Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943

Nigel Hamilton

 

CoverHoughton Mifflin Harcourt
June 7, 2016
ISBN-10: 0544279115
ISBN-13: 978-0544279117
480 pages
27.99 euros

 

 

(Courtesy of the Biography Institute website)

Although many biographies have been written about Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), they have largely ignored or dismissed his command of all U.S. Armed Forces throughout the global conflict we call the Second World War.

Since the role of Commander in Chief in peace and war is one of the essential tasks of a U.S. President – mandated by its Constitution – and since that role has been exercised with both success and failure over the past seventy years of American global hegemony since his death, this dearth is a surprising gap in our biographical understanding and knowledge. Was America’s military victory in World War II only attributable to its generals and admirals – men like Marshall, MacArthur, Leahy, Arnold, King, Nimitz, Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley? Was Churchill really the architect and strategic mastermind behind the Allied winning of the war – as Churchill painted his own performance in his great six-volume memoir, The Second World War, which helped win him the Nobel Prize for Literature after the war?

Clearly, the death of Franklin Roosevelt from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, several weeks before the fall of Adolf Hitler, was a calamity for his biography as the dominant military leader of the western Allies, for the President had fully intended to write his war memoirs, and had already begun assembling the materials. He had, after all, rallied his country after defeat at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and had been the ultimate figure responsible for turning that misfortune into military victory – victory that then permitted the United States to become the world’s foremost postwar superpower, for good and ill.

This biography seeks to re-examine and more deeply research the character, modus operandi, decisions, relationships and true role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – who often called himself an ‘obstinate old Dutchman’ – as U.S. Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States in World War II.

…Read more (redirecting to the Biography Institute website)

Also listen to Public Radio of New Orleans:

The Reading Life With Nigel Hamilton

JUN 21, 2016

What Next?

 By Nigel Hamilton
téléchargement

Asked to write something for the 30th anniversary issue of Auto/Biography Studies on the theme “What Next?” I first balked, then wrote something. Was thanked and was then asked gently to get to the point, i.e. where we are going. So reluctantly I added more, looking ahead….

How, though, convey in a few words the rich field that is opening before our very eyes – but to which, as academics, we cannot do justice, since biography is still not accepted as its own interdisciplinary field in the academy?

               I couldn’t – or only summarily.

One of the most promising and exciting areas of biographical study, I predict, though, will be the no-man’s land between biographical fact and fiction – a land that is continually increasing in mass.

I have not seen reliable statistics but I would wager that, over the past dozen years, the number of real-life, named figures in fiction has doubled, at the very least – and is now increasing exponentially. If we include screen (biopics), stage dramas (thesbios), as well as romans à clef, based-on real characters, (parabios) we could be talking revolution. As in Lin-Miranda’s latest play Hamilton which has been sensationally successful on Broadway and – like a boomerang – is now arcing back as a best-selling book.

Creative writing teachers are already fascinated by this shapeshifting, in a world where all kinds of boundaries are easing, even disappearing. But what are we, as students of biography, doing to teach this phenomenon, and the many questions it raises for biography?

What exactly, we ask ourselves, is really going on? Are novelists running out of characters to invent? Or is the public fascination with celebrities – at least in the West – such that novelists and their publishers are retreating, pour mieux sauter: reckoning that the stories biographers relate are stranger or stronger than fiction, and can be exploited in fiction, or dramatization? Are they trading, literally, on the dropping of names the public will recognize, and be curious about such fictionalized, dramatized stories – a first pivot or sales guarantee in their pocket?

               Surely, though, it must go deeper than this?

One avenue of research the Société de Biographie might sponsor or encourage is the interviewing of fiction-writers – asking them directly: why are you choosing to present real people in your fiction so much today? Do you not see a possible danger, in that you may – if you are not a serious biographer – completely misunderstand, or may misconstrue the real life of the individual you portray? How do you think this will impact our culture and society? (For example, Hilary Mantel, in Wolf Hall, her fictional portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the chief of staff to King Henry VIII.) Do you even care, if it allows you to create an artistic masterpiece? (And be paid better, in the process, for having chosen a celebrity.) What exactly causes you to take that risk today?

I am no novelist, so am unwilling to guess. Nevertheless I love reading fiction – especially as an antidote, even escape, from my clinical study of real lives. So I find myself intrigued – unwilling to be too judgmental as a biographer, or biographer trained as an historian. When I read stories or accounts of prominent novels’ backstories in a newspaper – especially where the subjects are, or were, real people – I find myself intrigued.

One such article appeared this week in the New York Times. It was titled (in the print edition) “Childhood Fixation Becomes a Novel,” and its subtitle was “Emma Cline’s Manson Obsession.”

Emma is all of 27. Her debut novel is The Girls. Interviewed by Alexandra Alter, Ms. Cline said she traces her obsession back to the age of 7, when her parents used to drive her past San Quentin State Prison, where Charles Manson is still incarcerated. “That’s Manson’s House,” they’d say.

