Best Guess or Worst Doubt: What's the Role of Conjecture in Writing Biography (and History)?

Lois Leveen's picture

Note: this is a Cross-Post of something I wrote recently for the H-CivWar Author's Blog, in the hopes of spurring discussion there on how to balance a desire for accuracy in our scholarship with the inevitable unknowability of the much of the past. In many ways, the queries I put forth are ones any biographer must contend with, and I would appreciate input from H-Biography members as we are all puzzling through such questions. So please excuse the specific Civil War references if that is not a topic that melts your butter; I assure you, I only came to the Civil War because I am engrossed in writing about an African American woman whose wartime endeavors -- like her endeavors before and after that conflict -- reveal so much about race and gender in the U.S.


At a plenary session of the 2021 Society of Civil War Historians conference, Poet Laureate and acclaimed memoirist Natasha Trethewey asked Nina Silber and David Blight to reflect on the pleasures of doubt in their (and all of our) scholarly work. Trethewey's query resounded like a cross between a Final Jeopardy question and an especially challenging round of Stump the Band.


Nina Silber replied that doubt "opens up a space where we historians have to do things like use our imagination, which we are maybe not always good at." But, she added, doubt is always part of the historian's process, raising "all the kind of 'what if' questions that we have to work our way through." In his response, David Blight equated doubt with a fear that is inevitable when writing history: "fear of what we don't find and doubting ourselves, maybe there's doubt on every page in a great work of history" – a proclamation about doubt he then immediately began to doubt, adding, "Can I say that?  Well, maybe not, you know, or do I really know?" Then, to bring the point home, he concluded, "Especially in biography, I found that you know there are some things you really know and then there are some things you don't quite know."


(Confession:  all the quotations in the above paragraph are from the notes I hastily typed during the virtual conference session, which might make any of us doubt their absolute accuracy – indubitable proof of the larger point about doubt, accuracy, and attempts to piece together past events.)


Back in 2013, Liz Varon and I were invited to speak at the former White House of the Confederacy, in a program in which we reflected on the use of fact and conjecture by biographers and by historical novelists. The work of historians and biographers, Liz explained, "demands that we walk a fine line between scientific detachment and humanistic engagement.  We are storytellers, and to make our stories compelling we have to sometimes pull in close to our subjects, to walk in their shoes, to use our powers of empathy and our skill as writers.  Our interpretations and stories are rooted in documentary evidence but they also require flights of imagination." Liz was drawing most specifically on her experience writing the biography of the white Civil War spy Elizabeth Van Lew, but also reflecting more broadly about the field of history. Particularly for our nonacademic audience, she was making an important distinction about how to write about the past: "We historians are permitted to speculate, and required to mark those speculations for our readers."


In that 2013 program, I was speaking as a historical novelist, describing the challenging process of balancing deep historical research with the need to craft a compelling story for fiction readers. Although I had already authored a number of historical articles, I did not anticipate then that I would now be crossing over to join Liz in writing a biography, one about the real woman whose life had inspired my first novel:  one of the many free and enslaved Black people who participated in the same Civil War espionage ring as Van Lew. Given my training in academic research and writing, teaching myself to write novels had been a challenge. But after years of getting to freely use my imagination to create characters, dialogue, incidents, and plots (albeit historically plausible ones), I am once again dwelling in that challenging place all the historians I've quoted above describe.


Thus my questions for readers of this blog: 

  • How much conjecture does one allow one's self? 
  • When do you make an intuitive, speculative leap based on limited evidence?
  • Conversely, when do you decide to disregard what seems dubious in the historical record?

These questions feel especially pressing when writing the biography of an African American woman, given limitations in the historical record regarding what information about lives like hers was gathered and preserved. Piecing together this particular woman's biography is further complicated by her own lifelong predilection for avoiding detection – she was, after all, a Black undercover agent in the Confederate capital – and for artfully altering elements of her life story as she recounted it, a rhetorical and political strategy that my project demonstrates was fundamental to her postbellum activism.


Here are a few specific examples of how such questions are playing out across this project:


Biographies tend to begin with the subject's birth, but like many people born into slavery, no evidence seems to survive of when, where, or to what parents this woman was born. I have located five primary sources, created across twenty years, that each indicate her age. The various ages they provide do not add up to a consistent birth year: she is 8 in 1850; 14 in 1855; 18 in 1860 but also 24 in 1860; and 30 in 1870. I've had all these primary sources at hand for several years, but only recently did I realize that if I discount the extreme outlier (24 in 1860) and look at the exact month and day for all the other documents, it's likely she was born in November or December of 1841. But with what certainty can I assert that? As confident as I might feel that one 1860 source is inaccurate, I'm considerably less confident that the rest are perfectly accurate.


Evaluating contradictory sources presents one kind of challenge; even more daunting are the many instances when there seem to be no sources at all. All the direct sources created by her that I have thus far located consist of about a dozen letters she wrote after the war.  One was written to Van Lew (her former enslaver as well as her fellow spy) and the rest to various white male government officials. None of her correspondence with other Blacks from any point in her life has survived. How do I reconstruct the friendships and alliances that must have been important to her, in the absence of any direct evidence?


For example, based on where she traveled and what she did immediately after the war, I have some hunches about African American religious and community leaders across the eastern U.S. with whom she likely interacted. Despite how significant these leaders were in their day, none of their papers have been preserved. This raises a host of what Nina Silber referred to as "'what if' questions":  What if her trip North in the immediate aftermath of the war included, or perhaps was entirely prompted by, a desire to visit an antebellum mentor? What if, while on that trip, she met and perhaps even stayed with so-and-so? Was it a chance encounter with such-and-such while in Virginia that led to her postbellum speaking engagement in Brooklyn? Was it at yet another postbellum Northern speaking engagement that she met I-think-I-know-who, which somehow led to her brief residence in Florida? In all of these instances, I feel I have good reason to surmise about how things might have happened, but not one iota of evidence. Despite Silber's reflection, what I lack is not imagination; it's any possibility of ever finding proof.


While these are only a few specific examples from my project, I suspect many of you have grappled with similar challenges in your own work. So returning to the questions above, I invite you to share how you grapple with conjecture, intuitive leaps, dubious sources, or the elusiveness of proof, in your research.

Dear Lois, Thanks very much for this truly fascinating post. I was recently co-edited a Routledge book entitled Speculative Biography which uses a work-in-progress case study approach to interrogate how and why biographers use speculation to inform their imagination and write their subjects, particularly those who did not for a host of historical and political reasons, leave sufficient sources with which to write the usual sorts of biography. I think this may be of much interest to you:

'While speculation has always been crucial to biography, it has often been neglected, denied or misunderstood. This edited collection brings together a group of international biographers to discuss how, and why, each uses speculation in their work; whether this is to conceptualise a project in its early stages, work with scanty or deliberately deceptive sources, or address issues associated with shy or stubborn subjects. After defining the role of speculation in biography, the volume offers a series of work-in-progress case studies that discuss the challenges biographers encounter and address in their work. In addition to defining the ‘speculative spectrum’ within the biographical endeavour, the collection offers a lexicon of new terms to describe different types of biographical speculation, and more deeply engage with the dynamic interplay between research, subjectivity and that which Natalie Zemon Davis dubbed ‘informed imagination’. By mapping the field of speculative biography, the collection demonstrates that speculation is not only innate to biographical practice but also key to rendering the complex mystery of biographical subjects, be they human, animal or even metaphysical.'