"On a recommendation from a friend, I recently read Old Jules, the biography of an important and eccentric early Nebraska settler written in the 1930s by his daughter, Mari Sandoz.
"It was a hard book to read or, rather, a very good book about incredibly hard times. I’ve read a number of books about that area and era, including most all of Willa Cather, but none of them depicted life in so raw a fashion or as being so desperately bleak as did Ms. Sandoz. I will never lose the image of a young woman, naïve and full of hope, getting off the train in her Eastern or European finery and looking about to identify her no doubt idealized prospective husband and finding instead an old, crippled, dirty, unkempt, uncouth, smelly, dirt-poor tyrant (Old Jules) instead.
"Besides being a powerful (though perhaps overly long and detailed) account of the struggle for existence in Nebraska in the late 1890s and early 1900s, it is notable on another account as well. This is a biography written by a daughter about her own father. She writes with a kind of grudging respect for his accomplishments, and maybe a tinge if filial loyalty, but with no hint of warmth or love for him as a person. It seemed that Old Jules had no capacity for loving his daughter (or wives or other children or anyone else) either. Perhaps love and kindness are luxuries of more prosperous times.
"This made me think about biographies, and who writes them. Old Jules was written by a daughter, and while his achievements are duly noted, it is the person of the man that dominates: particularly his coldness, crudeness and obduracy. Imagine that the biography had been written by a history professor at the U of Nebraska or was a publication of the Nebraska Horticultural Society. Then we might have an inspiring tale of a frontier hero, dominated by accounts of his struggles and triumphs and ultimate contributions (which were considerable) and with personal life serving only as faint and relatively unimportant backdrop.
"It made me think about how, to our own children, our professional achievements are of relatively little interest and significance compared to how they observe and experience us as a person, as a parent, spouse, brother, neighbor or friend.
"Who would you like to write your biography?"
And I'd like to add a couple more questions to Dan's: What do you hope your children's version of your biography sounds like? What do you think it will sound like? What biography of my father have I passed on to my youngest son who has no memories of his grandfather?
- The publisher's web page for Old Jules
- The Enduring Mari Sandoz by David L. Bristow from Nebraska Life Magazine, 2001