Douglas Southall Freeman’s tips for historians and biographers.

Douglas Southall Freeman (1886-1953) was one of America’s best historians and biographers. Widely known for his in-depth, comprehensive research, he was among a small group that brought historical research into the modern era (but pre-computer/digital research). He is best known for his four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, three volumes on Lee’s Lieutenants, and his seven-volume biography of George Washington (the last volume written by John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth, based on Freeman’s research). He won a Pulitzer for his Lee biography and won another posthumously for his Washington series.

I had previously read the 2 1/2 volumes of George Washington related to the American Revolution but now decided to attempt the entire seven volumes. This is partly for research into my next Hamilton tome but also for enjoyment as most of the series is not directly related to my current project.

I was pleasantly surprised by the “Introduction” to the first volume. In addition to explaining the purpose of the series and a bit about Washington’s early life and ancestry, he goes into his perspective on how history and biographies should be written when there is doubt regarding the facts. As any reader of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years knows, the doubts regarding Alexander Hamilton’s life and predecessors are even greater than those with Washington.

Here are some quotes from Douglas Southall Freeman’s “Introduction” to the first volume of his seven-volume George Washington biography, which I think are great tips for any historian or biographer to follow:

It has seemed best to confine the narrative to the passing event and neither to refer to later occurrences in the life of Washington nor to make comparisons with them. The aim has been to portray him, year by year, through each new experience, as if nothing were known and nothing were certain about his future. If this has excluded some analogies that might be interesting, it likewise has saved on from an overready assumption of cause and effect. When one does not anticipate, one is less apt to theorize. (p. xviii)

Regarding “traditions and myths” that may be “valid, probable or manifestly untrue,” Freeman concludes:

It is better to disappoint than to deceive. (p. xx)

In other words, Freeman disagrees with those biographers who to sell books present every fascinating tale without regard to truth. Accuracy is primary, telling a good story is secondary.

Freeman then discusses the trouble of how to present uncertainties:

The mildest signpost of the probable, as set off from the known, was the use of “apparently,” “doubtless,” “it seems,” or “no doubt.” These monitory words are embarrassingly few in the English language and they are employed with tedious frequency in this work… The alternative was the worse fault of failing to draw the line between fact and what one believed to be fact. With respect to some issues, it has been necessary to enter a blunt caveat because the evidence is disputable or contradictory. (p. xxi)

There is much more in Freeman’s “Introduction” that the historian/biographer may find of interest, including his thoughts on when and how to modernize archaic spelling, grammar, and punctuation; the term(s) to be used when speaking of the book’s subject (Washington, George, the General, etc.); when and how to introduce supporting characters in the story.

I am pleased that I find myself largely in agreement with Freeman on all these points. This could partly because I had already read 2 1/2 volumes of his work a few years back and was highly impressed. It could also be because I have discovered these same difficulties in researching and writing about Hamilton, and like Freeman decided that accuracy and precision is more important than including fictional or dubious stories. Even if you don’t like Freeman’s matter-of-fact writing style or believe that telling a good story is more important than accuracy, you certainly will learn a thing or two by reading some Douglass Southall Freeman.

One response to “Douglas Southall Freeman’s tips for historians and biographers.

  1. Enjoyed the points…especially It is better to disappoint than to deceive

    And overuse of the few words that say probably, likely…

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