Word of the Week! Hagiography

I just finished One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs’ definitive and minute-by-minute account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book is so well written and uses sources so fairly that I want to consider parts of it for a first-year writing textbook I’ll be writing in the coming year.

In any case, I came across this sentence by Dobbs, that “[Kennedy’s friend and aide] Dave Powers makes no mention of Meyer or any other presidential girlfriend in his hagiographic memoir of JFK.”

JFK was no saint; any reading of honest biographies would discover his many very human flaws, including a number of adulterous affairs. Yet some works about his life, ended too soon and so tragically, fall into the realm of our Word of the Week.  At its root, as the OED tells us, a hagiography was a biography of a saint. I trudged through these as a Catholic teen in mandatory Church-history classes. Being a teen, I zoned out, though the martyrdoms stuck with me longest. “Grilled on a griddle! Cool.”  Thus the brain of teenaged boy.

The Saints, of course, led faultless lives and were models of piety and restraint.

That brings us to works such as the Powers memoir and others that cast a person’s life as perfect; it’s the second OED definition and often how we use our word today. A hagiography is suspect and looked down upon by serious scholars.

Students, learn to smell hagiography when it turns up under your shoe. Then find better sources. That’s as it should be. We can still admire what two imperfect men, John F. Kennedy and his rival Nikita Khrushchev, did to back the world away from the precipice of nuclear war, after the Soviet leader tried to sneak weapons into Cuba and got caught, Red (so to speak) handed.

Praise is one thing. Hagiography another, and it has little role in academic reasoning and writing.

As Summer races along I’ll post most weeks. Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Public Domain image of our Cold War rivals courtesy of Pingnews at Flickr.