“All my writing—and yours,” claimed one composition instructor, “is autobiography.” So I’ve often wondered the extent to which my forthcoming biography of Charles Lindbergh is actually an autobiography of Chris Gehrz.
Lindbergh would tell me to expect that. As he started work in 1938 on what became his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, The Spirit of St. Louis (1953), the famous pilot decided that one reason he should tell his own story is that any “biographer must base his writing on his own viewpoint and experience in life. Therefore, a biography must confuse to some degree the character of the author with that of his subject.”
There’s enough truth in that observation that, at one point in the writing process, I even experimented with intermingling my own story with Lindbergh’s. Or, at least, my own family’s story with that of the Lindbergh family. After all, he and I are both descended on one side — his father’s, my mother’s — from Swedish immigrants who settled in the Upper Midwest. At one point, my manuscript included this rather convoluted passage:
On the boat taking them from Sweden to America, Matilda Johnson met J. P. Larson, a native of August Lindbergh’s home province. The two immigrants would marry in 1888, one year after C. A. Lindbergh wed his first wife. The Larsons eventually settled on a farm in southern Minnesota, about 200 miles south of Little Falls. Like C. A. Lindbergh, J. P. Larson fathered two daughters before the birth of his only son. One of them, Mabel, had given birth to three girls by the time Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris.
The youngest, just fifteen months old in May 1927, was named Hildur. My grandmother, she was the woman from whom I first learned to love history.
But it didn’t take long for me to decide that telling a parallel story would do nothing to enhance my readers’ understanding of Charles Lindbergh. Instead, I opted to introduce the Swedish American side of Lindbergh’s ancestry in this way:
Even in those opening chapters on European ancestry and Minnesota upbringing, I included nothing even indirectly autobiographical apart from two personal examples of common reasons for Swedish emigration in the 19th century. I noted that my great-great-grandfather likely left his homeland to evade compulsory military service, then added that the founders of my university were pietistic Baptists who wearied of living in a country with a state church.
And I only included those tidbits to help underscore what was unique about August Lindbergh, who had entirely different motives for migrating. (I’ll save that part of the story for the book.) In the end, it just didn’t seem helpful to shift the biography’s attention from its subject to its author.
But if autobiography was never text, it surely remained subtext.
For I wasn’t writing just any biography of Charles Lindbergh. There’s no single perspective on a single life, and my choice of focus reflected something of myself. After all, he had written, “life is an infinite rather than a finite thing and all of it can not be imprisoned in words. The biographer can only preserve a portion of its richness. He must select the characteristics, actions, and experiences which he believes will convey to his reader the best appraisal and understanding of his subjects [sic] life.” That, Lindbergh thought, was where the biographer was inevitably tempted to confuse his character with his subject’s.
From the start, I knew that I had selected my “spiritual but not religious biography” angle because I’m both spiritual and religious myself: a Christian who works for a Christian university, writes for a Christian blog, and is publishing his Lindbergh biography via a Christian company. But instead of writing a fourth book about my personal religious tradition, I wanted to understand a different kind of spiritual journey, one that’s increasingly common in American society.
All the more reason to leave my own story out of it. My goal wasn’t to set up a contrast between two divergent journeys, or to imply that my spiritual experience was more authentic than Lindbergh’s.
Still, I was keenly aware that my mind could never help comparing my religious autobiography with the spiritual biography I was writing. Here’s how I acknowledged that inevitability, in another passage I deleted from the manuscript:
As I learned about Lindbergh’s ancestors and upbringing, I couldn’t help thinking of my own. The similarities were apparent, but so too were the differences. The Lindberghs kept clear of the Lutheran and Covenant churches in Little Falls; those same two denominations nurtured in my ancestors the faith that I still share. I was baptized in November 1975, just over one year after Charles Lindbergh lost his battle with cancer and two weeks after my great-grandmother Mabel died of the same disease.
After Mabel’s death, my grandparents took over the care of her son Bernard, who had been born with Down’s Syndrome in 1932 — even as Charles Lindbergh was beginning to learn the value of a pure heredity from Alexis Carrel. The spiritual journey of Lindbergh led him to embrace eugenics; the religious convictions of my ancestors helped them to see the image of God in all his children.
While I decided to leave out so overt a comparison between author and subject, the Imago Dei is the one Christian belief I explicitly articulated at several points in my Lindbergh biography.
Not that my story is entirely free from the prejudices that make Charles Lindbergh such a difficult subject. In the family history she completed before her death, my grandmother acknowledged that her Grandpa Larson was anti-Semitic. But on the whole, this project has left me grateful that I was raised within religious communities (family and churches) that instilled in me a belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all life. My upbringing taught me that what Lindbergh called the “quality of life” reflects something universally true about God and humanity, not anything particularly valuable about the characteristics or contributions of any individual or group.
For though there’s much to admire about the intellectual independence that Charles Lindbergh learned from his parents and grandparents, it also set him up for a problem I point out in my book’s afterword:
While his “spiritual but not religious” journey left him free from the hypocrisies of institutional Christianity, it also left him free to ignore whatever teachings of Christ he found inconvenient. Grace, humility, and unqualified love of neighbor simply did not fit within a worldview that took racial difference for granted and turned racial competition into a divine imperative. Having made God in his own image, Charles Lindbergh saw no image of God in people who didn’t resemble him.