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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · October 30, 2018

Doing History: Reconceiving Biography

Ben Franklin's WorldDoing History 33 min read

Today’s post accompanies “Considering John Marshall Part 1,” episode 210 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

When asked to consider the prospects for biography, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf reflected on their experience researching and writing as a team:

But positioning Jefferson in his time and, more importantly for us, in his place, enabled us to see and know his world and the world of his contemporaries a little better. The pay-off for us is in the nuances, in glimpses of the dynamics of family life, in the performance of mastery, in the ways he fashioned himself as a patriarch. Biography can show us the way to good history; a good historical understanding is the prerequisite and justification for a worthwhile biography.

The reciprocal relationship that Annette and Peter highlight here is, I think, an important insight. Not only are biography and history connected by processes of research and writing, they are associated with respect to the goals of a “worthwhile biography.” In sum: big-picture history without a fine sense of individual experience is as deficient as is detailed biography that lacks a strong sense of context, place, and pattern.

Annette and Peter’s observation, grounded in their common work on “The Most Blessed of Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination, is a good place to begin probing new methods in and recovering possibilities for the biographical form. In order to explore biography, I sent out requests to a small cohort of scholars with whom I had worked in the past or whose work I knew well. I simply asked them to write a couple of paragraphs on biography and its prospects. Their contributions are ranged below—selected and classed by theme and commented on by me but not edited beyond an occasional insertion of an ellipsis to connect two parts of a longer statement. This far-from-scientific data gathering reveals trends in thinking about biography and, I suspect, will suggest to others many different issues to be proposed, argued, and experimented with. This collection of comments is meant to encourage further conversation; the contributors did not aim to be definitive in their responses and I have not tried to be complete in my work of gathering and commenting.

The Personal

Before one can begin researching and writing, in any form, a scholar must be inspired. She needs examples of authorial motivation, subject matter, and story line. Ann Little offered her origin story as a historian and writer:

Is there any fustier or dustier genre of historical writing than biography? After all, it’s the choice of old duffers in retirement—both the readers of biography and the writers too. How can life-writing ever be made fresh or revelatory? In asking these questions, I went back to the books that got me interested in American history when I was a six and seven year-old. The majority of historical books I read at that age were biographies or fictional representations of girls’ lives set in the past: Elizabeth George Speare’s The Calico Captive (1957) and The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958). Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain (1943) was the only boy I bothered with in my historical imagination. More recently, savvy publishers have recognized and rewarded children’s appetites for historical fiction with the Dear America series and the smashing success of historical American Girl Dolls because of the American Girl Doll series of books. But for this child of the 1970s, nothing was bigger than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (1932-43), which was given new life by the American Bicentennial in 1976 and the contemporaneous production of the hit TV show starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert.

Timothy Shannon sent me a comment that hewed to a similar theme:

I think most readers and writers of history are drawn to the field first by biography. For this historian at least, biography served as a gateway drug to the field when I read multiple titles in the Piper Books series in my elementary school library. I confess that I am not drawn with the same enthusiasm to the door-stop biographies published by trade presses today. Although they sell well and win major awards, whenever I pick one up it seems to be re-packaging familiar stories about generals, statesmen, and other luminaries.

Inspiration for a young reader is closely paired to meaning, and biography helps readers, both young and mature, to see and, indeed, feel the relevance of history. That affective response holds the key to something unique and powerful in life writing.

Experience and Morality

A stone’s throw from childhood inspiration is reflection on mature experience. The connection is made through the personal and the specific—those stories and facets of history that speak to the reader as an individual and then provoke reflection on his or her situation as an agent.

Michael Oberg offered this take on the place of the personal:

What I find useful in a biographical approach is the opportunity it provides for understanding the richness of the human experience. … I often ask my students to tell me about the most significant historical event in their lives. They will tell me about 9-11 or the election of Barack Obama or whatever. But when I ask the question a bit differently, I get a richer and more revealing set of responses. Were there things you experienced after which nothing was ever the same? The answers range from a first date to a sibling’s birth to a divorce or a loved one’s death. What is a significant event to you might not be significant to me, and what might be a significant event in the life of an English colonist might not be a significant to the members of a native community. Biography so conceived allows us to consider what Raymond Fogelson called “the ethnohistory of events and non-events” and the rich diversity of historical experiences.

