Then consider writing a biography of an early national figure, particularly one from Tennessee. Mark Cheatham is probably correct in guessing that “many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors.”
It’s a shame, because there are plenty of prominent early leaders about whom we just don’t know enough. Both Gordon Belt and myself have lamented the lack of a good biography of John Sevier. A few hagiographic treatments came out over a century ago, but as far as I can determine, the only scholarly attempt at a life of Sevier was Carl Driver’s, published back in the thirties.
William Blount’s life story would also make for a fascinating read. A study of his conspiratorial dealings came out not too long ago, but as a member of the Constitutional Convention and governor of the Southwest Territory, Blount deserves a cradle-to-grave account, too.
In part, this dearth of early Tennessee biographies is symptomatic of a more general shortage of scholarship on the Volunteer State’s frontier period. The good news is that those relatively few recent studies on early Tennessee history have been very good—such as John Finger’s overview of the Volunteer State’s early days, Kevin Barksdale’s book on the Lost State of Franklin, and Cynthia Cumfer’s examination of early Tennessee’s three races.
But it’s also symptomatic of the surprising gaps that exist in the field of early American biography. These gaps become readily apparent when you look at Rev War biography. One thing that’s always struck me is the lack of a recent, full-scale life of Nathanael Greene, the remarkable general who took command in the South in late 1780 and turned that theater of war on its head, after having served under Washington in the major campaigns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Few men played a more critical role in the war.
Henry Knox, Washington’s resourceful artillery chief, also needs a full-scale, scholarly biography. Don Higginbotham wrote a very good life of Daniel Morgan, but another look at the Old Wagoneer wouldn’t hurt, either. Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates could also stand intensive biographies.
Let me point out that all these men were general officers, and yet we have more abundant published work on some Civil War colonels than on these guys. Biographies of British commanders are just as hard to come by, perhaps more so. In a sense, Rev War historiography has leapfrogged over the old military history and gone straight to the new.
Grad students and young scholars in search of dissertation or book topics need not worry about running out of material. There are enough dead white guys in search of their Boswells to keep us all busy for a while.