Building Their Own Waldos: An Interview with Robert Habich

Last spring, English Professor Robert Habich released his book, Building Their Own Waldos, which was published by University of Iowa Press. The book sets out to understand the dilemma and disagreement among Emerson’s early biographers over how to represent his life. To celebrate the first year anniversary of this book, intern Rhiannon Racy sat down with Dr. Habich to discuss his book, including his research process and some of his more memorable research moments.

Rhiannon Racy: What inspired the book? How did you start writing Building Their Own Waldos?
Robert Habich: In 1999, I wrote an article about one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s early biographers.  From this experience, I discovered many biographers were in disagreement about how to write Emerson’s life. The book tells the stories of Emerson’s six early biographers and the combination of their perspectives on Emerson’s life and the experience of being a biographer in the 1880’s.

How long did the project take?
It took about ten years of research visits to more than twenty libraries and historical societies.  The materials were scattered not only across the United States but overseas as well.  I used about 20 libraries in the United States and 4 in Great Britain. Some libraries such as the Library of Congress, Harvard University Libraries, and Columbia University had large collections, and I visited them repeatedly. My overseas travels took me to the British Library in London, The University of Reading, and The Manchester Central Library. Not only did I search libraries, but I also visited local historical societies where I discovered other useful information on Emerson’s life and his biographers.

What was your most interesting find?
My favorite or most interesting find was about biographer Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Holmes was one of Emerson’s most well-known biographers, and Holmes wrote Emerson’s biography because he wanted more money in his retirement in order get a better summer house. His current home was close to the railroad tracks, and he wanted to move.

While researching in a historical society in a small town north of Boston, I became curious as to what happened to the house Holmes lived in.  One of the society’s volunteers told me that they moved the house from its original location and volunteered to take me there. The woman living in the house invited me in and brought me to the front porch.  She had me put my hand on the carpet and feel the crescent shaped depressions in the floor. I realized that this was where Oliver Wendell Holmes created depressions on the floor as he wrote in his rocking chair.

Go where the research leads you. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but you don’t have the box it came in. I had no idea of the final picture.  That was the fun of doing this research.

What is your favorite part of a project such as this?
I enjoy seeing a story come together, and I suppose that’s the part of the writing I enjoyed the most. Building Their Own Waldos is a story about storytellers, a narrative of people who wrote narratives, biographies of people who wrote biographies. The main point of Building Their Own Waldos is that what we know about authors is often determined by personal considerations such as family or commercial needs. Each of the six biographers was writing at the same time, so in some sense they were competing for who would tell the best story.  They cooperated, but they were also competing for book contracts—and, therefore, publishers were influential in their writing. It is fascinating that non-literary considerations come into play in the making of an author’s reputation.

What was your favorite part of the book?
I’m honestly not sure what was my favorite part of actually writing the book, but my favorite part of the research was traveling around England and using big repositories like the British Library and smaller public libraries that tended to be older and dusty. They tended to be a little more exciting because you just look through boxes and boxes of things that are all uncatalogued. You never knew whether the next piece of paper you looked at was going to be the key to everything.

How does this work fit in with your work here at Ball State?
It ties in very well because I teach a graduate level class on literary biography; I teach classes on Emerson and his contemporaries; and I also teach a graduate research class—and this book is almost exclusively unpublished research.

What are your future plans?
Right now I am working on some more Emerson essays, but I also have an interest in what is called “literary tourism.”  This concept deals with the ways in which tourism and literary studies intersect.  I recently spent time in England at Henry James’s house, looking for ways in which houses construct biographies of the writers who lived there. I look at and dissect the placement of furniture, the artwork on walls, or the talks the guides give.  I look at how all of those things create a material biography of the author.  Overall I am generally interested in the non-literary influences on literary history.

-Interview conducted by Rhiannon Racy

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