Why do readers clamor for books about people they’ve already heard of?

Today we’re sharing a blog post from one of our authors, Ann Little, on her new book The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. Her blog, Historiann, will feature a post about the book every Tuesday, and we will feature them here on our blog.

“Hey, kids:  It’s publication day. Huzzah! The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, 2016) has officially dropped! Now you can read all about the 7-year old Anglo-American girl from New England, taken in wartime by the Wabanaki, who became a student and then choir nun at the Ursuline convent in Québec.  She then became the one (and still the only) foreign-born mother superior of her order. What a life! Or more properly, what lives, plural.

I’ll be offering a few tantalizing excerpts from the book every Tuesday until it gets optioned for a screenplay, or until I make my massive advance back for the press, or both. Ha!  So if you want to stop seeing this lady’s pink, squinty face peering out at you from that old wimple, do your part and buy a copy. If you can’t afford a copy, ask your university and local libraries to buy a copy, so you can share.

Future topics may include: What did children play with in early New England? How did warfare affect Wabanaki foodways? How did Esther become a Wabanaki child? What was it like to be at the Governor’s house for dinner in Québec? How did girls and women deal with menstruation in the eighteenth century? Why did the Ursulines call Esther Anglaise rather than Abnaquise?  Did the Ursulines engage in bodily mortification? What was daily life like for the soeurs converses (lay sisters), who performed the domestic labor in the convent? Let me know about your questions, too–I take requests.

Regular readers here know that rhetorical questions are a little tic of mine, so I’m going to structure “Teaser Tuesday” excerpts from the book around a question or two, like today’s question: “Why do readers clamor for books about people they’ve already heard of?” Let’s find out:

The subjects of most biographies in any national history are men. They are also overwhelmingly men who lived in the modern world, and these accounts reflect our contemporary preoccupation with modern history themes: politics, economics, warfare, the nation-state, and so on.  These biographies are also invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will. He’s a man of singular genius, one whose fortunes aren’t made by his family, community, or the times in which he lived.

George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale (1772)
George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale (1772)

American biography, especially early American biography, offers no exception to this rule. Historians of the earliest decades of U.S. history have churned out biographies of the so-called Founding Fathers for audiences whose admiration for these men knows no limits. This vision of biography is literally inescapable: every day as I walk to my office in the Huntington Library to finish writing this book, I must walk the entire length of a larger-than-lifesize, hallway-length display on the life and career of George Washington, the man the exhibit calls “America’s greatest leader.” It takes thirty of my brisk, purposeful strides to traverse the length of this tribute to Washington. Traditional biographies like these commemorate only some kinds of power and politics, and avoid the rest.

The focus of these books is on both personal and national greatness, not the patriarchal, slaveholding world that permitted these privileged white men to rise to the top of their colonial society long before independence from Great Britain was ever imagined. Stories about the sagacity, virtue, and political genius of our “Founding Fathers” sell like hotcakes. Stories that focus on the cruelty and exploitation of the many by the few in colonial North America might receive respectful reviews in academic journals, but they don’t move product.

So why do readers clamor for books about people they’ve already heard of? Why don’t writers or readers look for fresh stories of people they’ve never heard of before? First, historians’ choices have traditionally been restrained by their discipline’s obsession with written information, so we must consider the politics of literacy in early America. Because even most free women in North America were taught only to read and not to write until the middle of the eighteenth century, most people, enslaved or free, couldn’t generate their own archive, let alone possess the social and cultural capital to ensure its preservation for two or three centuries. It’s a lot easier to write about people who wrote endlessly about themselves in journals or diaries, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with friends and colleagues which was then meticulously preserved.

The second reason that biographies of the already well known are more popular has to do with readers’ choices. It’s better business to write about the rich and famous, because there’s already a built-in audience of book buyers for that latest biography of John Adams, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, or Abraham Lincoln. It’s easier and more fun for middle-class North American readers to identify with rich and powerful individuals rather than the victims of history. Schoolyard bullies know this instinctively: we all want to identify with winners instead of losers.

The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, pp. 9-10.

Wow, that passage took a weird turn, didn’t it?  From George Washington to schoolyard bullies–what do they have to do with one another?  Want to know more?  You know what to do!  Close your eyes, and tap your heels together three times, and

Stories about girls who are carried far from home are everywhere in our culture, and there are always new and interesting lives to learn about, if we only look for them.”

Born on the Great Lakes near the U.S.-Canadian border, Ann Little is associate professor of history at Colorado State University and the author of Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England. She lives in Greeley, CO.


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