A green light to greatness.®

I See Dead People

You can, too, if you use the narrative techniques of this Pulitzer biographer

By: James McGrath Morris

On the eve of hitting the road to publicize my biography of Joseph Pulitzer, I received a note from a well-known independent bookstore where I was scheduled to do an event. It contained the following instructions, “We do suggest that you talk, not read, as reading is exercised only by novelists.” Nonfiction, in the estimation of this bookseller, was defined not only by the fact that it wasn’t fiction, but also by its lack of literary merit. Ouch!

In my craft, that of biography, books are coming off the press everyday whose read-aloud qualities match that found on the fiction shelves. Apparently, my correspondent had failed to notice that this is the golden age of biography. Had he glanced at a work by Doris Kearns Goodwin, T. J. Stiles, Rebecca Skloot, or H. W. Brands in his store, he would have encountered engaging, lively and captivating storytelling. Unlike old-style biographies — slavishly reconstructing every moment of a life, self-consciously discussing documents, quoting endless passages from diaries and letters, displaying an idolatrous reverence for its subject — these books read like novels. Only they aren’t. They are built on a foundation of time-consuming research enlivened by the best narrative techniques. 

Inevitably biographers must begin their work with their subject’s papers even if the contents seem mundane. Virginia Woolf, while writing about artist and fellow Bloomsbury member Roger Fry, famously asked, “How can one make a life out of six cardboard boxes full of tailors’ bills, love letters and old picture postcards?” The contents of these boxes vary immensely. Sometimes the subject has already parsed the contents. Others, who know that biographers will dig through their papers, find the fireplace a useful filing cabinet. The cleverest of these figures actually take the time to leave behind documents intended to polish their images. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, became keenly aware that some day others would read his letters to his children. You can tell. An intimate paragraph is rapidly followed by some pontification, almost as if the writer suddenly remembered his larger audience.

Working our way through these collections, biographers select. If we published everything we found, only the authors and their blessed mothers would read the books. Choose, we must. My selection process isn’t systematic; it’s instinctive. First, I want to connect with my subject in an intimate and emotive fashion by pawing through diaries, letters, checkbooks and photographs. Second, I want to find and corroborate the facts that will form the basis of my story. Third, I seek out words my subject said or wrote that I can use in telling his or her story. In this sense, a biography is an unusually collaborative work because the second largest chunk of text between the covers is the subject’s own composition.

As I sort through these boxes, I proceed like an archeologist. When they dig, archeologists lay out grids of string and, working carefully with little brushes, catalog each item and its location. I do the same thing but without the brushes (nor the cool safari hats and kerchief.) I construct a chart on my computer and catalog the contents of each file folder as I work through the boxes.

Doing this kind of laborious work is particularly important at the beginning of the project because the names, places and events may not mean anything yet. In my chart of the New York World business folders (see below left), the entry “Tunstall ltr.” appears in the third row. It wasn’t until months later that I discovered Nannie Tunstall was Pulitzer’s former girlfriend who had declined his proposal for marriage.  The letter was a thank you note. Pulitzer had given her a complimentary subscription to his moneymaking newspaper; perhaps, a daily reminder of her mistake?

Each collection poses its own special challenge. In the case of Pulitzer, it was secret codes (see below). The public nature of the telegraph — one of the wonders of the 19th century — created a privacy nightmare for businessmen. Telegraph operators were privy to the content of any message and secrets were not safe. Business rivals purchased codebooks designed for composing telegrams. The Acme Commodity and Phrase Code, for example, was a 902-page compendium of 100,000 five-letter codes.

Pulitzer sent coded messages enthusiastically, but instead of using a commercially available codebook, he developed his own. He created a nomenclature for his world. He had codes for politicians, rivals, business terms, dates, amounts of money, family members, and even the weather. William Jennings Bryan became “Guilder,” Theodore Roosevelt “Glutinous,” and William Randolph Hearst “Gush.” Almost every telegram asked about “potash,” the term for advertising, including display ads, known as “memorials.” In constructing his coded world, Pulitzer went beyond hiding corporate and political communication from prying eyes. The health of the children and family alone merited 37 terms. The weather on his voyages was hardly an important secret, yet there were 48 codes for fog, clouds, sun and temperatures. Luckily, one copy of the codebooks survived, permitting researchers to decipher these messages.

