by Nigel Hamilton
Historians have been skeptical about biography since they invented it. By the same token biographers have been skeptical of historians.
Plutarch, in his life of Alexander the Great, felt impelled to remind readers he was writing “biography not history.” Histories, he pointed out, often told nothing of a “man’s character,” focusing rather on the facts of whether or not he won his battles. In his life of Timoleon, Plutarch rhapsodized on the joy he experienced in writing biography – treating history as a kind of mirror in which he could “adorn my own life by imitating the virtues of the men whose actions I have described. It is as though I could talk with the subjects of my Lives and enjoy their company every day.” Samuel Johnson later echoed that sentiment, but extended it to include both the “virtues and the vices” from which a thoughtful reader might learn.
For six years now, for my own part, I’ve been breaking bread with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not only am I glad to share his company in World War II, but I want others to, for the first time – since no historian has yet managed it. Moreover, in terms of lessons learned, I’m keen to show historians how for the most part they have wholly misunderstood FDR in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. Far from being the laid-back, avuncular leader who left his generals to direct the war – as well his ally Winston Churchill – FDR was, I argue, the strategic mastermind and the patient military director or conductor of the Allies’ victory in World War II. As I’m seeking to narrate, he was almost constantly having to overrule his generals. And most importantly of all, he was having almost constantly to put down the strategic insurrections or rebellions of his crucial but junior ally and self-declared “lieutenant,” Winston Spencer Churchill.
Some historians – especially those bought up on Churchill’s self-laudatory six-volume war memoirs, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature – are reluctant to accept my somewhat radical biographical reconstruction of the war, and of FDR’s commanding role in its military prosecution. At my doctoral defense last spring, at Groningen University, one professor – a distinguished historian – noted that he, personally, was convinced by the forensic detail and authority of my revisionist approach. He posited that the reason Churchill and his supporters in the history profession had gotten away for so long with such a flawed account of the prime minister’s primacy in the direction of World War II might best be explained by what he called “structural” reasons.
How right he was – and is!
One such wall that the revisionist biographer must scale is patriotic pride. Another is accepted dogma. A third is the personal stake people may have in a given interpretation. A fourth is the lack of evidence to counter myth. And so on….
All revisionist work must encounter such “structural” defense, or counterreformation, as it might be called – in fact I’m sure it’s little different in other areas of knowledge. A new proposition in science, say, or paleontology, or biology, will rarely be welcomed without fierce opposition – especially where professional reputations are at stake. In history, too. But biography is, I think, on an especially contentious ground, structurally and culturally. Just as Plutarch extolled the pleasures of his subjects’ company, so too do aficionados and supporters of a revered individual – and who feel threatened by revisionism.
In reevaluating Franklin Roosevelt as the true architect and director of military operations in World War II, in other words, I am bound to upset those who are wedded to the notion that it was the U.S. generals, not the U.S. President, who were chiefly responsible for strategy and victory in World II, as well as the many who stand by Winston Churchill’s magisterial account of his own leadership in his 6-volume account, The Second World War – namely the vast, colorful canvas Churchill painted in which it was he, not FDR, who was the strategic military genius behind the winning of WWII. And the first line of the structuralists’ defense of such a hero will always be to attack the factual basis, or evidence being put forward, in the revisionist case.
There are two aspects of this that I would like briefly to examine today. The first relates to what Hans Renders, in his forthcoming collection of essays on modern biography, calls “the biographical turn.”
Now in the late 1980s and early 1990s it became fashionable to decry the trend among modern biographers to write long, and in great forensic detail. As Lord Skidelsky put it, the “professionalization” of biography, especially among American university-led biographers, was leading to “works of scholarship rather than the imagination.” Janet Malcolm took up this claim in order to defend Ted Hughes, the husband of Sylvia Plath, in her 1994 investigation of biographers seeking to understand Plath, memorably accusing them of using “the apparatus of scholarship” to give “an appearance of bank-like scholarship and solidity, when the biography was nothing but a burglar, a busybody, a voyeur “simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.” Even thirty years later, long after Hughes had died, Ms. Malcolm was trumpeting his postmortal right to silence, by pointing to the errors in Professor Jonathan Bate’s new biography, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life.
In seeking to understand the “professionalization” of biography in recent years I’ve argued in my essay “Biography as Corrective” in the Biographical Turn, that far from being an effort to conceal the nefarious motives of burglars and voyeurs, the length and forensic detail a modern biographer feels he or she has to exhibit are professionally necessary to overcome the structuralist walls put up by opponents – the very likes of Ms. Malcolm! Lytton Strachey may have been successful in mocking the myths of his Victorian models in Eminent Victorians, but his amusing, succinct irony, without forensic new research, was ultimately found to be insufficient in a new century of scientific investigation to change people’s minds. Biographers have thus been forced to resort to ever higher levels of scholarship if they are to succeed in correcting historians’ structuralist defense mechanisms.
It was for this reason that, for the second volume of my “FDR at War” trilogy, I was grateful to the Biografie Instituut at Groningen University for offering me the chance to develop and present my manuscript in part for the university’s Ph.D. program, in order to ensure that, with their help, it would pass scholarly muster once the book met the inevitable structuralist defenders of the faith: those reviewers, readers and aficionados who cannot accept that the U.S. generals in World War II were dangerously wrong in 1942 and 1943, or who cannot accept that Winston Churchill was not the strategic genius of World War II that he claimed to be, after president Roosevelt was no longer alive to contest their versions.
The second aspect I would like to consider here is the possible analogy between modern biography and our justice system.
In order to better understand how the serious, revisionist biographer operates today it may be helpful for us to see him or her as a prosecuting attorney. The biographer, in this analogy, assembles a case to present to the jury – i.e. the reader and reviewer. He or she will have to be a master of rhetoric, and of detail. For the structuralist defense will do everything possible to question and discount the evidence the biographer produces – since otherwise, the defense’s client may go to jail!
Revisionist biography, in other words – especially biography that seeks to correct history – is not only an exercise in good, Ciceronian argument, it must take account of the likely methods that the defenders, or opponents, in the case will employ. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was the “dream team’s” famous mantra in the famous O.J. Simpson trial (referring to a blood-stained glove) – and it proved enough, together with efforts to question the factual evidence (DNA included) of the prosecuting attorney, Marcia Clark, to free the famous black footballer and broadcaster (though he was later convicted in civil court).
In another post I will look at the interesting way Commander in Chief, the second volume of my FDR trilogy, has fared before the jury since my PhD defense and publication.
For now, however, let me end by saying this. Revisionist biography – biography that has a moral agenda in contesting received opinion, and seeks to revise the current judgment of an individual in history, whether in the academy or in public – is a serious mission. Like the quality of our justice system as it is practiced, it has serious ramifications for the health of our society.
As proponents of the theory, justification and practice of biography in the modern world, members of the growing Biography Society have a noble purpose. In an age of Twitter, “professionalizing” biography is not a mask for burglary or voyeurism, pace Ms. Malcolm; it is a crucial, integral part of facing the many challenges – and ensuring the longevity – of the genre, today.
An award-winning historical biographer, Dr Nigel Hamilton is currently a senior fellow at McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston.
He is the author of:
Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943 (2016)
The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942
American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush.
Biography: A Brief History
Montgomery: D-Day Commander
Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency
Bill Clinton: An American Journey
JFK: Reckless Youth
Monty: Final Years of the Field-Marshal, 1944-1976
Master of the Battlefield: Monty’s War Years
Monty: The Making of a General
 Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, The Biographical Turn [Routledge, forthcoming]