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Biographies feed interest in history

June 07, 2009|By KATE COLEMAN

Lifestyle Editor Chris Copley, my editor at The Herald-Mail, wrote a first-rate story for the May 8 Family section of the newspaper. Headline: "History is a) dead; b) alive."

Interesting young people in the study of history is a struggle according to one of his sources, a middle-school American history teacher.

I understand.

As a middle-school student eons ago, I was pretty good at remembering dates and names. My grades were fine, but I never got excited about the subject.

The only enjoyable history-class experience I recall was scoring extra credit by correctly answering the trick question posed by my seventh-grade social studies teacher, who happened to be of Italian-American descent.

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"Who was Giovanni Bruno?"

"John Brown," I answered, and wrote a paragraph in the accented style of my own Italian-American great-uncle Dominic.

My belated interest - excitement, actually - in history has been sparked by my reading of two excellent biographies. These are meticulously researched books by great storytellers.

Debby Applegate's "The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher" was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Sure, I've known of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" author Harriet Beecher Stowe, but how could I have not even been aware of her brother, Henry? The charismatic 19th-century preacher, anti-slavery crusader and advocate for women's suffrage also was accused of seducing one of his parishioners. The scandal and civil trial "created more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War," according to the book jacket.

Applegate's book is a real page-turner and presents a view of 19th-century America I never knew existed. Historic figures become real people with personalities through Applegate's inclusion of newspaper accounts and editorials, speeches and sermons and their own words.

"History is the story of people ..." Washington County Historical Society Curator Michael Kyne told Copley.

That's what works for me.

Prior to recently reading "John Adams," David McCullough's 2001 biography of America's second president, I'd never thought of him as a person -- the real-life man behind his shiny Founding Father stature.

I'm not sure when I bought the mail-order-book-club copy of McCullough's 2002 Pulitzer-Prize-for-Biography winner, but most likely, it was part of a buy-two-get-one-free bargain I couldn't resist in a moment of self-improvement.

But years passed before I hefted the 651-page tome off my bookshelf.

I find myself surprised to be writing that I am amazed and delighted by history. I loved learning about the life of Adams, the Massachusetts farmer and lawyer who played such a huge role in the nation's beginning.

Adams comes alive in his own words - in letters to his wife and best friend, Abigail, to his children, to his friends, including Thomas Jefferson, from whom he was estranged for years because of differing political philosophies.

Because I grew up in New Jersey and have a daughter who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., I chuckled at his comments on New Yorkers: "They talk very loud, very fast, and altogether." He'd stopped there in 1774 on his way to the First Continental Congress.

Seeing parallels to the present also is satisfying. McCullough wrote that in 1790, "Adams had become increasingly distraught over the rise of political divisiveness ..."

Adams once wrote, "I am but an ordinary man. The times alone have destined me to fame."

I disagree. History would be vastly different without this extraordinary man.

So. Is this English major going to stop reading her usually preferred fare of mostly contemporary American fiction?

Nah.

One of the things I like best about John Adams is that he read literature to understand the "labyrinth" of human nature. I should do no less.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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