Biographers can spend an eternity with a subject’s papers. But they’re only a starting point. For instance, it is rare to find an unflattering item in the personal papers of a powerful figure. Typically correspondents saved their unvarnished views for their diaries, or for private letters to their associates or family. These collections can produce delightful surprises, particularly if previous biographers didn’t make an effort to widen their search. Examining the papers of Pulitzer’s son Joseph II, I came across a small piece of jewelry. It had been sent to Pulitzer’s brother in 1938 by Hungarians trying to prove they were cousins to the rich American branch of the family. This find, along with some other information, allowed me to demonstrate Pulitzer’s affection for his mother Elize Berger and his dislike of his stepfather, creating a touching scene for my book.

With money in his pocket, Pulitzer entered a New York jewelry store. He had a tiny hole drilled into an 1864 gold dollar, a small coin about a half an inch in diameter. A delicate chain fastened the coin to a gold ring, thereby making a device by which a woman could hold her handkerchief, then a fashion accessory in Hungary. On the reverse side of the coin, the jeweler engraved Elize’s maiden initials, “E.B.”.  Pulitzer mailed the resulting creation to his mother, better proof than any letter of his success in the New World.

Sometimes, using old gumshoe techniques and a little luck, we find new and different material. For instance, I learned from newspaper accounts that Pulitzer’s estranged brother, Albert, had written a memoir before committing suicide in 1909. I read that the memoir had fallen into the hands of Albert’s son who announced he was preparing them for publication. But I could find no trace of the book being published. As the two brothers were estranged, none of Joseph’s children and grandchildren had any contact with the other brother’s descendants. Reading the obituaries, I located one of Albert’s great-grandchildren, an artist in Arlington, Texas. He provided me with the Paris address of his aunt Muriel Pulitzer. I sent off an express letter.

Within a week, I had received an airmail reply. “You are most welcome to consult the documents I have here in my possession,” she wrote in an elegant script. “This supposes that you can envisage a trip to Paris — as I do not wish to allow any of these documents to leave my custody of them for the time being.” The next evening I was on an Icelandair flight to Paris. I found Pulitzer’s descendant living humbly, with little money, as a religious sculptress.

Locating the memoir was a turning point in my research because unlike previous biographers, I could now include the frank and harsh perspective of Joseph’s only brother. As the two brothers were competitors and both became American journalists and publishers, the memoir added a provocative dimension to my story.

From Albert’s long-lost manuscript:

“By my $20.00 capital was molting away nearly as fast as the ice cream which I enjoyed so hugely. Thus I was fain to obey the call of my elder and only surviving brother, Joseph, then established as a reporter on the Westliche Post, the leading daily German paper of St. Louis. (Though our paths have lain wide apart for the last twenty-five years and more, it is necessary for the completeness and accuracy of my story that I should mention him, and certain incidents which have greatly affected my career, as otherwise this record of my life would be entirely misleading and often hardly intelligible.) I shared his room, which, I believe, was in Second Street, and it was appropos of this very room that the ludicrous contretemps happened to which I have elsewhere referred, showing how badly I had been taught the pronunciation of the English language.”

But biography is not built solely on aging manuscripts, particularly today. A vast treasure trove of material has been unlocked by the advent of digitized newspaper collections. Unlike scratchy microfilm, which only reproduced newspapers, these new electronic collections provide what we have wished for — a means of finding a needle in the haystack. Before, the only realistic way to locate newspaper accounts was to use a date. Sure, some newspapers like The New York Times are indexed, but indexes are often incomplete. Nor was The Times the city’s dominant paper a century ago; its unindexed rivals were the better papers.

Digitized collections such as American Historical Newspapers produced by Readex or Historical Newspapers by Proquest have turned what was once a research nightmare into a writer’s dream. These collections permitted me to track when Pulitzer was in New York by consulting the published lists of prominent folks staying in hotels, find him on passenger lists of ocean liners, locate verbatim accounts of political speeches he gave across the country, and obtain descriptions of the clothes his wife Kate Pulitzer wore to important social functions.