Sheila Skemp commented:

And if that story is a good, well-written, deeply researched account of someone’s life, it gives readers an opportunity to understand and reflect upon the myriad ways that individuals long since dead and gone interacted with the challenges they faced in a world that was so different from our own.

Catherine O’Donnell:

The biographical genre freed me from some conventions that scholarly monographs require (and that don’t particularly suit my skills.) But it imposes obligations, too. I imagine my readers demanding an answer to one question in particular: who is she? One can adeptly sketch context, participate in historiographical conversations, even demonstrate the importance of a subject’s contributions to the world. If readers don’t feel the person on the page (as a student of religion, the word that comes to mind is presence) the biographer has failed. Biographical writing isn’t just allowed to overflow arguments and analysis; it is required to.

Christian Crouch:

I see both challenge and excitement in biography, especially when it is about recovering previously-obscured narratives or revisiting lives that we think we know. The challenge is writing these narratives in a manner that acknowledges and centers the audiences who never forgot that these actors lived, moved, and left stories. Biography has wide appeal as well, so these counter-narratives or “anti-biographies” offer the exciting possibility that this work might radically reorient approaches to history and historical audience both within the academy and, more importantly, with the public.

On the matter of experience, in researching and writing biography the author is managing two related sets of opposites: the dyad of the like and unlike and the dyad of description and reflection. To adapt Yogi Berra, as I like to do, this strikes me as a methodological crossroads that an author can just take. It is a basic both-and situation. One can challenge a reader with unlike experience and then invite him into the story with experiences that are more like his own. An author can also offer the reader a rich but rigorously descriptive outlook on a subject’s world and then later provide her with moral dimensions and reflective depth. The key thing, it seems to me, is that all of these resources are at an author’s disposal when writing biography; the possibilities for how, when, and to what end to use personal experience are quite flexible.

Contingency and Uniqueness

The matter of experience brings to mind a term of analysis that has been hot this past decade: contingency. It also raises the fact of uniqueness or, looked at from a different angle, the problem of representativeness.

Skemp remarked on personal action and contingency:

Biographies have their weaknesses, of course, as their many detractors are only too eager to point out. They are, by definition, an analysis of just one person’s life. They suffer from the same deficiencies that plagued historians in the 1970s, whose myriad town studies ultimately forced us all to concede that there was no such thing as “the” American, or even “the” New England colonial experience. Moreover, the very things that make someone’s story unique and compelling, force us to admit that our subject’s experiences are not “representative” of anything. The more quirks and anomalies we manage to uncover, the less our subjects’ experiences provide us with any meaningful insight into the events of the past. …

I would argue that at the very least biographies remind us about the ultimate contingency of the human experience. We tend to think of the “big” events in the past as almost inevitable. The “discovery” of mainland America, the American Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, economic booms and busts, all seem to be events that no one could have stopped or even delayed. They were bound to happen. But if we look at the past by examining the experiences of the women and men who actually experienced it, we see all those life-changing events in a much different way. Samuel Adams did not know, in 1766, that the American colonists would declare their independence just a decade later. George Robert Twelve Hewes was similarly unaware that his participation in the “Boston Massacre” or even the “Tea Party” would change his life—and the life of the new nation—in fundamental ways. These people thought they had choices. To them, the future was wildly unpredictable. They believed that what they did mattered, that they could actually affect the future, that the success or failure of their endeavors were dependent upon what they—as individuals—said and did. And they acted accordingly. Biography gives us the ability to see the past through the eyes of people who didn’t know how it all turned out, who saw the future as filled with untold possibilities, and who actually thought they—as individuals—made a difference.

Rosemarie Zagarri wrote:

Like biographers who work on more traditional subjects, the new generation of biographers must grapple with the question of representativeness: the extent to which their subjects’ lives should be understood as unique, or exceptional, as opposed to reflecting the experience of other individuals living at the same time.


Working my way through an archive, I become entranced by nuances and exceptions to the rule. When I begin to write, my clause-laden sentences bear witness to my reluctance to cut to the chase. Wonderfully for me, biography is an historical genre of details and moments, of accretion rather than summation. … But because it’s impossible to reduce a human life to an argument – more impossible, really, than reducing 1,000 human lives to an argument — biographers are allowed to linger in the plenitude. Look closer, and this person is not what you thought. Because none of us is.

