Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Secret History Of Wonder Woman Remains Mostly Obscured, Despite Jill Lepore’s Best Efforts!

The Good: Scholarly, Writing style is readable
The Bad: Seems to have large gaps in research/includes a number of unsupported suppositions or opinions
The Basics: The Secret History Of Wonder Woman might well be the definitive biography of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, but the book is easily summarized and a lot more fluff than it ought to be.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to deal with some errands and I heard an interview on NPR that caught my attention. It seemed an interesting convergence of coincidence that while I was out, randomly flipping through radio stations at an irregular time for me, that I would hear an interview on NPR that had anything to do with my favorite comic book hero, Wonder Woman. The interview was with Jill Lepore, the author of The Secret History Of Wonder Woman. Despite the title capitalizing on the popularity of Wonder Woman, The Secret History Of Wonder Woman is Lepore’s biography of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator.

The interview on NPR featured Lepore talking about the book, her research and about William Moulton Marston himself. On the strength of the interview, I picked up The Secret History Of Wonder Woman. The hardcover edition of The Secret History Of Wonder Woman is 410 pages (actually, 297, with the balance being devoted to footnotes and an index) and it is a quick-enough read, at least for those who like scholarly works.

The thing is, the tease was almost as substantive as the work.

Fundamentally, The Secret History Of Wonder Woman is written like a dissertation, loaded with footnotes and citations, quotes and references and stylistically, it is more problematic than it ought to have been. The Secret History Of Wonder Woman is chock full of redundancies, like on pages 76 – 78: Pages 76 and 77 feature panels from a Wonder Woman comic strip and Lepore writes about William Moulton Marston’s life and the incidents that she reasonably asserts led to him writing those particular panels. But on pages 77 and 78, she describes the panels and relates their dialog . . . which readers have already seen, read, and understood in the context of Marston’s life. We get it; we got it from the source, we didn’t need the source simply re-described.

In a similar way, The Secret History Of Wonder Woman illustrates how there are severe limits to how much research based on documents, no matter how rich they seem to be. William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway, and Olive Byrne (the imprecision of modern relationships makes “mistress” not quite right and co-wife to Marston a bit more accurate) spent decades in a relationship that they kept hidden, even from the children Marston and Holloway had (and Byrne subsequently raised). People who are smart about the lies they live with, people who are adept at telling lies and who build a network around them of people who accept their lies as truth, tend not to leave a wealth of documentation. As The Secret History Of Wonder Woman goes on, the subjunctive is tossed around with increasingly more frequency. The result are passages like “He entered the lecture hall. Marston may well have been there, acting as his assistant. Munsterberg began to speak; he began to sway” (47). Given that this is a biography about Marston, whether he was present or not seems to be a pretty important detail. How Lepore’s research can be so precise that she can write that Munsterberg slumped to the floor in the middle of a sentence, but cannot definitively place Marston in the room at the time seems odd. It makes the reader wonder why either the incident or the line was included . . . and the book is full of moments like that.

The Secret History Of Wonder Woman feels rushed as a result, like Lepore was on a deadline to deliver the book and was unable to finish her research. As well, I discovered quickly that I was not a huge fan of Lepore’s style in the book – the passage on page 47, for example has three short sentences in a row that begin with “he [verb],” which followed two slightly longer sentences both with secondary clauses that had “he [verb].” A highly-researched biography from a professor should not read like a Dick And Jane book.

That said, the meat of The Secret History Of Wonder Woman is well-encapsulated in the NPR interview with Jill Lepore. Lepore speaks articulately about her work and William Moulton Marston’s life and the interview is entertaining and engaging. For those curious about William Moulton Marston and his unconventional life, the abridged, audio version Lepore delivers conversationally on NPR is a better use of time, money and attention than The Secret History Of Wonder Woman.

For other biographies, please visit my reviews of:
Society’s Child By Janis Ian
Keeping Faith By Jimmy Carter
The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin


For other book reviews, please check out my Books Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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