The disappearance of newspapers from American life will be a calamity for future biographers if the end of the print media means an end to news gathering. If a thriving digital news media replaces the old-fashioned print one, then even more information will be readily available to prying biographers. For instance, stories that are edited for space may be preserved in their uncut versions or news deemed unimportant may be included online and all of this will be easily searchable.

The wealth of information available to a biographer today is overwhelming. A workable note-taking and recordkeeping system is a must. Get five biographers together and you will have five different systems. I keep photocopying to a minimum. I only resort to it if I have traveled a long way and photocopying will save on-the-road costs. Ultimately notes must be taken so why not do it while at the archive? They are the first part of putting the story into your own words. To take notes — and my former high school students were incredulous when they heard this — I write on 3 x 5 note cards. I formatted a template on my computer and when I return home, I print out the cards, keeping the electronic version for searches later. In taking notes, I try from the start to capture the story and place. When, for instance, I examine photos or drawings, I craft a rough description of what I will eventually use in the book. 

I also use a spreadsheet. Midway through his life and at the height of his power, Pulitzer fell blind and became a lonely, tormented recluse traveling the world. Keeping track of his whereabouts, not to mention his wife and kids spread around several continents, was an ordeal. So I always kept the Pulitzer spreadsheet open on my computer when taking notes. I would enter the place and date of each letter written during the family travels, giving me an immediate reference while writing.

Fact gathering is important. It is the core of a biographer’s work. But having facts is no guarantee of a finished product that resembles the life that generated them. As a biographer, I cling to every scrap of information, like a shipwrecked sailor weaving a raft from whatever debris bobs up from his sinking vessel. This creates a dilemma because everything that floats is not necessarily what a fellow newspaper reporter used to teasingly call a “true fact.” My guiding rule is one of literary intent. I am seeking to create a story out of a person’s life — or to be more precise, from the flotsam, detritus, and debris they left behind for us. My details could be wrong but my portrait remains honest. Why is that? Because at the heart of a biographer’s work, we are creating a likeness of our subject in a studio filled with shadows. In many cases, our brushstrokes are only guesses. What techniques does one bring to bear in this work? I can only speak for my approach. By no means am I suggesting these rules are the way to write and will readily cede that I am an amateur in comparison to many others. But like tinkering with a 1967 MGB and its positive ground Lucas electrical system (Where did they ever get the idea for that?), I can share what I do to get the engine to fire.

I have 10 rules:

One. Be a prosecutor. Weigh the evidence, make decisions, and present a finished story. Unless a research puzzle is central to the biography — such as Agatha Christie’s 11-day disappearance — leave all questions about the evidence out of the narrative. They belong in the endnotes.  In a sense, the hefty price sticker on your book is there because readers are paying you to use your skills to present a finished story, not one filled with internal debate.

For example, I found a cache of love letters to Kate Pulitzer with a simple Google search. Small historical societies are increasingly uploading their catalogs to the Web. I found that the Lake County Historical Society in Ohio owned papers that had once belonged to the famous editor Arthur Brisbane, who had worked for Pulitzer before jumping ship to Hearst’s newspaper. He had vacationed in Ohio and apparently left behind these papers, which contained love letters, typed and cryptically signed with an initial that varied from letter to letter.

The only clue to the letter’s authorship was a sentence that read, “I do not discuss my actual work, much as I should like to, in these letters, because such discussion would give too clear a key to the authorship of these writings should one of them go wrong.” By visiting Brisbane’s papers at the University of Syracuse, I uncovered the final clues to what he was hiding: That he was the author of these letters.

In my book, I present the relationship briefly but I neither trumpet that this was new nor do I digress to share how I came about this revelation. My endnotes handle that.

Two. Don’t display your research. It’s tempting. The boxes and boxes you plow through are the heart of a biographer’s work, just as the fossil record is at the center of a paleontologist’s. But readers come to your book expecting to learn about the life of your subject — not what he or she left behind. A photograph can provide a vivid description in your narrative. Many authors treat these like artifacts with phrases such as, “Looking at this photo this many years later, we can see ...” This approach is like removing the screen hiding the hands holding the marionette strings.