True to the tide of feminism and postfeminism sweeping our culture these past five decades, Emma was more curious about Manson’s “willing executioners” – his female acolytes – than about the psychopathic cult leader himself. “I felt everyone had heard enough of that story,” she told Ms. Alter. The monster’s “accomplices and devotees seemed like footnotes in his story,” she protested. She had lived in a small, commune-like family herself, with seven siblings – “extremely chaotic and feral,” as she put it. After failing to make much headway as an actress, she went to Columbia University’s MFA creative writing program – and The Girls was the result, garnering a million-dollar advance and screen rights sold on the way.

I, of course, would like to know more about this aspect of invention (and Ms. Cline). Where, though, can I study the business of being a biographer, in the same way as Ms. Cline learned at Columbia to be a novelist? Why are there no similar schools and programs for aspiring biographers, fascinated by truth?

But back to the point: the way true-life stories or potential stories are becoming the go-to dinner for aspiring fiction writers. According to Ms. Alter of the New York Times, Emma Cline’s novel The Girls is “arriving in the middle of a new wave of Manson-themed entertainment” – with Mansons’ Lost Girls, a TV-drama broadcast only last February, and a forthcoming TV series called “Aquarius,” about a fictional detective investigating Manson…. Plus two feature films on Manson already in the works!

Most will rely on the work of real biographers of real people, such as Jeff Gunn’s 2013 Manson – or, in Miranda’s case, Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. How ironic, then, that Ms. Cline’s and Mr. Miranda’s productions will become the stuff of Columbia University MFA dissection, as time goes on – but no-one, in the academy, will be examining such translations in terms of biography and the quest for truth!

Why are we, who are devoted to biography and the study of real lives, not teaching this phenomenon from our standpoint, as guardians of the search for the true stories of our own and of others’ lives in our modern culture (however tough the search for truth)?

Where are colleges and universities in the bid not only to examine popular culture, but to preserve, if possible, certain aspects crucial to our humanity – to truth as opposed to myth (however seductive, interesting or artistic the myth)?

As I ended my short piece for Auto/Biography Studies: “In biography’s house there are many mansions. One day real students will, I hope, be encouraged to enter.”

Nigel Hamilton

Nigel Hamilton is author of Biography: A Brief History (2007), and How To Do Biography: A Primer (2008). Dr. Hamilton is Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Letter from Richmond, VA (BIO CONFERENCE 2016)

BIOGRAPHERS INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION
7th ANNUAL CONFERENCE
June 4,  with smaller events June 3 and 5
By Nigel Hamilton

The seventh annual Biographers International Conference was held téléchargementthis year in Richmond, Virginia – the former capital of the Confederacy. The final resting place, too, of its brief President, Jefferson Davis.

The city is still full of statues to those long-departed proponents of slavery, so the breakfast plenary session was especially moving: a conversation between Annette Gordon-Reed, the black professor and biographer who in the 1990s bravely “outed” President Jefferson as the lover of his black slave, Sally Hemmings, and father of her children, and T.J. Stiles. T.J. who not only won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography last year, but for History this year! I shall be most upset if it was not recorded, for I have seldom heard a more intelligent, insightful and inspiring discussion of the writing of biography by distinguished practitioners of the craft in my life.

That conversation – as several hundred registrants scoffed less-than-French-quality croissants and sipped less-than-Dutch-quality coffee – set the tone for what became another almost miraculous day for biography. Half a century ago, when I began writing, there was no status for biography in academia, and no organization to bring practicing or aspiring biographers together anywhere in the world, to my knowledge. Every aspirant had, in those days, to make it (the construction of a work of biography) up for himself, usually by imitating current and past biographies – which naturally led to endlessly unoriginal approaches to the genre, and its further denigration in the academy, world-wide.

Now that has all changed – as I’ve instanced in an essay that will appear in Hans Renders’ and Binne de Haan’s forthcoming volume, The Biographical Turn. There I argue that biography is today more imaginatively presented but also more forensically focused and scholarly than most history that is being written – despite the fact that biography is still not being taught as a field of study in our universities! {“Biography as Corrective,” the essay was called, and it was Part One of my recent Ph.D. dissertation Defense at Groningen University. At a lonely table with just a microphone and my printed thesis I was opposed on every side by the esteemed, international committee for daring to argue such a view. Since the dozen “opponenti” were historians, my point was, however, all too self-evident! In any event, they were too kind, or ashamed, to fail me; in fact they awarded me the rare distinction of “cum laude,” which I surely don’t deserve.)

