Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

On Biography

doing research

Every year, history conferences feature panels about biography. These are not talks which offer a biography in the manner of A & E’s Biography Channel  (which profiles Kirstie Alley tonight) but ones that consider biography as a genre. They come with titles like “Making a Case for Biography: New Methods in the History of X.”

Why do professional historians feel the need to defend biographies? They have never stopped writing them.  Academic presses remain eager to publish them. Yet biography still carries a reputation of being popular at the expense of being deep, of being an intellectual lightweight in a world of hipper, higher-powered genres: micro-histories, cultural histories, comparative histories, and transnational histories. In the high-cultural universe of academic writing, biography is Gilligan’s Island.

There are many reasons for this, but one key reason is structure. Biography focuses on the role of individuals in shaping events. As such, it sails against the wind of modern scholarship which, for forty years or so, has located historical change in institutions, corporations, governments, and national cultures. And individuals? Go to Barnes and Nobles.

Moreover, biography is tricky as a genre because it sometimes lures historians into thinking that they are really psychoanalysts, that they can interpret the thoughts and feelings of their subjects. If Freud couldn’t ferret out the real causes of his patients’ behavior, why do we think biographers will prove any better at it with people who are dead?

Sigmund Freud's Couch

Sigmund Freud's Couch

That said, I like biographies. If the genre has limitations, it also has spirit. Whether or not people offer a useful way to look at historical change, they are interesting to read about. And the way biographers choose to tell the stories of individuals is interesting too.

john ledyard

For example, Ed Gray’s biography of John Ledyard (which I reviewed here) gives a rich account of Ledyard’s travels. Yet Gray avoids the temptation to put him on the couch and Ledyard remains a mysterious figure, a shadow in the foreground of a brightly painted world.

By contrast, Tim Jeal is far freer with his psychological analysis of Henry Morton Stanley. This should probably make me uneasy. But Jeal builds his psychological hypothesizing on a solid foundation of evidence. He has done his homework on Stanley, a man who left an Africa-sized archive of primary source material.

Better yet, Jeal uses his analysis of Stanley to say interesting things. For example, he observes that Stanley inflated the number of Africans that he killed from the island of Bumbireh in Lake Victoria, a strange boast given that it contributed to Stanley’s reputation as a cold-hearted killer.

henry morton stanley

Yet Jeal argues that Stanley’s actions make sense only if one understands his shame at being humiliated by the leader of Bumbireh weeks earlier, something that Stanley — abandoned by his parents and raised in a workhouse — was keenly sensitive to. Moreover, Jeal argues that Stanley misjudged his audience’s reaction to the Bumbireh story, thinking that Europeans and Americans would like stories of warfare in Africa, much as they liked “big kill” stories about the Indian wars of the American West.

Despite their very different styles, I recommend both books.

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2 Comments»

  Will Thomas wrote @

Good call, Michael. I’ve never actually heard someone call someone else out for writing biography, so I’m not inclined to accept it as a put-upon genre of professional history. The worst thing I can say about it is that it’s easy in the course of a personal narrative to lose perspective of broad changes in history, to fail to keep in mind that the world when someone is 60 is very different from when they’re 20 (no matter what the era). But a well-crafted biography can help bring out just those changes.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Will, I’ve never heard anyone taking down a particular biography either – in fact it’s usually the reverse; Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin was widely praised. This is why I think its so weird that we still have these somewhat defensive talks about biography…as if we were all watching Dancing With the Stars but felt so embarrassed about it that we needed to articulate its benefits in order to justify it to ourselves.


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