Writing Biography or Life History in the 90s Discussion (Sept 1996)

Query From Shelly McKellar mckellar@epas.utoronto.ca 16 Sept 1996

I toss this out as a discussion among the scholarly community and I am most interested in hearing your comments. Please feel free to e-mail me directly ...or through h-women. I thank you in advance for helping me work through my concerns and approach to biography/life writing.

Writing Biography or Life History in the 90s

Is biography simply an outmoded genre for serious historians to consider? Is "life writing" a more sophisticated approach for the 90s? If so, what is the difference between biography and life writing? Where did the term "life writing" originate from? Did it come from women's history/sociology? How has biography or life writing been used in the field of women's history? How is it different from traditional genre of biography? What can I learn from that to apply to my work?

As someone grappling with many criticisms from my peers for "doing biography", I have had several discussions with others on the validity of doing biography in the 90s. I am currently working on a biography of a Toronto surgeon, Gordon Murray (1894-1976), and hope that this history of his life will illuminate twentieth century changes in surgery, medical funding and research facilities in Canada. In the field of medical history, there are many biographies of doctors, surgeons, nurses, public health officials, hospital superintendents, etc. The range in content and quality is wide, but there are some "good" biographies in terms of offering a larger context or raising particular issues or movements of their times. More often that not, the "life and times" of a particular individual is often just the "life"--and often a non-critical, full glorification of the wonderful and selfless contributions of the individual. For that reason, medical history biographies are often viewed as hagiography and publishers simply don't want them.

Yet it seems to me that people like to read biographies. I know I do. So why the "hard sell" among the scholarly community? Most of you have certainly read your share of good biographies as well as bad ones.

Here are some questions that I've been asking myself:

What makes a good biography?

Is there such a thing as a bad biography?

How do biographies fit into the "big historical picture?"

What is the difference between life writing and biography?

How does the genre of biography fit into 90s history--that is, in the continued emphasis on social history, or cultural history, does biography still have a place? If so, has the genre changed somewhat?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on biography or life writing.


>From Ellen Jordan jordan@psychology.newcastle.edu.au 17 Sept 1996

I don't know if this is the kind of response wanted, but I thought you might like to know the rather different way life histories are used in Sociology. Here the approach is not to look at a single biography but at the 'life histories' of a connected group. The origin of the method is usually credited to Thomas and Zanniecki's 1918 study The Polish Peasant where they used letters to recreate the lives of Polish immigrants to America and then generalised about the culture from which they came and how they adjusted to the new society.

Today the usual method is to get accounts of people's lives as they are told to the researcher in a semi-structured interview and then generalise from them. One notable Australian researcher, R.W. Connell has recently published work on masculinity based on life history interviews with two contrasting groups, one young men in the Green Movement, the other long-term unemployed recruited at a job centre. A postgraduate of mine just finished a thesis comparing male and female career paths with the intention of reconceptialising career based on life history interviews with a group of men and women who attended a primary school for 'gifted' children in Sydney in the mid-1950s.

>From David Doughan doughan@lgu.ac.uk 19 Sept 1996

A few random thought about biography in general (the term is, of course, just "life writing" translated into Greek): I'm always puzzled as to why many historians regard it with disdain. Of course, it is possible to have a thoroughly bad, i.e. ill-researched, inaccurate and generally unscholarly biography, but I've seen a fair number of purported works of history of which the same can be said. Quite apart from any literary or "inspirational" function, I think it is important to get detailed accounts of as many individual women (prominent or not) as possible on the record. There are enough structural factors which go towards hiding women from history without adding a reluctance to tell about their lives. Over here in Britain a fair number of women's historians are currently cooperating with a major scholarly publishing project: the revision from ground up of The Dictionary of National Biography, to be known as (surprise!) The New Dictionary of National Biography. In the past the DNB tended to concentrate on lives of the Great and Good (women, of course, by definition were neither), and the editors of the New DNB are attempting to redress this by making it far more inclusive-women are a priority. Granted, this is restricted to women (and men) who are considered in some way "noteworthy", but criteria of noteworthiness have expanded somewhat, and at the minimum this should result in a work of national record challenging the "women and other minorities" outlook. It should also be a useful tool for basic information on a range of women, as a starting point for research, and as an aid to a prospographic approach (but that's another story). If anyone wants to know more about this project, the address to email is: newdnb@oup.co.uk

>From Sheila Rae Phipps srphip@mail.wm.edu 19 Sept 1996

Since I am also working on a biography, Shelley McKellar's query prompted me to think about the value of my work. Here are some of my thoughts regarding the seriousness of biographies, and the validity of using a new term such as "life writing".

I am researching the life of Mary Greenhow Lee, a woman who has left quite a detailed account of the Civil War as it was waged in her town, Winchester, Virginia. Other historians have used her journal, in concert with several more, to support their theories regarding the effect of the Civil War on southern women. I have noticed a few instances, however, where, if her words had been taken in context, including her motivations, her personality, and the circumstances surrounding her observations, they would have been useless in support of the theory. For this reason, I believe that biographies are useful in softening the lines of historical theories, adding in the complexities that are the stuff of human beings.

In fact, one of the best biographies I've read in some time is This Little Light of Mine, the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, written by Kay Mills, a journalist. If forced to name a single work that increased my understanding of the civil rights movement from the inside out, it would be this one. In this case, it seems the beauty of the biography is to let one voice explain how the mix of personality, caught up in the momentum of a movement, can keep a person involved despite enormous odds against her. Every choir uses a soloist occasionally.

Regarding the term "life history," I fail to see the difference since the definition of "biography," according to Webster's , is "written history of a person's life." It seems to me that the benefit in using biography for historiographical purposes is to show how that one person's life fits in with the rest, not just as a contribution to the whole, but as a part of it. If the subject seems exceptional, then his/her life should be portrayed as an antithetical element in society, not as a life in isolation. If "life history" will give Mary Lee's life a more serious consideration, however, I will go with the flow and adopt the term. Hope this helps. Taking a more intense look at the worthiness of my project has sure helped me. Thanks.

>From Lori Askeland askeland@kuhub.cc.ukans.edu 23 Sept 1996

I am a member of the "lifewriting" division of the MLA and I was for two years the managing editor for a/b:auto/biography studies, "a journal of scholarship devoted to autobiography, biography, diaries, letters and relations between lifewriting and other discourse." Perhaps that description makes clear the origins of the term "lifewriting" which, in my discipline (English), is used as a catch-all term for all those various ways of writing about lives, without having to list them all, i.e. it is a way of being inclusive in a discipline where those kind of generic distinctions are especially important. FYI, one issue of the journal, Fall, 1993, was devoted to "feminist biography"; I happen to know that it sold out, but they will sell you a photocopy of the issue or they could also tell you which libraries near you have it so you can examine it. (The editor of that issue is planning a book.) BTW, that issue contains an essay you might find interesting, by Lynn Z. Bloom about writing a bio of Dr. Spock (i.e., the baby doctor).

I think in English part of the distrust for biography, which has always been important as part of literary criticism, comes from the modern theoretical debate about the status of the "individual" and the "self" which are, as you know, conflicted terms. Autobiography has really benefited from this debate, and many autobiographies make explicit their biographical nature: the way they have to tell other people's lives to tell their own. Biographies are bestsellers, people read them. (My interest in lifewriting stems in part from my grandparents belief that you shouldn't read anything that isn't "true".) Scholars, however, I think haven't come to terms with the complexity of the biographer's position, other than to say that in writing biography one can't help also writing autobiography. Perhaps that sense of "contamination" is what makes historians skittish about biography.

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