The Richmond gathering of aspiring and published biographers, for its part, got underway in the bowels of the Marriott Hotel with panels on a variety of subjects, from Narrative Strategies to Research Resources, Choosing a Subject to Writing a Proposal. All very practical, with experience, curiosity and a desire to learn lighting up the rooms. Then at lunchtime the great English biographer Claire Tomalin was introduced by Stacy Schiff as the keynote speaker and recipient of the BIO award for her contribution to the art and craft of biography. Stacy – herself a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and BIO Award winner – speaks so well, so articulately, and with such respect for good writing and dedicated scholarship that she could almost have been giving the keynote speech herself – as she did two years ago. It was thus a double delight to those of us who love articulate thought and admire fine writing to hear a second, and in its gentle way even more beautiful speech from Claire Tomalin, if that were possible, peppered with Samuel Pepys, Dr. Johnson and Dickens, as well as the women who, pace Johnson, might have been considered “ordinary” compared to their illustrious spouses and companions, yet to us today offer such a rich and human window on the past.

Oh, Lord, after so months of Loudmouth Trump – perhaps the most ignorant and narcissistic individual ever to have posed as being worthy to be President of the United States and Commander in Chief of its Armed Forces – to hear a gentle biographer talk with such, well, humanity and learned, human kindness.

All too soon the ballroom was cleared, the panels resumed (my good self talking – though less articulately – with Andrew Lownie and Kitty Kelley about “Family Biography” and its attendant ills and challenges, legal and literary). Finally, at 4:15 p.m. the ballroom filled again, this time with printed signs on the tables designating common themes or topics which biographers might, like flies, gather around to discuss among themselves pour une heure. (Pas plus, on nous a dit.)

In some ways that was the highlight, for me – if highlight may be said to encompass biographizing at basement level. I moderated a table of aspiring and published authors interested in topics of pre-1945 U.S. history.

I led the discussion in the same fashion that we have developed in the two writers’ groups to which I humbly belong: the Boston Biographers Group, and the New Orleans Non-Fiction Biographers Group. No-one there is allowed to talk about their previous books, only about their current project. Each writer introduces himself or herself, explains what he or she is tackling, and where he or she is, currently, in the project – allowing any of the others around the table to offer thoughts, insights, practical advice and support.

In more than fifty years of devotion to biography I do not know of a better way to encourage biographers to shed their isolation (since biography is, de facto, a lonely and obsessive undertaking) and feel part of a larger enterprise: the re-examining, exploring and revealing of real lives.

               The Plutarch Award was then awarded (to Canadian biographer Rosemary Sullivan for her wonderful biography Stalin’s Daughter), together with awards for excellence in separate categories. With that the day’s formal activities came to a close.

It felt strange that the capital cities of Richmond and Washington D.C. had been but a hundred miles from each other for the duration of the Civil War – two cities symbolizing such different views of humanity and society. And yet here we are again, in the U.S., fighting what is, in effect, an uncivil war.

A war of words and invective; of myth and artful narrative; of partisan loyalties; of competing individuals whose biographers will one day have to peel away the hype and protective coatings to get at the truth of who they really were – wer sie eigentlich gewesen waren – and in what context. Moreover, from the point of view of narrative, how the story of their struggle actually turned out.

               Vivat Biography!

Nigel Hamilton

First President, Biographers International Organization (BIO)
Honorary President, The Biography Society
Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston

The Boston Globe – Review of Commander in Chief : Saga of how FDR worked the shortsighted Churchill on war strategy

Commander in Chief: FDR's Battle with Churchill, 1943 (FDR at War)

Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

Upcoming events at the Biography Society

AUGUST 2016

SEMINAR “BIOGRAPHY”

 ESSE 2016, 22-26 AUGUST IN GALWAY

logo ESSE

This seminar invites contributions to the study of biography as a genre, considering that it raises specific issues that distinguish it from autobiography. It would equally be interested in approaches to the practice of biography as a method of academic research, from microhistory to literature and cultural studies. For instance, individual papers may address theoretical questions, case studies of particular biographers’ works, the history and the poetics of biography, the impact of the biographical turn, the evolution of biographical dictionaries, or the innovative influences of the biopic and digital humanities.

Full presentation and programme

JUNE 2016

SAES Conference 2-4 June 2016

Biography Studies Workshop

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The Biography Society will be taking part in the SAES conference (Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur ), 2-4 June 2016 at Lyon III University .

 

“Biography Studies: An Interdisciplinary Confluence”

Since the end of the last century, a “biographical turn” has occurred in the Humanities, which, after several decades that have been dominated by the “death of the subject”, place the human individual once again at the heart of debates. The development of researches on autobiography and autofiction in literary studies, the methodology of life writing in the social sciences, have characterized the first phase of this movement. Today, Biography Studies appear as a dynamic emerging field, under way of theorization. Researchers in many countries and various disciplines turn to studying the hitherto underestimated genre of biography. Contemporary literature and cinema display a remarkable interest for biofiction and the biopic. In history, biography asserts itself as an innovating mode of historiography. Researchers of several disciplines are pulling together around the recently founded Biography Society (www.biographysociety.org), to animate this new research field and to contribute to its theorization.

