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Biography From the Bottom Up: Part Two

by Glenn W. LaFantasie

The highlights of Oates’s career—and even the pathos of his Civil War experiences, which shaped all his remaining years—do not reveal the whole man. To find that man, to discover what made William Oates tick, I ended up having to dig deeply into the past and into a wide variety of sources so that I could come to know him intimately—and better, it turns out, than I have known members of my own family, including my late mother and father, who, in many respects, remain ciphers to me. Because Oates was not well known, and because I set out to write the first complete biography of him, I learned that I must reconstruct his life from the bottom up, going beneath the surface, searching for documents and records from far afield, piecing together the story of his life and the nature of his being. I became a historical stalker. Once I found something worthwhile in my quest, I would luxuriate by spending long hours reading Oates’s mail and delving into his most private concerns. That was more than stalking; it was pure voyeurism. Indeed, Richard Ellmann, the celebrated biographer of James Joyce, once said that the biographer’s challenge is “to know another person . . . better than we know ourselves.”

No biographer can ever write a definitive biography, although that term is often applied to life stories and historical works. The best that any biographer can do, given the necessity of interpreting the inner and outer elements in a life that was lived in the past, is to reconstruct that life as he or she sees it. Biographers, like historians, must carefully select what they write about, what they decide to include or omit, choose which episodes define the essence of a life, which details will help to keep the narrative flowing along. As a result, biographies are highly subjective. In writing about someone else’s life, biographers discover that they develop a relationship with their subject—and that relationship, which sometimes can be as dysfunctional or as psychologically dependent as any human relationship, clouds every attempt a biographer makes to be objective. Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, warns fellow biographers not to fall into love with their subjects. “No good biography,” he says, “can be written in total love and admiration.” And, he adds, “it is even less useful if it is written in hate.”

Always the biographer must strive not to become too close, too intimate with his or her subject. As much as biographers try to avoid what psychoanalysts call the “commingling of consciousness,” they end up having what feels like a tangible relationship with the person they are writing about. I like to tell people that I have spent fifteen years living with William C. Oates. It is almost more time than I had with my own father, who died when I was 16. In the end, biographers—for all their intimacy with their subjects, for all their research, for all their attempts to be objective, for all their various efforts—can do nothing more than construct (rather than reconstruct) what Paul Mariani, the biographer of William Carlos Williams, calls “the illusion of a life.” At best, the biographer must be content to reach the “truth,” knowing that any such truth will always remain relative and in the eye of the beholder. The honest biographer, however, admits that the genre affords an unparalleled opportunity at self-expression that differs from any other kind of writing. Biographers have hidden motives for writing about someone else’s life. Sometimes a biographer is fully aware of them: money, fame, self-promotion. But sometimes the motives are less evident: maybe all the digging, retrieving, arranging, and interpreting is meant to reveal a vanished life; maybe it’s meant to keep the biographer—as well as his subject—among the living, if not in the flesh, then between the covers of a book.

Even so, writing the biography of a figure who cannot lay claim to having played an important or pivotal role in shaping the course of history involves considerable challenges that differ in size and scope from how one goes about researching the famous, the powerful, and the known. Before I decided to undertake Oates’s biography, I learned that there was no great corpus of historical papers for him—unlike the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress or the Robert E. Lee Papers at the Virginia Historical Society—in any single repository, except for his official gubernatorial papers at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. So I was particularly fortunate to stumble upon a collection of family papers held by his granddaughter, Marion Oates Leiter Charles of Washington, D.C., and Newport, R.I. Yet the family papers did not, by any means, tell me all I needed to know; in fact, they filled in many blanks for Oates’s antebellum and postwar years, but contained hardly any information at all about his Civil War experience—the very event that had forged his character as a young man.

To write his story from cradle to grave, it would therefore be necessary to reconstruct his life from the bottom up. That effort is what consumed a large amount of the time I spent on the biography—those fifteen years I lived with William Oates. From around the nation, I began collecting copies of Oates’s correspondence, his speeches, his published writings, and military service records. I found documents, logically enough, in Montgomery, Alabama, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., but other items also popped up in California, Ohio, Maine, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, New York, and New Hampshire. Digging into newspapers revealed a goldmine of information about him, particularly in his home state, but also in more national papers, such as the New York Times and various Washington newspapers and periodicals. Local sources in Alabama provided the most information about Oates, his family, and his activities: census data, local histories, court records, tax records, deeds, and various municipal documents. I also conducted interviews that rounded out my portrait of Oates. No one who knew him was still alive by the time I began my project, but interviews with his granddaughter, Oatsie Charles (who was born almost a decade after Oates died), and with other older and established Alabamians, including the late Virginia Foster Durr, the civil rights activist, emphasized the vital ties that persist between the past and the present. When your subject is relatively unknown, it sometimes takes more leg work—and doses of inspiration often born of desperation—to get to the bottom of a life.

A case in point was my search for a letter, dated March 8, 1897, that I knew Oates had written to his Gettysburg nemesis, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Documents in the Oates Family Papers revealed that the letter existed, that in the 1940s it had belonged to an autograph collector named Arthur F. Winslow in Connecticut, and that in the intervening years it had gone missing. I already knew, from research I had conducted earlier at Bowdoin College in Maine that Chamberlain had written a letter to Oates dated February 27, 1897. It seemed obvious that the missing Winslow letter, as I began calling it, was Oates’s reply to Chamberlain. Hoping that Winslow might have given the letter to the Connecticut Historical Society or the Connecticut State Library, I contacted those two repositories only to learn that they had no Oates letters at all and had never heard of Arthur Winslow. In the early days of the Internet, before the invention of Google, I tried unsuccessfully to track down any information at all about Winslow, who turned out to be not only an autograph collection but a dealer as well. But what I knew about him, apart from the fact that he had lived most of his life in Hartford, Connecticut, was next to nothing. I sent search announcements and placed classified advertisements in various publications read by manuscript dealers, autograph collectors, and professional archivists. No luck. I consulted the Manuscript Society’s database at Arizona State University without success, and sent appeals out to discussion groups, including the Gettysburg Discussion Group, an early Internet listserv. I even contacted the Civil War Round Tables in Connecticut to see if anyone remembered Winslow and might know what happened to him and the historical documents he had collected. No dice.

I tried not to overlook the obvious, which fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe insist is the first step in any competent investigation. I checked stacks of Hartford telephone and city directories for Arthur Winslow, but came up empty handed. I realized that Winslow had probably died many years ago, since my only reference to him dated from 1947. But, I wondered, maybe I can find a relative—a widow, a surviving child, a grandchild—in Connecticut who might know something about the missing Oates letter. From the Internet, I collected the names and addresses of every person named Winslow living in Connecticut. I then sent a letter of appeal to each of them, seventy-five different households in all, describing in detail what I was looking for—information about Arthur Winslow or the Oates letter or both.

The technique paid off, but not as profitably as I had hoped. A few days after posting my letter, I received a phone call from Clayton A. Winslow, a police officer in Bloomfield, Connecticut, who had just received my letter in the mail. He was the grandson of Arthur F. Winslow, and he remembered his grandfather’s fascination with American history and the fact that he had collected a number of historical documents. His grandfather, he explained, had died in 1980, but unfortunately he could not recall what had happened to the document collection. There was no one else in the family who would know, either, he said. I seemed to have reached the end of the line.

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This is piece two of three by Professor LaFantasie, click here for part one, check back tomorrow for part three. LaFantasie is the Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, is the author of Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates. Be sure to read his other essays on our blog, Authors Don’t Own Their Books, Hearing History’s Requiem and Our Distant Civil War.

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