University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Biographer

Volume XXV · Autumn-Winter 1969-70  · Numbers 1 & 2  
The Biographer

Glyndon Garlock Van Deusen, Professor Emeritus of History of the University of Rochester, was presented the thirteenth annual literary award of the Friends of the Rochester Public Library at their award dinner earlier this year. Each year the award is presented to a person living in or closely associated with Rochester who has made notable literary contributions. The editors of the Library Bulletin are pleased to publish the annual literary award citation, delivered by Professor Dexter Perkins, and Professor Van Deusen's response.


Professor Perkins' Citation

Glyndon Van Deusen. It is an especial pleasure for me to present for the Friends' Annual Literary Award today one of my closest and most admired friends. Glyndon Van Deusen was my student (and a brilliant one), in the class of 1925 at the University of Rochester. I followed his studies for the doctorate at Columbia, and in 1930 I invited him to accept appointment as instructor in history at the University. He was my colleague for almost a quarter of a century, my successor as chairman of the history department, and my associate in the preparation of a two-volume text on the history of the United States, and a one volume text which followed. He is a worthy and distinguished representative of his profession.

I shall not speak of his many graces of character which have won him wide regard among his friends. I shall touch only lightly on his active role in the community, and especially his work in the Rochester Association for the United Nations. I shall present him as a teacher and scholar of high reputation, long service, and sound judgment.

In many college professors the zeal for research has diminished their interest in the classroom. Glyndon Van Deusen represents that combination of the scholar and teacher which is the ideal (the too-little attained ideal) in the American university. In both capacities he has won distinction. Professor Van Deusen's first work, Sieyes: His Life and His Nationalism (1932) was, as my hearers will observe, not in the field of American history. But all the works that follow have been. And he has been particularly notable as a biographer.

In these days the momentary pre-occupation of historians is with social and intellectual history. Such history has a place, and an important one. But history is people. There is an immense amount to be learned by the study of human personality, by the delineation of the strengths and weaknesses of the figures who play a role on the American stage, and in an assessment of their virtues and failings, in the positive influence of the individual on the course of history. In essaying the delineation of personality, Professor Van Deusen has shown great breadth of understanding, a clear eye for character, a mastery of the charming anecdote, and a vivacity of style which makes his books eminently readable. The first of these works was on Henry Clay, published in 1937, and still the leading one-volume work on this important statesman. His second biography was on Thurlow Weed, whose papers, through the generosity of the late Mrs. Thomas G. Spencer and her sisters, are in the library of the University of Rochester. In this book, as in other works, Professor Van Deusen has made careful use of the source materials with which he was provided. His third book was on Horace Greeley. Here again, rich collections of source materials were tapped with industry and penetration. Next comes a book on the Jacksonian era, a volume in the notable series edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris.

But the chef d'oeuvre of his efforts is, beyond a doubt, his life of William H. Seward, published in 1967. There has been no important life of Lincoln's Secretary of State since Frederick Bancroft's, published in 1910. In preparing this work, Professor Van Deusen utilized, with the greatest industry and skill, the vast collection of Seward Papers in the University of Rochester Library. The result, says one reviewer, is "one of the most outstanding biographical studies of this century." Another hails it as "probably the definitive work on the subject with which it deals." Still another describes Professor Van Deusen's subject as one treated "with magisterial equanimity." And that most distinguished British review, the (London) Times Literary Supplement, speaks of it with high praise.

In the preparation of this work Professor Van Deusen has had the active and constant collaboration of a devoted wife. In honoring him today we honor her as well. It is with the deepest satisfaction and affection that I hereby present him, on behalf of the Friends of the Rochester Public Library, the 1969 Annual Literary Award.


Professor Van Deusen's Response

Why Be a Biographer? When I sat down to organize my thoughts on this question there came to my mind W. Somerset Maugham's comment at the dinner tendered to him on his eightieth birthday. After the toasts and the plaudits were over he rose to his feet. "There are many advantages to growing old," he began—and paused. The silence lengthened and the audience began to wonder if the occasion was too much for the octogenarian. Then he added, "I am trying to think of what they are."

For as I tried to collect my thoughts, what first came to mind was not the great satisfactions, but the trials and tribulations of a biographer. There is the wearisome and often fruitless hunting down of what had looked like promising leads to important materials. The subject of the book naturally had a host of prominent friends. Of course he corresponded with them, for their letters are in his papers. Did they save his letters? You hunt up their descendants and correspond with them—all too often fruitlessly. If such correspondence has been preserved and placed in some college or public library, you have to obtain permission to see and use the letters, and here another difficulty often arises. Every library likes to have it on record that it possesses the correspondence of eminent men. It so indicates in enumerations of source materials available within its walls. But such materials all too often consist of a few random scribblings, containing no other information than that son Johnny is recovering from a bad cold, or that the weather is unduly cold for the time of year.

