washington and Patrick Henry, of Martin Luther and John Newton, of Samuel Adams and Booker T. Washington. My shelves began to fill and I haven’t stopped yet.
Kenneth Ruscio, the president of Washington and Lee University, wrote an excellent editorial for Inside Higher Ed about the challenge of evaluating great figures of the past. When considering the real men behind the popular portrayals, he acknowledged, it is difficult “to steer an honorable course between idolatry and evisceration,” as historian Joseph P. Ellis put it. Justice and truth demand that we find that balance.
That’s why I look for the studies that show the true character, not just the events, of the lives displayed. They were real men, not figureheads or political chess pieces. And that’s why, when I find those biographies, I ponder them, and then I share them. We can’t all live in the presence of heroes, but we can get closer to them through the eyes and pens of those who did. And we should!
How do you find real heroes for your sons, and how to you teach them to consider the lives of men (living, historical, or imaginary) from a Biblical standpoint? Listen to our workshop Where’s Roy Rogers When You Need Him? for ideas and suggestions!
To find some right now – and have fun along the way – check out our dramatized audiobook, Hero Tales from American History, by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge!