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When I was a boy, around the ages of nine and ten, I read dozens of biographies. I can still see the books. Some were in the Landmark Book series and had an illustration on the cover; another series, the Bobbs Merrill Childhood of Famous Americans, had orange covers emblazoned with the name of the famous person. I read about George Washington Carver, Clara Barton, Babe Ruth, Paul Revere, Betsy Ross, Booker T. Washington, important people who included some American Indians—Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Sacajawea, Pocahontas, Crazy Horse. As a Jewish kid in Baltimore in 1958, the very notion that there had been someone named Crazy Horse sent me over the moon. Most of the people I read about were dead, although I recall reading about Dwight Eisenhower and Ralph Bunche. The Landmark series included foreigners, often from very long ago—Marco Polo, Magellan—not that I had any sense of historical time. I was a hungry maw; the books filled my nascent soul with an invaluable cargo—the sense of a life. Affairs didn’t necessarily turn out well—Amelia Earhart’s plane went missing, Lou Gehrig died young—but that was secondary to the person’s doing something that mattered, something heroic.
My father was an accountant, my mother a school teacher. People in our neighborhood led mild, sedentary lives. No explorers, no wars, no scientific geniuses—just folks going about their American business. Life was consoling and predictable, though Mr. Schwelker who lived up the street died of a heart attack one June evening while watering his vegetable garden. I played games of all sorts—ball games and board games such as Parcheesi and Monopoly—that had a tinge of uncertainty, but the past in the form of biographies called to me from a land of uncertainty that time had reconciled into stories. So much had happened and I had missed all of it. My head was a jumble of past people. It still is.
The books often featured fictionalized dialogue that gave readers a sense of the life as it was being lived, the talk that went with living. That sense eventually led me to fiction, to Dickens and Mark Twain. The orange books only went so far yet were crucial for me. However stilted the writing was and however cloying the conventions were (plucky girls, adventuresome boys), human character came to the fore. The books accentuated the savor of free will. Whatever the people were up against—the British army, prejudice, settlers, what would come to be called “sexism”–they went ahead, clutching a sense of destiny. That indispensable sidekick, doubt, came along later for me, in my adolescence. The biographies represented a purity of narrative but one confirmed by real events. Paul Revere had ridden his horse and Crazy Horse had fought and Clara Barton had nursed soldiers. I made no judgments about who was most important. Instinctively, I felt they all were. Someone had bothered to write about them, after all. They had in, that regard, achieved fame. I don’t remember ever putting one of the books down and feeling disappointed. I was, no doubt, an easy mark, an avid, imaginative boy to whom the books stood for the exciting integrity of a human life. In some of the lives, particularly those who, due to race, ethnicity or gender drew one of history’s short straws, I sensed something like dignity. I didn’t have all the words yet, but, as is the case with most children, the years spent watching adults had intimated to me the great price of getting along.
How these people were heroic varied. Babe Ruth was a great ball player but he didn’t command an army or establish the importance of nursing. Yet when Babe Ruth came to the plate, he was on his own, which was one reason I loved baseball—that sense of things being up to the individual. In that way, some species of heroism seemed open to anyone. Since childhood is a condition of powerlessness mitigated by day dreams, wishes and shows of pique, the notion of heroism loomed large. Here were people who had done more than refused to eat their carrots. Some doors opened for them that took them into a place where they were measuring life rather than life measuring them. To someone whose world was bounded by school report cards that prospect offered hope. The lives existed in the ethos of history and the force of personality. Actions resulted from the chemistry of those two coming together. Circumstances were plentiful—frontier America, for one—yet the atmosphere the people breathed, as children and later, was free of categorical afflictions. Frustration was just that—an impediment and a spur to determination rather than a ruination.
Did the books lie to me? Or did they tell me something necessary? The short answer is “both;” thus a certain amount of my adult life has been devoted to those two large questions. Of course the books simplified for the sake of their audience, but they didn’t reduce their subjects to representative identity units of a mass society. On the contrary, the various figures had taken inspiration from whatever world they were born into. That world spoke to them, often through nature but also through people around them, parents, friends, elders and teachers. They intuited the possibility of decisiveness, of doing something more than going along to get along, of using the fabled “potential” school was always talking about in real ways, which meant ways they made up. They were creative about their lives. Even—or especially—the rough-hewn lives of the frontiersmen were like that—testimonials to fearlessness and persistence. The books presented one life, so the broad tragedies—the endless campaigns against the Indians—never got their due. That was for me to put together when I read a book about Andrew Jackson and then one about the Cherokees. That seemed—even from my juvenile perspective—what I needed to do to be an American in any meaningful sense.
The people I read about were exceptional. What was I supposed to do with that? I could try to be exceptional but wasn’t at all sure how to go about that. “Exceptional” could mean “weird,” as in standing out and calling unwanted attention to myself. Childhood was about being part of a neighborhood and playing on teams. I wasn’t especially gifted athletically but neither was Luther Burbank or Benjamin Franklin. What they had going for them, however, was that sense of something speaking to them, something in the ordinary, day-to-day world but something extraordinary, something that was there waiting to be investigated. I looked around at the adults going off to work each day in their cars and I turned on the kitchen faucet and out came water and I hoped in the winter that it would snow a bunch. I heard talk, particularly from my grandmother who was part-gossip, part-perpetual-pessimist, about this and that neighbor, that so-and-so seemed miserable or so-and-so drank too much or so-and-so had time only for herself. For her, it was always raining human debilities. Heroes were scant.
Beyond my grandmother’s unhappy ruminations, I had the uneasy feeling that everyone was boxed in, put upon, regularized and homogenized. Somehow, life had become tighter—no barefoot boys and girls. My parents would have been quick to tell me that was all to the good. Each of them knew something about the history of woe. What another presence in our household—the television that had become an immediate fixture—gave me, however, was something alluring but palpably synthetic, life cut up and put into half-hour cubes. When Disney presented the fabled American past, everything felt manipulated. Someone played Davy Crockett. When I read about him, he was Davy Crockett. The words buoyed him up for me so I could enter his life. That feeling was precious. He had been free and I was with him in his freedom. I too might be free and when I learned about those who weren’t free, whose freedom was curtailed or opposed, I got one more American lesson that has lasted for a lifetime.
In the biographies, personality ruled. People were cheerful, persevering, kind, brave and many other (largely positive) descriptors. The probing that psychology bequeathed, that acute gift of modern times, feels very different from such adjectives that seem, in comparison, amateurish, old-fashioned and unscientific. We prefer a term such as “depression” rather than the subjectivity of “sadness” or “melancholy.” The cold imprint of objectivity soothes us. Even suffering can be orderly.
The heroes I encountered in those books believed as a matter of course in the old words. They had not been inveigled by an allure that produced very great expectations: the notion that all circumstances can be manipulated and explained. Science in one form or another (which would include ideology) has a word for everything. Perhaps it does but a result of such expectations and explanations has been a diminution of faith in life itself, an alienation that abets feelings of futility and resentment. Perhaps in modern times with its global wars and unthinkable weapons, its propaganda machines and mobilizations, its sheer ability to victimize at will, that has to be. We are hyper-organized: the airplanes taking off and landing every minute while the television keeps blaring, the Internet keeps glowing, the cell phone keeps chiming, the various forms of surveillance keep watching. The orange books, and those in them, feel very long ago. The flaws in my childhood heroes were commonly skipped over in the service of legend. Often, the ugly details of historical reality were pushed aside. Yet I learned something that has held me in good stead, how difficulties were real, but people could stand up to them and stand up for themselves. Heroism, in that sense, was in everyone’s grasp.
Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser
In 2000, Baron Wormser was appointed Poet Laureate of Maine by Governor Angus King. He served in that capacity for six years and visited many libraries and schools to talk about books and writing.
The biographies I remember in our elementary school library had a blue cloth cover. I dove way down into the life of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox. And Daniel Boone. Heroes of the forests, the wilderness.
Yes, I remember those books.
Thoughtful essay! And I love the subject of heroes… so much to dig into. In addition to you, my favorite writer about heroes was Joseph Campbell. Heroes and fallible humans.
I think those books were there, but most of my early childhood was spent with science fiction. I loved Heinlein until the book everyone else loved, Stranger in a Strange Land, which gave me an unease I later identified with the misogyny which characterized so much of the writers I came to love in other ways. I think the authors who impressed me the most were Bradbury and Steinbeck. Thanks for this morning’s reflection
Yes, Steinbeck, Twain and Hemingway were important to me as an adolescent. Later Le Guin and Heinlein. And then in college I fell in love with poetry and never looked back.
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So good to read this from you! Yes, “these books helped.”
I read those biographies too, so many of them; I would sit in the dark corner of the library stacks and devour them one after another: Stephen Foster, Eric the Red, Florence Nightingale, Maria Tall Chief . . . “heroism in everyone’s grasp,” yes, but also the eagerness. What does one do with the eagerness of childhood? Why do none of the adults you know seem to have it? These books helped, I think.