As a keen observer of people, I try to imagine the lives of those whose paths cross mine. I devour biographies with a similar desire to know the details of someone’s life: what shaped their thinking, how they became who they are, and especially how they overcame obstacles. I relish non-fiction books that take an unexpected approach to a well-known character (see “Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet,” reviewed here).
Earlier this spring, I had the opportunity to chat with Megan Marshall, winner of this year’s Biography International Organization Award for her work, which includes three biographies, all of extraordinary women. Her 2013 book, “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” won the Pulitzer Prize. She spoke of the role of a biographer as “helping readers bridge the gap between their experience and a life from the past”.
Good biographies can serve as inspiration, giving readers a front row seat to another person’s struggles. In the case of Fuller, a 19th-century journalist, feminist, and colleague of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “she had a vision of herself that didn’t really exist. [in society]says Ms. Marshall. “She speaks to readers today because she … developed this theory of ‘no all-male man, no all-female woman.’ They all slide into each other. Nobody else wrote like that.
When readers see themselves and their times reflected in a biography, it can give them perspective, says Marshall. “There are so many things to worry about and so many things that seem hopeless. But if you go back and look at other times when there seemed to be no hope…you’ll see how people rose up anyway,” she said. “It’s one of the most important things a biographer can do.”
She continues, “Just seeing how people have renewed their hope, what right do we have to give up when people in extremely difficult situations have used every tool at their disposal to try to make a difference?”
Readers may wonder how one person can change the trajectory of a society. Ms. Marshall explains the concept of a “trim tab,” a favorite idea of inventor Buckminster Fuller, who was a great-nephew of Margaret Fuller. “A huge steamer or airplane will have a trim tab, and just moving it as little as possible can change the direction,” she says. “I like to think that someone like Margaret Fuller or Buckminster Fuller might just make a small difference in the huge flow of life.
“We can take these messages from those who haven’t given up,” she says. “Alternatively, you can learn from people who haven’t succeeded. Everyone is worthy of memory and…every life is a gift. And what you do with that gift is up to you.
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