Three. Be skeptical. As any of us who worked for an old-time editor (and I have been a journalist for 10 years), the bromide echoes in our ears, “If your Mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Four. Don’t remove readers from the time period in which they are immersed. To accomplish this, keep your text free of anachronistic vocabulary. President Grant was not a carbon copy of President Washington and he did not stand in a spotlight, but possibly a limelight. Nor make any modern comparisons. When the subject of one of my biographies earned an unheard-of salary of $100, here’s what I wrote: “With cocktails selling for a dime, and a porterhouse-steak dinner, complete with French fries and a saucer of piccalilli, for fifty cents, it was a handsome take.” (Piccalilli, by the way, was a green tomato relish, which one can still buy today.)

Five. No block quotes. No one reads them. In fact, the layout guides the reader to skip them just like a detour sign on the road.

Six. Dialog must be dialog. Resist the temptation (see rule two) to insert parenthetical comments about where the source of the words. It breaks the magic of conversation. A diary entry recounting a conversation is entirely dependent on the memory of the writer. Reminding your readers of the tenuous nature of the source — as well as boasting how you found it — steals the vitality of the moment. You want to know how to write dialog, pull Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers off your shelf where it’s gathering dust.

Consider this scene from my book in which President Roosevelt has announced to Congress he will seek to put Pulitzer in prison and  instructs his U.S. attorneys in New York and Washington to indict the publisher. The U.S. attorney in New York at the time was Henry Stimson, who would later become Secretary of War and Secretary of State. Don Carlos Seitz  was Pulitzer’s right-hand man at the World.

Pulitzer believed prison was a real possibility, and he said so to his friends, though he put on a brave face. “We are treating the thing with some hilarity,” he wrote to one friend a few hours after Roosevelt’s intentions became known. “I think it simply an effort to shut up the paper’s criticism just as Congress and Senate have been shut up.” Still, Pulitzer wanted to escape New York as soon as he could. But as the object of a possible government prosecution, he couldn’t make a move without checking with the U.S. attorney. The next day, Pulitzer sent Seitz to see Stimson.

“How long will Mr. Pulitzer be away?” Stimson asked Seitz.

“A few days,” he replied.

“I will not need Mr. Pulitzer for a few days,” Stimson said ominously, concluding the conversation.

The scene was constructed from letters and memos. But nowhere do I break the drama with a comment like, “as Seitz would later write to Pulitzer” or “according to an eyewitness who recorded the event in his diary.”

Seven. Type your quotations. Don’t cut and paste. If you type them, the physicality of the work will make the cadence of your prose match that of your quotations, giving the work a more seamless quality.

Eight. Never reveal to your readers what is to come. Biographers who deny readers the pleasure of making their own discoveries break the rising action so important to storytelling.  Steal the best foreshadowing techniques from our friends in fiction. Resist at all cost the temptation to be a soothsayer. We are not Gods. To remind out readers “he took a long sip of bourbon, the last he would enjoy before his death” is as deadly to the drama as the impending end is to your subject.

Nine. Don’t mention other biographies in your text. This is shoptalk and kills the tale. In my prefaces, I put a disclaimer similar to one that appeared in Pulitzer, explaining my findings often contradict previously published work. “These range from the claim that his mother was Catholic to the myth that he purchased the New York World while on his way to a vacation in Europe with his family. Rather than bog down the narrative of this book, I have placed any disagreement with previous accounts in my endnotes.”

Don’t quote the work of contemporary historians (sorry, guys.) This brings the reader back to the present. If you wish to maintain the illusionary feel of another period, then use only contemporaneous sources in the text. Of course, use the work of modern historians in your research. Just keep their words out of your narrative.

Ten. In deciding what to cut and what to keep, use this criterion: If it matters to you, it will matter to your reader. Listen to the advice of others, but the decision is yours alone to make. This may be my most important rule and it stems from a tale told about a well-known biographer and historian. I don’t know if the story is true, but its implications are important. This fellow had great success with his first book about a flood. At a tea party he was asked what book he was now writing. He replied he was writing about a famous New York City bridge.

“Oh,” said the questioner, “Who would want to read a book about a bridge?”

“Well,” muttered the writer as the person walked away, “I would.”


You can, too, if you use the narrative techniques of this Pulitzer biographer
Share Article