When we received instructions to distance and isolate, I called my 92-year old mother who lives alone in another province. She seemed to be taking the pandemic in stride. “I survived the Depression, the war, and the energy crisis,” she said. “I’ll survive this.” To ease her loneliness and to find re-assurance, she told me that she had decided to re-read the Book of Job, the story of God’s savage test of one man’s faith. Why Job? I asked incredulously. Because God never leaves Job.
I’m not as religious as my mother, but I think she’s right, in this test of our individual and collective limits, to find comfort and inspiration in the lives of others. And so I typed “biography” and “history” into a podcast search engine and was led to Great Lives. Hosted by BBC Radio 4’s Matthew Parris, a skilled broadcaster, the format is as simple as it is brilliant: a guest, always a compelling figure in their own right, nominates someone whose life has inspired them; then an expert, usually a scholar and often the subject’s biographer, joins the discussion on people as different as Vera Brittain and Miles Davis.
For the next half hour, a wonderful three-way conversation unfolds. With insight and honest excitement, each episode confirms that history isn’t made by impersonal forces and bloodless categories, but by real people, driven by compulsion, fueled by genius, and, in some instances, haunted by demons, addictions, and awful childhoods.
History, Donald Creighton said, “is the record of an encounter between character and circumstance.” In the case of Great Lives, it’s the record of men and women displaying enormous courage, breaking racial barriers, defying gender stereotypes, doing wonderful things, beating the odds, and leaving remarkable, if sometimes complicated, legacies.
Although historians are rightly suspicious of the idea of greatness because it connotes the Great (White) Man theory of history, Great Lives understands that greatness is a large word with many meanings. It can be found in literature (Jane Austen), music (Prince), medicine (Oliver Sacks), and politics (Petra Kelly) and it can be seen in African American lesbians (poet Audre Lorde), Kashmiri Muslims (wrestler Gama Pehlwan), American Indians (Lakota chief Sitting Bull), and, yes, white men (explorer Roald Amundsen).
Of course, great does not necessarily mean good. Children’s author Enid Blyton loved children, except her own. Indeed, she was a horrible mother. What exactly constitutes greatness, then? I doubt that we could ever establish a final checklist. After all, great people do bad things. Charlie Chaplin may have been a brilliant filmmaker, but he was terrible to women in an industry that was already terrible to women.
At the end of the day, greatness, like history, is in part subjective: one historian’s great president is another historian’s slave owner, a point made more than once in American historical writing, most recently in the 1619 Project.
But if we can’t agree on a definition of greatness, we can surely agree that people do great things. If I had to choose a favorite episode it would be Laura Ingalls Wilder, who started writing in her early 60s and whose many books recount the pioneer experience in the American west. And yet her voice, which is one of the few female voices to document that era and which cites desperation, failure, and sexual violence, was silenced in the hit television series Little House on the Prairie. Nostalgic and saccharine, it focused not on Laura but on her father. As her nominator wryly noted, the series became an extended excuse for Michael Landon, the actor who played Charles Ingalls, to take off his shirt. And because our age does not permit nuance or complexity, only woke indignation, Wilder’s voice was again silenced when her name was removed from the American Library Association’s award for children’s literature in 2018 because of her admittedly troubling depictions of Indigenous peoples.
Without fully realizing it, Great Lives has taken a page from Herodotus, the Ancient Greek historian and the subject of a fascinating episode. Interested in what made people tick, Herodotus cast a wide net when he included not just emperors, kings, and noblemen, but women, fishermen, and enslaved people, as well as myths, food, and even sex. Throughout its nearly 500 episodes, Great Lives has cast a similar net across the public and the private, hauling in achievements, legacies, weaknesses, failings, and the occasional tryst.
Binge-listening to Great Lives during a global pandemic has forced me to expand my definition of greatness to include everyday greatness: the Chinese doctor who first blew the whistle; the Italian nurse who refused to leave her patients; the French man who ran a marathon on his balcony; the now-unemployed Toronto couple who are helping their vulnerable neighbors; the manager at my local grocery store who is keeping the shelves stocked; and my mother who is re-reading the Book of Job.
Donald Wright is acting chair of political science at the University of New Brunswick and the author of Canada: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Featured image: Donnie Wright, the author’s 92-year old mother, practices social distancing behind her glass door.