The Credible Secondary Source Biography

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The central issue that I still struggle with — two years into this research — is this:

Can I write a credible biography with only secondary sources?

Yes, I am still desperately seeking Emmett Wilson's scrapbooks. This one is on the Panama Pacific International Expo in San Francisco. Source: SFPL

Yes, I am still desperately seeking Emmett Wilson’s scrapbooks. This one is on the Panama Pacific International Expo in San Francisco. Now THAT is a scrapbook! Source: SFPL

This bothers me, because, well, you know. I want to do the best job I can with Emmett’s story.

It isn’t impossible to do a bio with only secondary sources available; in research, primary sources are preferred. But, there are times when you just have to work with what you have, and do the best job you can.

Case in point:

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. Source: Amazon.com

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. Source: Amazon.com

David McCullough‘s recent bestseller about Wilbur and Orville Wright. Not a new story.

Definitely, the man was using secondary sources to write this, unless:

  • He really is THAT old and hung out with the Wright Brothers in person, or,
  • He has access to a time machine that no one else has at present. (Damn him if he does!)

But, what he has (that I don’t have) is this (from the Amazon.com website):

“In this thrilling book, master historian David McCullough draws on the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including private diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence to tell the human side of the Wright Brothers’ story, including the little-known contributions of their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them.” Source: Amazon

The fact McCullough has family correspondence and journals to use in telling this story is what key, BUT, they’ve been around for awhile. They’ve been tapped by OTHER biographers. So, what separates this biography from others?

Apparently, not much. It was OK. But to be honest, there wasn’t anything really new here. I was expecting something, well, tawdry. Or titillating. Or salty.  You know they had problems struggling over patents with their rival Curtiss. What about that?

McCullough could have also taken a different psychological perspective that no one else has in interpreting the correspondence. He could have made this a more scientific, in-depth exploration of how they devised the wing design for their airplanes, for instance. What was their inspiration? Alas, we don’t know. McCullough didn’t go there.

I’m not dismissing the man’s book; he’s an effective writer. But, the thing is,the Wright biography doesn’t present anything new about the brothers. And, McCullough had great access to secondary sources to produce the best seller, something I wish I had for Emmett’s bio.

So. Can one write a credible bio with secondary sources?

Yes.

Did McCullough do the best job he could using secondary sources?

He probably thought he did. It wasn’t a bad treatment of the brothers’ story. It was just nothing new. And, from a ‘master historian,’ I was expecting something different.

For what it is worth.

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