Another problem facing the biographer is that of materials frozen by other writers. For example: biographer A has obtained control, by one means or another, of the papers of subject X. Biographer B is writing the life of subject Y, who corresponded with subject X. Biographer B wishes to see the letters written by Y to X. Permission is refused, even though these letters are of little or no importance for biographer A.

Still another problem is the all too common one of jealousy, an unlovely feeling to which historians, like other mortals, are prone. Would-be biographers of one's subject feel, perhaps naturally, that they can do a better life than anyone else, and a rival who has a head start inspires them with a sense of grievance. Frustration chafes them, and if they get a chance to review your book—look out.

Speaking of reviews, I have a collection of some 150 of my life of William Henry Seward. Some of them are thoughtful, showing evidence of a careful reading of the volume. The majority are superficial, the result of skimming through the pages and, at best, picking out one or two chapters for comment. And the verdicts range from high praise (naturally coming from the best reviewers), to violent condemnation.

Finally there is the waste effort involved in acquiring material on which to build the book. Of course reading around one's subject is important, for it broadens one's understanding of the times in which the man or woman lived. In the course of such reading, and in examining correspondence, one takes thousands of notes. I still have those I took for my biography of Seward. There are some 35,000 to 40,000 of them on four by six cards. When it came to the actual writing of the biography not more than a quarter of them were actually used.

But if there are frustrations for the biographer, there are also great rewards, and one of these is the impulse it can give to marital togetherness. Note, in this connection, the tributes that biographers so often pay to their wives. I have been particularly fortunate in having a helpmate who has been my partner in research, has read the various manuscripts with a critical eye, has typed them, and has helped me in the laborious work of proofreading and of constructing indices. We have operated as a team in an harmonious and happy relationship that has meant much to one another.

The research that we have done has widened our horizons. The search for manuscript collections led to visits in the great cities of the world—London, Paris, Moscow and others—and work in such repositories as the Library of Congress, the British Museum and the Archives of the French Foreign Office. In such centers of learning, one finds a fellowship of scholars that widens one's circle of acquaintances and stimulates the mind. In our travels we came to know as friends those engaged in kindred projects, and everywhere we found a willingness to aid us in our labors. We still cherish the friends we made, and have, in Lexington, Kentucky; we never shall forget having coffee with Mr. I. N. Zemskov, Chief of the Historical and Political Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, and his willingness to assist us in our quest for materials in the Soviet Archives.

One of the great satisfactions of the historian is the finding of new and valuable materials. My emotions on first seeing the great mass of the Seward Papers that had been gathering dust for almost a century in the attic of that statesman's home in Auburn, New York, might be likened to those of Balboa when he first caught sight of the Pacific Ocean.

Another discovery made in connection with an earlier biography brought similar excitement, and also had an amusing aspect, at least in retrospect. My wife (Ruth L. Van Deusen) and I discovered over 100 letters written by our subject to members of his family. The owner of these materials gave us permission to take notes and even copy, and we arrived at her home in a state of high anticipation. She was an invalid confined to her bed, and with her lived her son who was in his late twenties and mentally somewhat handicapped. Just before we came he had been reading the story of Ruth in the Bible, and now there appeared in his home a beautiful young woman whose name was Ruth. It seemed obvious to him that God had sent her, and he saluted her with the words—"You have come."

This greeting did not inspire my wife with confidence in the general situation. Her reaction was that we should conclude our examination of the letters as speedily as possible, and she adjured me never to leave her alone with the young man. I agreed that haste was most desirable, but there was the precious historical material and, in the matter of leaving her alone with him, also a dilemma. We worked in a room adjoining the owner's bedroom, and copied letters had to be discussed with her. Should I be true to my wife or to history? My devotion to the latter triumphed, but it was a trying two days, for every time I left the room the young man would throw himself down at my wife's feet and gaze adoringly up into her face. We were both very happy when the ordeal was over.

The discovery of new historical materials is a great thrill, but greater still is that which comes from the biographer's act of re-creation. As one delves deeply into the life of one's subject, it is as though he were coming alive before one's eyes, and his mental processes and philosophy of life take shape, his impact upon the life of his time becomes apparent, and his contribution to the worlds of then and now becomes clear. In a very real sense he lives again, and there is a satisfaction in this act of re-creation that more than compensates for the difficulties encountered by the biographer.