Samuel F. B. Morse 1810 was unhappy when he first arrived at Yale — and it had nothing to do with the angles in the corners of his room. After he entered Yale at the age of 14, his parents made him live off-campus. Once, when he wrote a letter to his father in Latin, his father sent it back with corrections.
Kenneth Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, spoke to about 25 people at a Morse College Master’s Tea Tuesday on the complexity of the college’s namesake and the process of writing biographies.
Silverman said he likes to write about subjects who have not been recently studied, who have embedded narrative elements due to their travels — Morse crossed the Atlantic 16 times, for example — and most importantly, who maintained correspondence through letters.
Silverman said correspondence is what separates biography from history as it enables him to get into his subjects’ thoughts.
“History is about what Napoleon did; biography is about what it meant to him,” he said.
He discussed the “accursed” life of Morse who was the inventor of the telegraph, a painter and a New York City mayoral candidate.
Silverman said he was most shocked to learn that Morse viewed his life, not as illustrious, but rather as unlucky and depressing.
“Every time he had some kind of success, it was met by some defeat or disaster,” Silverman said.
Silverman said that in 1826, just after Morse secured a coveted position to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, Morse’s wife suddenly died. When Morse invented the telegraph, he immediately faced several accusations and lawsuits — one of which reached the U.S. Supreme Court — claiming that he had not truly invented the device.
Before he made a name for himself as an inventor, Morse was a serious painter who paved the way for the modern art movement by establishing the National Academy of Design in New York City, Silverman said.
“The Soho art scene would not have emerged if Morse had not founded the Academy,” Silverman said.
But Morse has recently come under fire for expressing pro-slavery, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant views in a series of newspaper editorials for his brother’s newspaper. Morse Master Frank Keil said he mused about changing the college’s name in light of Morse’s racist opinions.
In addition to Morse, Silverman has written biographies on Timothy Dwight, Harry Houdini and Edgar Allen Poe. The subjects of Silverman’s biographies are as varied as the prizes he has won for them. Along with the Pulitzer Prize, he won the Christopher Literary Award of the Society of American Magicians.
Several Morse students at the talk said they appreciated Silverman’s extensive research on their college’s namesake.
“I had not thought about Morse … and his Yale connection [before],” Eric Babbs ’04 said. “It makes me more interested in studying him, his ambitions and his family life.”
Keil said Silverman was an obvious figure to invite to the college.
“He is one of America’s foremost writers of biography, and the connection to Morse was too important to ignore,” he said.
Silverman gave two pieces of advice to students interested in pursuing biography.
“Get a large desk … and have a lot of money before you start,” he said.