I was first drawn to history as a child reading biographies of men and women from Alexander the Great to Harriet Tubman. That initial inspiration fell to the wayside as I became an academic historian engrossed in archival research of the never-famous yet ever-fascinating folk who populate the past. What happened without my realizing it, however, was that I still wrote history as a series of interlaced biographies.
“Poor Children and Enlightened Citizens” began as my senior thesis, became a chapter in my doctoral dissertation, and found its way to print in a special volume of Pennsylvania History. It engages in political theory, theology, and much else, but at its heart lays the biography of the Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the biographies of those who succeeded him.
“The Many Worlds of Conrad Weiser: Mystic Diplomat” initiated me into the world of true biography. One fascinating man owned the title and the subject matter of the first two chapters of my doctoral dissertation, the aforementioned article, and much of my life ever since. I have a forthcoming encyclopedia entry on his life in a volume edited by Peter Mancall and I am still at work in my attempt to transform the various essays and presentations I have written on Weiser into a biography suitable for the highly desirable audience that visits the Weiser Homestead in Womelsdorf, PA.
Weiser’s involvement with The Ephrata Cloister caused me to stumble upon Ezechiel Sangmeister and the Eckerlin brothers, who headed down the Shenandoah Valley to attempt their own settlement of Protestant pietist monks. “Frontiers of Body and Soul” tells their story as seen through Sangmeister’s autobiography. I have since had the opportunity compose a brief biography of Samuel Eckerlin for a forthcoming volume of The Dictionary of Virginia Biography.
This penchant for biography further developed when The History Channel’s website hired me to write their “This Day in History” entries for the American Revolution. As I sought to introduce new material for each of the 365 days of the year, many of which passed without events of military or political significance, I turned to the biographies of individuals of local or national import who were born or died on that day.
At Northwestern University’s Office of Fellowships, I help outstanding students to understand the connections between their personal lives and their professional goals. When I write letters of nomination on their behalf, I articulate those connections for them. In brief, I help them to construct autobiographies, then I write their biographies. I find both roles extremely fulfilling, and they expanded my interest in the broader category of life-writing. I taught a seminar in American Studies at Northwestern on “Reading and Writing Biography” in Winter 2010.