"The heart of a great biography is really to bring a person to life again for a reader in another era, so that the reader feels almost like they've gone on a journey back into time."
Doris Kearns Goodwin '64
It's crucial that the documents exist, Colby biographers say. "Find an interesting character and good archival base to work with," Leonard advises anyone thinking of doing biography. "It's so crucial to have the papers."
For her latest book, in addition to reading hundreds of books on Lincoln, Goodwin hit the archival jackpot and spent years looking through documents she found in libraries in New York, Ohio, Philadelphia, and Virginia, and in the Library of Congress.
"The sources that I so loved in the Lincoln story," said Goodwin, "were these letters that the cabinet members were writing to their families or to each other or their diary entries." The letters gave her surprisingly complete pictures of what happened on specific days and in specific meetings.
"For an historian it is the best possible source," she said "You wonder if anyone would have time today. I mean here they are running the Civil War during the day and they come home and write eight-page letters to their wives and children."
Sometimes, as Weiss found, there aren't enough documents, so you have to look elsewhere.
"In the case of Irène Némirovsky," he said, "the documentation that I could find was really insufficient to give me a full picture of who she was, because a lot of it was destroyed in the war. So I turned to her literary work as a way to look into her mind."
And that, he feels, is the point of biography.
"I think the goal of a biography," Weiss said, "is to ask the important questions of a person's life. What made them tick? What inspired them to write if they're an author? I think [the goal] is also to ask the hard questions. Why did [Némirovsky] not leave France when she could have and escape persecution? Why did she love France so much? . . . For me that's what the biography was about: Trying to figure out why a person acts the way they do."
Goudsouzian agrees. "I think the best biographies give you a real sense that you know the person," he said, "but at the same time, it really is more about painting the era around them and how they shape it and how they reflect it. Finding that right balance between the human being and his times. To me that's what marks the best biographies."
Once, Lyndon Johnson called Goodwin and complained that Carl Sandburg's book about Lincoln just didn't bring the man alive. He worried that if a writer like Sandburg couldn't bring a great man like Lincoln to life, there was no hope that anyone would ever truly remember him.
What Johnson didn't know was that he was talking to the woman who would prove able to do that, not only for Johnson, but for Lincoln as well. His words must have hit home, because even today that's what Goodwin feels is the first task of the biographer.
"The heart of a great biography," Goodwin said, "is really to bring a person to life again for a reader in another era, so that the reader feels almost like they've gone on a journey back into time and are walking side by side with the subject, so they understand both the era in which the subject lived and the strengths and weaknesses of the character and the people around them."
After her dance with LBJ, and her dance through his life in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
, Goodwin kept to the path of writing lives. Next she tackled America'’s royalty in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys
, then Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in No Ordinary Time
, and most recently Lincoln.
She's found wisdom in those lives and times.
"When you live closely with a subject," Goodwin said, "it does make you think about what were their strengths, what were their weaknesses, and how does that have echoes in the present, if you're looking at the present leadership. Or even at your own life."