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Alaskan Range: Life Stories

Autobiographies containing bold-faced lies can be immensely entertaining when well written. writes Greg Hill.

John Kenneth Galbraith once asked, “We have escapist fiction, so why not escapist biography?” He recognized how biographical writing surged in popularity in the last half of the 20th century. That phenomenon’s why award-winning biographer Nigel Hamilton wrote “Biography: A Brief History.” Hamilton describes the origins of biographies from prehistoric cave paintings and Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh epic to the present.

Humans love reading about other humans, even when they’re fictional. Prince Valiant, so beautifully rendered by Hal Foster, is among my favorite biographical subjects. I customarily read a few of the old Valiant comics in newly re-issued collections from our library’s graphic literature collection and appreciate Foster’s accurate drawings of settings, architectures and costumes.

However, few things are more fictional than knights errant, like Valiant. “Errant” is a Middle English term meaning “roving, especially in search of adventure,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, and comes from the Old French word “errer,” which means “to travel about.”

The 12th century French poet Chretien de Troyes began the myth by authoring the first Arthurian romances. As David Graeber wrote in his book “Debt,” “stories of knightly adventure quickly became enormously popular … The curious thing is that it bears almost no relation to reality. Nothing like a real ‘knight-errant’ ever existed.

“Knights” had originally been a term for freelance warriors, drawn from the younger or often bastard sons of the minor nobility. Unable to inherit, many were forced to band together to seek their fortunes. Many became little more than roving bands of thugs.”

They made for entertaining reading nonetheless. “The best biographies,” as Mary Cable wrote, “leave their readers with a sense of having all but entered into a second life.” I collect autobiographies for the same reason: to glimpse how the world appeared to people long ago.

Hamilton listed four types of autobiographies in his book. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Poet Lord Byron wrote an immensely popular confessional, Michel Montaigne invented the personal essay in the 15th century, and that old librarian Casanova wrote a most entertaining memoir.

Others in my collection include Benvenuto Cellini’s, who was furious at being surpassed by Michelangelo, and U.S. General Grant’s Civil War memoirs, the best book by a president though composed in a few months while he was dying. And my perennial favorite: Samuel Pepys’ diaries of London in the 1660s.

Unfortunately, most of the interesting characters never recorded their life stories. Lawman Pat Garrett was a self-promoting sham compared with Randall Mackenzie, whom you likely don’t know.

The reticent Mackenzie graduated first in his West Point class in 1862, was wounded in six different Civil War battles, including Gettysburg and Bull Run, and promoted seven times in four years. One bullet went into one shoulder and out the other, and another knocked off three fingers, leading to his Indian name of “Bad Hand.”

Adapting to the Indian way of fighting, he defeated the Comanche, the most powerful indigenous tribe in North America, forcing them and the tribes that defeated Custer onto reservations.

Mackenzie lived in physical agony from his war wounds, suffered from what’s today known as post traumatic stress syndrome, and died a sad, insane death. Fortunately, Ernest Wallace wrote “Randall S. Mackenzie and the Texas Frontier,” which the online Texas Handbook calls “a definitive study of the officer.”

Autobiographies containing bold-faced lies can be immensely entertaining when well written, like Ben Hecht’s “A Child of the Century.” Hecht was a noted journalist and screenwriter who scripted hits ranging from “Front Page,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Casino Royale,” Hitchcock’s “Notorious” and “Spellbound,” and even “North to Alaska.”

Hecht could spin a yarn, but others, like lawman Pat Garrett’s “The Authentic Life of Bill, the Kid,” are too ineptly crafted, self-aggrandizing, and motivated by profit to bear.

Alaska has plenty of heroes and villains to remember, but we don’t have a full-blown biographical handbook like Texas’ to whet reader’s appetites. The Alaska State Library’s State Archives online database, vilda.alaska.edu, is a great step in the right direction, but more written detail is needed to flesh out Alaska’s rich biographical history.

As George Bernard Shaw put it, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

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