Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Writing Historical Biography: An Interview with Rebecca Boggs Roberts

This post is an interview with Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of the eye-opening and highly enjoyable biography, Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson.

Rebecca Boggs Roberts
Zack Rogow: What was the greatest challenge you faced in writing a biography of Edith Bolling Wilson?

Rebecca Boggs Roberts: There were two big, related challenges. One was the challenge common to many writers who want to tell women’s stories: no one paid much attention to Edith before she married the President in 1915. For much of her life, the only primary source I had was Edith’s own memoir. But that memoir, while delightful, is, at times, demonstrably untrue. So the second challenge is that Edith was an unreliable narrator of her own story.


ZR: You begin the book not at the start of Edith Bolling Wilson’s life, but with a dramatic moment in 1919 after President Wilson’s stroke, when his wife successfully concealed her husband’s incapacity from leaders of the U.S. Congress. What made you chose that moment to begin the biography?


RBR: It’s a completely bonkers scene: All the President’s Men meets Weekend at Bernie’s. If I couldn’t grab readers’ attention with that episode, it was hopeless. I wanted readers to finish that scene and think, “How did things get to that point? What the heck was going on?” and desperately want to read the rest of it.

ZR: We are used to reading about New York society in the Gilded Age, and the world of the Boston Brahmins. Edith Bolling Wilson came of age and flourished in Washington DC, which had its own distinctive social scene. What made DC society different, and how did that benefit or hinder Edith?

 RBR: Gilded Age Washington was absolutely booming with new money and new plans. The city was less than a century old and the social arbiters often changed with administrations, so there was much more space for social mobility that there was in the confines of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. Think of Countess Olenska in Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. Countess Olenska relocates to DC because New York is too conventional. Edith Bolling Wilson didn’t have the Countess’ resources, but she had the same instinct for self-invention.


ZR: There’s an intriguing passage in the book’s introduction where you say, “She [Edith Bolling Wilson] is not a hero; she is also not a villain. Very few people in American history are either, and I believe that our collective insistence on picking one category or the other for all of our most influential people has left us (at best) confused about how and through whom our history is made.” I agree with much of that statement, but how are we then to make judgments about the past that will improve our actions in the present, if we just see everyone as complex individuals? 


RBR: Is the alternative seeing everyone as stock characters? What can we possibly learn from that? Seeing someone as a complex individual does not preclude judging them. In fact, it gives you better information to make a more informed judgment. And if we require everyone who has had a positive impact on history to be a saint, we risk alienating all future potential agents of social change. Why try to change the word if you are convinced that you need to be a once-in-a-generation genius angel to do so? I think the fact that historical characters are flawed is liberating.


ZR: One fascinating fact you discuss in your biography is that Edith Bolling Wilson was the first woman in Washington DC licensed to drive a car and an electric automobile. How did you find that out, and where did you get the details about her zipping around Washington in an electric car?


RBR: The actual license survives at Edith’s birthplace museum in Wytheville, Virginia. Researching the history of electric cars was a delightful tangent. I found some original ads for them in early twentieth-century newspapers, clearly aimed at wealthy urban women, since “little electrics” were not as smelly or cumbersome as gas vehicles. Car makers advertised bud vases on the dash and a top speed of thirteen miles an hour. Edith became known for her car—several memoirs of the time by society women like Dolly Gann and Ellen Maury Slayton mention her zipping around town.


ZR: When you’re doing historical research for a book like this one, you can easily go down “rabbit holes”—sidetracks only tangentially related to the main story. How do you know whether an interesting lead is a detour, or a direction that provides a new approach to the story?


RBR: Every rabbit hole seems fascinating at the time (see the history of electric cars, above)! The act of falling down those holes and burrowing into obscure archives is totally addictive to research nerds like me. I particularly had to curb my enthusiasm for the history of Washington DC. Every time a specific location came up in Edith’s story, I wanted to know the entire history of the building, the neighborhood, and the inhabitants. You lose all critical distance after a while. If anyone wants to know more about the Dupont Circle area a hundred years ago, I stand ready to describe it block by block.


ZR: The current political climate is very judgmental when it comes to figures in the past who do not measure up to our current standards of correctness. How did you handle the aspects of Edith’s life, and Woodrow Wilson’s career, that now seem unjust and wrongheaded?


RBR: It’s really hard not to judge past actors through contemporary standards. For Woodrow Wilson, he was racist and sexist in his own time—he resegregated the Civil Service after it had integrated under previous administrations, and he continued to oppose women’s suffrage long after his peers supported it. So it’s not current standards of correctness that he fails to measure up to. Edith was also racist. The “darkie” jokes she told and Lost Cause mythology she used for the Civil War might have been more acceptable in her time, but you can’t argue that she wasn’t bigoted. My goal was to simply tell the truth, as far as I could verify it, and not try to either sugarcoat or demonize. I think readers are smart enough to judge for themselves.


ZR: Untold Power also has untold humor. There are so many laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including the hilarious bit about the sheep that grazed the White House lawn during World War I to save energy and produce wool for the war effort. How did you mix in humor without diminishing the seriousness of the issues of Edith Bolling Wilson’s time?


RBR: This is a corollary of the argument that historical figures are complex humans. Historical eras are complex times. Edith herself was very funny – I love her description of French President Raymond PoincarĂ© leading her into a diplomatic dinner in Paris and feeling “like a big liner with a tiny tug pushing her out from her moorings.”


ZR: At the end of her life, what would Edith Bolling Wilson say was her greatest accomplishment or legacy? What would you say was her greatest accomplishment or legacy?


RBR: Unquestionably, she would say her greatest accomplishment, the work of her life, was protecting and curating the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. As we find ourselves revising that legacy in contemporary times, it continues to amaze me how much of his reputation as the Great Moral Visionary of Global Peace was a result of Edith’s myth-making.


I would say her greatest accomplishment is steering the nation through a crisis in leadership all the while pretending she was doing nothing of the kind. You don’t have to admire her actions to be impressed by her. And as part of that, her legacy must be to serve as an example of the kind of compromises ambitious women have made over time, and how they have operated outside the Hall of Fame model of history to enact social change. If any reader of Untold Power takes the opportunity to rethink who gets to make history and how, then that is no small feat.

Zack’s memoir about his father, the writer Lee Rogow: Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry