Friday, June 22, 2012

Narrative Biographies

Recently I finished reading The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, a narrative biography of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife.  Of course, it was largely fictionalized, as most narrative biographies are, but it still made for an interesting read, and got me thinking of other people whose lives were just too darn fascinating for a standard biography.  People who lived a compelling story, and whose lives would make a damn good book.

I compiled a short list of whom I would want to write about, if I were to write a narrative biography:

  • Thomas Jefferson - Sure, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but what about his time in Paris, during which he fell for Maria Cosway?  How about his flight from Richmond, with Benedict Arnold on his heels?  And then there's the story of how he broke his wrist, and could never play the violin well again?  Whether you love him or hate him, there's no doubt that Jefferson lived a life fit for books.
  • Anne, Mary, and/or Deborah Milton - The three daughters of seventeenth-century poet John Milton.  Because Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost, he dictated it to his teenage daughters (the oldest, Anne, was only 16 years old when he finished), who wrote it all down.  Now that must have been an interesting experience.
  • Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette - A young aristocrat who directly disobeyed his king by running off to America to fight, and in doing so became like a son to George Washington.  If that weren't enough, he played a crucial role in stirring up the French Revolution, and he witnessed the Napoleonic Era--though he spent quite some time in a French prison.  Now that's fascinating.
  • Pedro I of Brazil - When Napoleon's armies invaded Lisbon, the royal family escaped by fleeing to Brazil, then a colony of Portugal.  Pedro was nine years old at the time, so he spent his teenage years away from home, in a strange and wild land--at least, compared to Europe.  Then much of Latin America was going through a period of unrest, as various colonies called for independence.  Pedro grew to sympathize with the Brazilians, and eventually decided to remain in Brazil as its ruler, rather than return to Portugal with the rest of his family.
  • Herbert Hoover - Herbert Hoover belongs less in a book and more in an off-Broadway orphan musical.  Only unlike Annie and Oliver!, the story of Herbert! starts in tragedy--and ends in it, too.  Orphaned at age nine, Hoover grew up under unusual circumstances, became America's favorite humanitarian during World War I, then President of the United States--and a short while later when the stock market crashed, Public Enemy #1.  Unfortunately for him, he'll always be remembered as "That guy who botched up the Depression."  A sad orphan story indeed.

Who would you want to write about?  Who would you want to read about?

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