A Curious Man by Neal Thompson
This book raised some questions about what we should expect from biographers. Are they merely relating details of the life of a person, or should they provide more of a commentary on that life as well? Is what we might consider to be ‘neutral’ reporting actually just reinforcing the status quo? By not dwelling on the more questionable parts of a subject’s personality, is the biographer acting in an appropriate manner, or are they implicitly giving their approval by not spending more time examining those characteristics?
Robert Ripley is the subject of this biography. You’re likely familiar with the “Believe It Or Not!” brand; there was a TV show about it in the 80s, and there are Ripley’s museums in San Francisco and NYC. Mr. Ripley started as a cartoonist in the early 1900s, eventually travelling the world to visit over 200 countries, collecting information about parts of the world that were extremely foreign to people in the U.S., especially before the frequent use of photography or radio programming. This straightforward biography follows Mr. Ripley from his birth in Santa Rosa, California through to his death in New York nearly 60 years later.
The author, Mr. Thompson, is a fine writer. I hesitated a bit in the beginning, distracted by other books I received as gifts for Christmas. However, I sped through the second half of the book today, finishing it up as the Texans got destroyed by Kansas City in the playoffs. It’s written well, and I think maybe five or ten years ago I would have strongly recommended it for anyone interested in learning more about this particular figure in U.S. history.
But these days, I have more questions. For example, Mr. Ripley clearly had some misogynistic tendencies, and while Mr. Thompson does mention this (which a lesser author might gloss over even further), he doesn’t examine it in a thoughtful way. The larger issue, however, that I just don’t think received enough attention in this biography, is the ethics of the entire basis for the Believe It Or Not concept: how “weird” the world is outside of the U.S. I get the sense from this biography that Mr. Ripley felt that he respected other cultures, but I’m not entirely sure that he did. He was certainly well-traveled, and developed strong affinities for certain cultures (especially China), but his cartoons at times dipped into racist territory, and his collections of curios and oddities really just seems like a whole lot of ‘othering’ of non-U.S. cultures.
And this is where those questions I posed at the start of this review come up. What duty – if any – does the biographer have to the audience to delve deeper into the subject’s actions? Is a biographer merely a stenographer, pulling together clippings and filling in the blanks, or is he or she an investigative reporter, looking deeper into the subject and placing at least some level of judgment on the actions the subject has taken throughout his or her life? I think it’s more of the latter, or at least that’s my feeling after reading this book. Mr. Thompson spends really no ink exploring whether it was ethical or appropriate for a white man to travel to Africa and bring back and display (out of context) parts of the cultures on that continent. I don’t think it’s necessarily cut and dried; Mr. Ripley’s work did expose many in the U.S. to parts of the world they knew nothing about. But I don’t think the default should be that whatever Mr. Ripley did was value-neutral, which is what this book presents.