The methodological and argumentative problem of representativeness is nothing new, but the keynote of contingency, with its subsidiary concept of agency, casts that issue in a very different light. The matter and context of a historical agent’s actions are unique. But the act of deciding and acting is not unique. What if the representative aspect of biography is not the social, political, economic, and cultural position of the subject but the very state of being a historical subject? Each excellent biography shows readers what it was like for a person to grapple with actual (not apparent) choices and to live with the consequences of her choices for her life, her family, her community, and, sometimes, her nation.


Does great biography need a rich archival base? That is a truism, and one I repeated in “Arguing Biography.” Yet, this certainly bears further consideration.

Shannon remarked how gaps in the historical record enliven biography:

The type of biography that holds the most promise for creativity on the historian’s part is microhistory. Telling the life story of an obscure person rather than a famous one forces the historian to practice detective skills that can only be honed in the archives. In early American history, this genre hit its stride with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale (1990) and John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive (1994), but it remains vital today. Oftentimes, it is a lacuna in the documentary record that makes this kind of biography the most interesting to write and read. Ann Little’s The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016) and Julie A. Fisher and David J. Silverman’s Ninigret, Sachem of the Niantics and Narragansetts (2014) are good recent examples of the kind of imaginative reconstruction historians must engage in if they want to write in this genre.

Little reflected:

In the end, I think I succeeded in telling a story of warfare and empire by centering the story on a kind of character—a girl, a Wabanaki child, a French Canadian adolescent, a young Catholic sister, an older mother superior—who has been traditionally relegated to the margins if she appeared in the story at all. … The more different stories we tell, and the more different sources we use, the better it is for American history.


Over the past several decades, early American historians have discovered the immense value of biographies to illuminate the lives of men and women whose voices have been marginalized, overlooked, or ignored in the traditional Anglo-centric narrative of early American history. Yet a new generation of historians has deployed a variety of imaginative techniques to recover the stories of enslaved individuals, Native American men and women, and non-elites who lived outside the boundaries of what became the United States of America.

Even more than traditional biographers, however, those who study individuals on the margins often confront silences in the evidentiary record, silences which frequently occur at critical junctures in their subjects’ lives. How do these biographers make such silences speak? How do they decide what these lacunae mean? Are they the result of systematic bias in the archives or the product of vagaries in the survival of historical evidence? While crucial for all historians, these questions are particularly important for those who seek to demonstrate the historical importance of their subjects. One of the key attractions of biography as a genre is the specificity of an individual’s particular story. If a biographer uncritically inserts his or her own presuppositions into the silences, it may undermine the strangeness of the individual’s past, or minimize the challenges which the individual faced. Explicitly addressing these challenges, I believe, enhances rather than diminishes the value of such biographers for all readers.

Quite the opposite of the prevailing presumption, archival limitations and challenges augment excellent biography. This is something critical to underline, and not just because it overturns assumptions (including my own). The big book written on a big subject and researched in prominent archives by a team hired by the author is not the model for achieving the best biography. The academic historian, working on a so-called lesser figure and who spends a month reading sources in private and overlooked public collections, is better situated to record what is there and then think and write imaginatively about what is missing.


The types of sources with which a scholar feels at ease working, of course, shape which subjects she is willing to tackle. Just so, if a scholar has been trained in micro-historical techniques and has experience with the use of warranted speculation, then he can cast his eye on different sorts of subjects whose traces through the historical record might be faint or whose actions might be recorded in unlikely places. Then there is the matter of what constitutes a proper subject of biography at all. The door is now fully open to an array of individuals. Yet must life writing always be about a single person? Can it address a multi-generational family? A network? As the bounds of the proper subject of biography grow, here comes the delimiting question: At what point is life writing just plain old history?

Jenny Shaw, who is researching a new book project on five early modern women who lived on the same seventeenth-century Barbados plantation, offered this:

I think that examining the women’s lives serially, and connecting them to one another, provides an opportunity to expose the various kinds of power they wielded, as well as to explore the ways in which they were disempowered. This illuminates a politics of power at work in the colonies that centers women and refutes the notion that only men in this time and place could be political beings.

