Six hours before American Pharoah ran away with the Triple Crown, I was lucky enough to meet William Nack, author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, a man who gambled his career on a biography of a horse and won.
Nack sat on the “Biographies of Non-Persons” panel at the sixth annual Biographers International Conference—held recently at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Later that afternoon, as American Pharoah entered the starting gate, I spoke on a panel titled “Biographer for Hire,” which focused on the increasing demand for corporate histories, oral histories and “as told to” autobiographies.)
The “Non-Persons” panel also included Marc Leepson (author of Flag: An American Biography) and Scott Martelle (author of Detroit: A Biography). As promised by the program description, the trio debated “the virtues, benefits, challenges, and limitations involved in adopting the biographical narrative structure to write about the life cycle of a non-person.”
For Nack, the biography of Secretariat incorporated the horse’s breeding and parentage, but its success rested on Nack’s time spent in the stables, interviewing and understanding the many colorful people who surrounded the chestnut athlete. For Martelle, statistics spoke most loudly, chronicling the birth and near-death of the Motor City through aggregated data as well as the very human sins of “racism, fear, greed and avarice” that Martelle connects to this aggregate. For Leepson, understanding America’s obsession with “a grand old rag” involved polemicists as well as the people who shaped its evolution, unraveling the myths of its origin story.
Over lunch, National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch, most famous for his monumental trilogy, America in the King Years, and his eight-year oral history project with President Bill Clinton, treated us to a keynote address on his life’s work. In an earlier interview, Branch summed up his approach to crafting thousands of pages of material on the civil rights movement:
. . . Most of the books I read seemed to me analytical and argumentative, reinventing new labels of analysis. And I felt that they didn’t have the power to really describe what happened at the personal level. . . . And so I really resolved from some lessons out of my experience that I wanted to try to keep it at a storytelling level and follow the stories wherever they went. . . . I followed storytelling, but it tumbled me off into more worlds than I’d planned on.
This was the key insight that I gleaned from the BIO Conference: offering some new analytical argument based primarily on existing research can’t help but fall short. To truly understand a subject—a person, an organization or an inanimate object—it’s necessary to engage personally, through observation and conversation, and listen to that which speaks.