TALKING WITH MAURY KLEIN
Maury Klein, who teaches history at the University of Rhode Island, pays as much attention to the manner in which he presents his material as he does to the meticulous research itself. His descriptive narrative and his precise, crisp use of language give his books the feel of a novel. “I’m a writer who became a historian,” he says. “My goal is to write readable books that are historically sound.”
Klein believes that writing biography is different from writing history. People grow, change, and develop over the course of their lives, and a good biographer needs to provide a sense of character and development. Writing a good biography is like visiting a foreign country, he says. The researcher needs to learn the language, culture, and viewpoint in order to understand the subject’s world. Present-day prejudices must not color the research. That’s why Klein winces at the phrase “robber baron,” a term commonly applied to the financial titans of the past. “I’ve been fighting that term all my life,” he says, because he feels it does injustice to those businessmen. They should be seen as creative artists, Klein insists. As keen observers, using the latest available data, they saw the world differently from their predecessors, and their broader vision and finer perspective allowed them a glimpse of other possibilities. “But it is one thing to have such a vision,” Klein adds, “and quite another to bet the farm on it.”
Harriman’s audacious, bold, creative nature is what fascinates Klein. He admires the unquenchable drive and energy that spurred a businessman to bring a new order to the railroads, the largest and most complex business of his time.
JOSEPH SWEET is a freelance writer living with his family in Kingston, Rhode Island.