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Biography 23.1 (2000) 245-247

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Scott E. Casper. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999. 456 pp. ISBN 0-8078-2462-3, $49.95 cloth; ISBN 0-8078-4765-8, $19.95 paper.

This scrupulously researched and broadly conceived study of biography in nineteenth-century America traces the cultural work and publishing history of a genre that was enormously popular. Circulation records from local lending libraries, just one of a wide array of sources Scott E. Casper explores, reveal that diverse groups of readers, both male and female, thrived on reading biographies. That the biographies they embraced were neither good literature nor good history cannot, according to Casper, explain contemporary scholars' wholesale neglect of the genre. Noncanonical works ranging from dime novels to pornographical texts have been the stuff of cultural studies for some time. Why not biography as well? Casper argues quite convincingly that while scholars have mined other popular nineteenth-century genres largely for their subversive, counterculture impulses, they have largely ignored biography because it championed the dominant values of the society. In eulogizing their subjects and shaping them into idealized models to be emulated by their readers, nineteenth-century biographers tended to write success stories that valorized patriotism, celebrated self-made men, and buttressed the capitalist ethos.

What more is there to say, then, about a genre whose nineteenth-century messages have held so few surprises? As it turns out, quite a bit. For one thing, women and men looked to very different sorts of models. And the models shifted over time, with contestations over the purpose of biography invariably accompanying the shifts. Taking issue with the narrowly didactic notion of character that prevailed in the early republic, mid-century romantics insisted that the special "genius" of their subjects should influence readers to find their own genius through inspiration instead of emulation. In probing the differences between inspiration and emulation, between genius and character, Casper deftly reveals important changes in biographical writing. At issue also, for both writers and readers, was the degree to which biography was a branch of history, and thus an integral part of the national narrative. Toward the end of the century, biography came to be defined as a specific genre within literature, and evaluated on the basis of its literary merits. A good work of biography was expected not only to tell the unvarnished truth, but to do so with all the polish and coherence of a novel. It is telling that James Parton created a brilliant career as a biographer--of Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson, and Horace Greeley, among others--precisely when biography came to be [End Page 245] viewed as a genre that was neither a branch of history, nor a forum for didactic messages.

In Casper's hands, biography becomes an innovative lens for viewing the incessant transformation of nineteenth-century American culture. Even Parton's engaging brand of biography, with its romantic emphasis on individuality, was implicitly challenged by literary realism and social Darwinism. And yet, although Parton was still recognized at the turn of the century as an important contributor to the genre, Elizabeth Ellet, author of The Women of the American Revolution (1850), was derided in The New York Times upon the book's reissue in 1900 for writing a who's who, or "mug-book." Even some fifty years after the book's initial publication, the Times still failed to appreciate that Ellet had combined the scholarly standards of her own time with feminine sentiment to claim the national past for women.

The sheer range of biographers Casper explores here is stunning. As a student of both popular and local culture, for instance, he takes up the simple mug-books derogated by the Times. These collected sketches of local farmers, businessmen, and politicians were published by subscription firms, and ordered in advance of publication by the proud subjects themselves. Emerging in the 1880s along with county histories, these biographical albums were a lucrative business that publishers argued were democratizing the entire...


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