This past Martin Luther King Day, in the comic strip Curtis, the title character asks at the dinner table—“Makes me wonder how history would have played out if Dr. King was never born, or never assassinated?” His family’s response is dumbstruck silence. Many historians might have been hard pressed to respond cogently to the fictional eleven-year-old’s question as well.
We have long debated whether great people shape history through their actions or if broader impersonal forces shape historical events and the participants. Martin Luther King, for example, was not the only civil rights leader, and undoubtedly other leaders would have pushed the civil rights agenda forward in the 1950s and 1960s without him. Yet, through his soaring rhetoric, King put his indelible mark on the movement. The story of King’s life has consequently become for many Americans the story of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.
Though many academic historians have shied away from biography recently, the lives of great men and women are still the primary way that most people learn about the past. People like biography because it enables readers to form mental pictures of the events or actions described and thereby allows readers in a sense to walk in another’s shoes. Biography essentially makes history more accessible and real for readers than jargon-laden academic texts do. In the process, biography provides a good introduction to the politics, economics, social hierarchies, and morality of various times and places that facilitates more mature historical analysis. Biography effectively opens the door to greater historical awareness.
Biography does not need to be just a parade of great men and women either. Many projects are underway today to write biographies or biographical sketches of regular people. Such projects open the door to innovative pedagogical collaboration between teachers, students, and public history organizations. For instance, Saint Anselm students in Professor Salerno’s American Women’s History (HI 359) recently prepared biographical sketches for a national database on militant suffragists arrested in demonstrations during World War I.
Renewed interest in biography might not quell historians’ ambivalence with the genre or put to rest long-standing debates regarding causation (that is, the relative weight of individual action vs. impersonal forces). Still, more appreciation of biography by professional historians will allow us to participate more fully in public debates—even with fictional characters in the funnies.
Curtis’s creator, Ray Billingsley, of course, was not really interested in historians’ debates when he penned his strip. Rather, he rightly wanted to highlight how different American history would have been without Martin Luther King—or how the world would have changed had he lived longer.