Schiff Tells Tales of Archival Life

By Michael Haggerty – On May 3, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff presented the 2017 Eugene Lunn Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Department of History. Schiff’s talk, “In the Archives: Getting a Life”, drew on her own experience of crafting clear, compelling accounts of messy, complex lives.

Schiff has to date produced works on a diverse group of historical figures. In 2000, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Vera, which described the marriage of Vera and Vladimir Nabokov. In 2005, she published a biography of Benjamin Franklin, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. Over the course of the next decade, she covered topics ranging from Cleopatra to the Salem Witch Trials.

In her lecture, Schiff discussed her motivations as a researcher, reminding the audience that the key to excellent biographical research is to “settle on the subject who takes you where you want to go.” She also catalogued some of the struggles she has faced while conducting archival research—for example, parsing the pamphlets, letters, and notes that surrounded Benjamin Franklin during his time in France. Despite the plethora of material published and preserved regarding Franklin’s time in France, Schiff found much of it to be without depth. “He left relatively little of himself behind,” she said.

Reading the missing pages

For Schiff, a key skill for the biographer is to pay attention to what gets left out—what goes unsaid—over the course of a person’s lifetime. The biographer’s key task is extracting a story from material that was intended to be read as well as that which was intended to be destroyed. In Franklin’s case, she noted, “the missing pages of his autobiography tell us as much about America’s self-made man as the ones he wrote.”

Whether researching Cleopatra, Cotton Mather, or Benjamin Franklin, historians must focus on deletions and erasures as much as on the words left on the page. In some cases, this can mean extrapolating themes and ideas from very little material. In the case of her 2010 book Cleopatra, Schiff noted, two chapters began by analyzing just four lines from the writings of Cicero.

Schiff concluded by noting that, though we increasingly live in a sea of information, the job of the historian remains the same—to piece together meaning in a complex world.

Learn more about Stacy Schiff.