October 23, 2018
Doing History: Arguing Biography
Ben Franklin's WorldDoing History
19 min read
Today’s post accompanies “Considering Biography,” episode 209 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 3 series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.
By Michael J. McGandy
I am an editor, I admit, who is wary of biography. When a junior scholar working on her first book raises the prospect of writing a biography or a book with a strong biographical line, I sound a note of caution. Are there other ways, I ask, of telling this story? I wonder if the author knows how biography is evaluated in the scholarly community. Frankly, I question, are the virtues of this form worth the manifest danger of putting her career at risk?
Editors work with a flexible set of principles that guide us as we develop manuscripts and foster the careers of authors. One of the principles, always foremost in my mind, is a variant on a crucial portion of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. How an editor can help an author and his book is uncertain; there are so many factors—the ability of the author, the quality of the author-editor relationship, indeterminate readerships, and the vagaries of the literary marketplace—that can incline a project toward success and many of them are out of an editor’s control. The factors that can outright weaken a project, however, are often clear and manageable. Writing in a narrative mode that welcomes skepticism if not scorn from scholars is a certain danger to a book’s reception and an author’s reputation. My professional commitment to support my authors—and sometimes save them from themselves—has encouraged me to warn junior scholars away from biography.
My Editorial Oath notwithstanding, over the years I have come to distrust my own negative reaction. Squinting at biography has become a professional routine that seems more a performance of editorial wisdom than its actuality. And it is hard to take such a worldly-wise line at my desk at Cornell University Press when my bookshelves at home are loaded with biographies.
The academic case against biography is of long standing. It shapes what mentors, editors, authors, and reviewers, as well as hiring, promotion, and tenure committees, think can and should be written in history. The prevailing consensus is that biography should be addressed with caution by senior scholars and never by junior scholars. This suspicious take is so deeply entrenched that, it suggests to me, there must be something wrong with it. Once you caution authors away from a specific genre of writing as an inflexible rule, it is time to look more closely at the rules of the scholarly game.
No doubt, biography has its weaknesses and five come readily to mind. For starters, there is the obvious risk that biographers can be captured by their sources. The biographer who is not vigilant can easily become the hagiographer because so many of the accounts of key events and crucial decisions are in the papers of the person who is the subject of the book. I think of The Last Love Song, a 2015 biography of Joan Didion that I recently read. The author, Tracy Daugherty, steered clear of outright celebrating her life but it took considerable work to maintain a modest skepticism because his sources were predominantly Didion’s account, in print, of her own actions, thoughts, and feelings.
Add to that basic problem the fact that, because biography is fueled by abundant sources, it is easier to write biographies of people (often white men of European extraction) with sufficient resources—economic, political, social, and cultural—to ensure that their papers and all their effects were preserved. Some lives are just set up for rich and lengthy biographical treatment (consider David McCullough’s John Adams), and these are the same folks who have had biographies written about them from the beginning of American history. The form thus systematically excludes people with fewer or different economic, political, social, and cultural resources.
Then there is the basic presumption of biography: individuals matter. That seems like an uncontroversial statement but take a couple of steps and you find yourself writing a “great man” narrative in which a single person changed the course of history. And sometimes that “great man” is a great woman. No doubt, Frances Perkins was a titan of her time and hugely influential. Yet when I read Kristen Downey’s biography, The Woman behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage, I came away with a sense that Perkins had single-handedly orchestrated the New Deal. That is the slippery slope of the biographical form. It is also a tendency that runs counter to interests in structure and big systems that has prevailed since the rise of Marxist history. What is the value of the individual when set against the economy? It is hard to write biography, and have it taken seriously, once that question is put.
Related to this risk of “great man” history is the tendency to fall into narrow or one-damned-thing-after-another history. In these biographical works the larger world disappears and the story unfolds across the days motivated more by what that person had for breakfast than the headlines of the Washington Post, social networks, or trends in custom and thought. David Garrow’s recent Rising Star, a soup-to-nuts biography of Barack Obama’s early life and political career, exemplifies this weakness. It is a no-detail-left-behind sort of book, and the result was, for many readers, that the meaning and context of Obama’s life was lost in the welter of personal facts.
These four critiques of biography are serious and must be grappled with by any conscientious and skilled author working in the form. There is a fifth assessment that influences how scholars assess biographies which critics seldom affirm as an explicit rationale for taking a skeptical attitude toward biography. Stated baldly: the problem with biography is that it is popular and accessible, and, in the academy, if writing is popular and accessible then it is not deemed a serious contribution. If the interest in enticing a reading audience looks to have been set on par with the imperative to fit into a trend of academic discourse (and I use the word with intent), then questions are sure to come. Any scholar who goes out of his or her way to write biography has to defend against the implicit claim that biography cannot deliver more than entertainment.
Faced with four principled concerns and one deep-seated prejudice, a scholar who ventures into biography has to be prepared to defend his sources, subject, and motivations.
The overall critique of biography, however, is liable to reframing and questioning, and the challenges come from within the academy itself. While biography is considered suspect, it is hard to read three articles or books in history and not find at least one author making a claim regarding the importance of agency. But what is agency but the capacity of individuals to influence events and determine, to an important degree, their own lives? This is the very stuff of biography. It is a challenge to elevate agency as a category of analysis and denigrate biography, and this difficulty is becoming more evident.
What is also now clear is that scholars need to make concerted efforts to reach outside the academy and address a broader audience. This is the public history turn in recent professional discussions, and it relates to Ph.D.s and M.A.s anticipating diverse careers in history. Many scholars are indeed writing in accessible ways; Made by History (hosted by the Washington Post) is a venue where scholars share their informed point of view with the wider world. But more need to make this turn and more books would benefit from a public history orientation. Scholars thus need to continually assess the ways in which they write and sometimes change their approach. Biography is a readily available form that allows an author to move gracefully from inside the academy out into public life. And the act of claiming biography, of course, is just a reclamation of one popular type of writing that historians have, over time, ceded to journalists (at a serious cost to our public life and the profession of history).
Finally, a frank assessment of almost a half century of social and cultural history, which has coincided with a rise of African American history, Native American history, queer history, and women’s history, makes it hard to imagine that current scholars writing biography would do so in a naïve or hagiographic way. (Of course, some will, but authorial naiveté is not limited to biography.) Was not part of the promise of the social and cultural turn, that began in the 1970s, that it would revise American history as such? If the matter of history can (and, indeed, must) change, so must its basic forms be revised and adapted to new purposes. The very development of the various subject matters of history has established this moment as ripe for a resurgence of rich, challenging, and sophisticated biography.
Taken together, I think these three points constitute a fair case for biography. Biography is, at least, intellectually defensible. Accordingly, editors and the whole network of people who mentor and evaluate scholarship should be open to biography as a legitimate form for all historians, whether they be junior, mid-level, or senior in their careers
When considering the force of this reframing of biography, one cannot underestimate the prejudice against the popular and accessible. Historians like to think of themselves as scholars who write well and are understood by non-specialists. But there is the question of how far to go. At what point does the desire on the part of a scholar to reach a larger readership mean that her academic peers will accuse her of pandering to popular tastes or, at best, diluting the analytical bite of her work? Such questions can only be addressed author-by-author and book-by-book. Historians, particularly those junior in the profession, must anticipate those questions if they approach or go over that moving line between so-called serious and popular scholarship.
After 18 years of experience in publishing, I cannot say that I have found biography to be more compromised than other narrative modes. There are legitimate concerns about the form, but is that not true of all types of writing? And, to look to the positive features, the manifest promise of biography must be considered. Authors embark on biographical work with a strong commitment rooted in the personal nature of their subject; their research and writing aspire to do more than contribute to the literature. For their part, readers, spanning academic and non-academic audiences, come to these books with a similar enthusiasm. So, as an editor, when I directed authors away from biography I did so against my own instincts to cultivate excellent and passionate writing with a broad appeal. Every time I turned an author away from biography, I kept interested readers out in the cold and literally left money on the table. Such practices now strike me as non-sensical.
I now see my role as an editor as that of helping all authors—junior and senior scholars alike—interested in writing biography to anticipate those skeptical question and still research and write in the manner to which they feel called. This is a new practical understanding that accommodates the desires of authors, reflects the demands of a challenging publishing marketplace, and considers the ethical dimensions of an editor’s role in the development of scholarly research and writing.
Further, in support of the form, I have a hunch that biography, because of the focus on individuals, is a way of getting at something that is fundamentally important in history and public life. The individuals that are the focus of biographical treatment need not be cast as world-historical and they need not always be the usual suspects of bulky biographies. They can be plain folk, overlooked persons, and actors on the wings of history—all of whom made decisions that made differences, wrestled with moral matters within or against impersonal systems, and in their individual lives reflected something true about the larger world. No other form of historical narration gets authors and readers as close to this crucial and idiosyncratic intersection of person and world. Telling complex and sophisticated stories that intersection is intrinsically important to understanding the process of history and each individual’s place within it as an agent. I would also venture that attending to that intersection is the main chance for history to translate into civic responsibility and public engagement.
If scholars are to explore the potential of biography and the form is to enjoy a renewed life in the academy, then mentors, editors, and reviewers, as well as hiring, promotion, and tenure committees, need to set aside their anxieties with and prejudices about the form. We all must frankly acknowledge the significant potential for analysis and communication. And we all—not just, for example, some editors here and some reviewers there—have to support excellent biographical writing at every stage of the process from inception to reception and then to hiring and promotion. To develop and adapt that salient part of the Hippocratic oath: We all need to agree neither to impede nor harm scholars who venture to write biography, be it their first or fifth book.
Michael J. McGandy is senior editor and editorial director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press.