I’ve also been musing on something that Lisa Lindsay and John Wood Sweet note in their introduction to Biography and the Black Atlantic. They point out that cradle-to-grave narratives are almost impossible to recreate for people of African descent because of the ways those individuals were forced to confront “violent loss, subordination, and tragic failure” (8). For enslaved women of color this is especially true. Reconstructing an entire lifetime of experiences forces us to rely on a methodology that finds a fragmentary record not just acceptable, but necessary, as I think Marisa Fuentes has shown. And so, as I’ve progressed with this project, I have increasingly found myself drawn to Susannah as the person around whom I want to center the narrative. I want to show that she is a subject worthy of a biography, even as I use the lives of the other women as counters to, echoes of, and support for the experiences that she had. … Despite all I do not know about her I still think it is possible to write a biography of Susannah, to shape the violence and losses and failures of her life into a narrative that exposes her power and her politics.

Crouch added this reflection inspired by her current research into 1868 Magdala Campaign in Ethiopia:

Working with women and children, most of them people of color, and thinking about them biographically made me critical of how we craft biographies that recover individual experiences. Recovery is an excellent thing, yes, but often the intervention being made by the biography rests on the claim of “making a life visible/accessible once again.” In an explanation of her choices as novelist and story crafter, Toni Morrison explained, “Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.” Many biographies that focus on a non-white individual and that end with “recovery” reinforce the white gaze Morrison’s quote critiqued. A different type of problem arises when using overwhelming, dense, multi-state archives that claim to preserve and render tangible specific individual experiences but in fact, as I have found with my research around Magdala, erase the marginal and alter the prominent. My decision to take up the challenge of writing and integrating a dozen biographies from a single event allows a means to counter these issues.

These comments raise questions as to where to draw the line on biography (which subjects) and the possibilities created and curtailed when drawing those lines (what types of historical knowledge). Per the above remarks on sources, it may well be that the risks taken by authors engaged in different forms of life writing are not as big as once thought. The power of biography might be increased when an author moves away from the more traditional models of the form—i.e., the big book on the well-known subject with a massive archive. These shifts in subject and method certainly make biography exciting, challenging, and new.

Some Conclusions

The comments gathered in this post certainly give authors and editors a lot about which to think.

My immediate thoughts return to the reciprocal relationship between biography and history that Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed suggested. I do not think there is much chance that we will stop talking about biography as a discrete form of writing and there will still be biography sections in bookstores. Yet it would pay to consider how biography is but one mode of historical narration positioned along a continuum of narrative forms. Similarly, as authors address new subjects in and through life writing—both neglected individuals and perhaps subjects that are not properly individuals—it will be useful to hold in mind the promise of returning with new methods to well-known subjects. (Here Annette and Peter’s work in “The Most Blessed of Patriarchs” is an excellent point of reference.) Biography can be about many people and done in many ways; the form is not a rigid set of imperatives that determines subject, method, and audience.

Maybe, then, we do not need to be leery of biography, put the term in inverted commas, or write so-called anti-biographies. Perhaps we just need more and more biographies, collectively using a plurality of methods and addressing a variety of subjects. Each such biography would demonstrate the variety that is imminent in the form.

Select List of Biographies

Christian Ayne Crouch, Queen Victoria’s Captives: A Story of Ambition, Empire, and a Stolen Ethiopian Prince (manuscript in progress).

Annette Gordon-Reed, Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton, 2008).

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, “The Most Blessed of Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination (Liveright, 2016).

Ann M. Little, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, 2016).

Michael Leroy Oberg, Uncas: First of the Mohegans (Cornell University Press, 2003).

Catherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Three Hills, 2018).

Peter S. Onuf, Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire (LSU Press, 2018).

Timothy J, Shannon, Indian Captive, Indian King: Peter Williamson in America and Britain (Harvard University Press, 2018).

Jenny Shaw, The Planter’s Progeny: Family and the Formation of an Atlantic World, 1660-1760 (manuscript in progress).

Sheila L. Skemp, First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

Rosemarie Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution, 2nd Edition (Wiley-Blackwell 2015).


Michael J. McGandy is senior editor and editorial director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press.


( You can see that even my Samsung does not want to go back.)
Ken Lockridge  •  October 30, 2018
Nice discussion, nice quotes. For me, biography turned out to be where "history" and the individual met, and neither was ever quite the same again. And of course, as Jenny Pulisfer said, "Biography was once the story of mastery. Now, for me, it is often the story of humility." Being made modest again, and surprised, and humble, has made us all better historians. Any confusion or multiciplicity the new history or biography produce, is worth the gain in humanity in ourselves and in our stories. I would not go ba4c8k
Ken Lockridge  •  October 30, 2018

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