Full presentation

 

MAY 2016

JOURNÉE D’ÉTUDES : “ECRITURES BIOGRAPHIQUES” 27 MAI 2016

Study day: “Biographical writings” – 27 May 2016

allsh_cmjn

logo-lerma-rvb-1  IrAsia

Aix-Marseille Université
Maison de la recherche, AMU-ALLSH
29 av. Robert Schuman 13621 Aix-en-Provence

(English below)

Présentation

Cette journée d’études se donne pour objectif principal de réunir des enseignants-chercheurs, chercheurs et doctorants dont les travaux portent sur les écritures biographiques au sens large.  Le périmètre concerné se situe à l’intérieur de la Fédération CRISIS, avec des ouvertures sur la Faculté ALLSH et des invités français et étrangers. Il s’agit essentiellement de comparer et de faire se rencontrer les démarches actuellement mises en œuvre dans plusieurs disciplines pour faire avancer la recherche dans le champ émergent des études biographiques, qui fait l’objet d’une attention toute particulière au sein des Humanités. Cette journée d’étude s’inscrit dans une dynamique avec plusieurs autres organisés à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur de cette Université.

Présentation détaillée et programme

(English)
This study day will bring together researchers and PhD students from the Fédération CRISIS, as well as other Faculty members from ALLSH-AMU and other universities, whose work relate to biographical texts. The main aim is to share and compare the approaches developed in various disciplines in the Humanities, all of which are contributing to the emerging field of biographical studies.

Full presentation and programme

Biography Institute : The Impact of Presidential Biography : Correcting Historiography and Entering Public Political Debates

Workshop

Friday 29 April, 2016
Time: 14.00-17.00 h
Location: Academy Building, University of Groningen, room A7
Registration (free): biografie.instituut@rug.nl

Biography Institute

 

(Program below)

This workshop will present contributions on the subject of presidential biography: an important but also contested subgenre of biography. Contributions will discuss the history and extent of this genre, its role in historical and political sciences, and as ‘anchor points’ in the public sphere (historiography and political opinion/ideology, the ownership of history). This workshop is a kick off for an edited volume on Presidential Biography, to be published by Brill in the series ‘Biography Studies’ (Nigel Hamilton and Douglas Brinkley, eds.)

Firstly, the volume will provide an overview of American presidential biography by defining and assessing it internationally. What is a presidential biography, who are its authors? Do they deal with presidents who are still alive, or who have passed away? How many presidential biographies were published in the U.S., compared with biographies of presidents/national leaders abroad, and what are the differences? Can we assess changes in the popularity of the genre? What is/was their impact at home, and abroad in translation or foreign editions? Can we distinguish national variations and typicalities (e.g. how much do presidential biographies pay attention to foreign issues versus domestic?)

Methodological questions and the status of presidential biography within the academic sphere will be addressed. What types of biography can we distinguish in presidential biography? What examples are there of partial biography in presidential life studies? Is this a growing trend, and if so, why? What kind of subjects and knowledge fields have been associated with lives of presidents (viz. economics, government, poverty, civil rights, environment, conservation, immigration, diplomacy, military power and strategy)? Naturally, presidential biographies deal primarily with their subject in terms of the presidency as the pinnacle of a political career, whether it came after elective office in Congress or the Governor’s Mansion, focusing on the course of their public acts and behavior. But what do biographers reveal of the personal as well as the public – and how do they integrate into their accounts the social and former backgrounds of presidents?

The American presidential biographer Nigel Hamilton, one of the editors of the volume, has stated that biography should be considered as an important genre that can correct existing historical interpretations. In what way and in what aspects can the presidential biographer as a biographer-historian correct historical interpretations? Should the biographer-historian be seen as someone who enters political debates, when writing a presidential biography – i.e advancing a political-historiographical agenda?

The role of presidential archives, and the biographical/microhistorical aspects of research, sources and oral history will also be examined.

Presidential biographies can have significant political and societal implications: reception; changing reputation; malleable icons (positive and negative) for subsequent politicians and generations. Can the political effectiveness of presidential biographies in various countries be assessed on a case-by-case basis? The volume emphatically seeks to investigate the role of presidential biographies in the sphere of public opinion. In what way may the biographer-historian be seen as a ‘judge’; what is the role of the presidential biographer, if any, in the active public political arena? Can examination of this role offer insight into larger questions of the ‘ownership of history,’ and collective relationships with the past?

Another important contribution of the volume will be the hitherto seldom-explored aspect of ‘comparative biography.’ By addressing specific examples, comparisons can be made between presidential biographies, as a subgenre of biography; between different presidents as they are portrayed, compared and judged within a single presidential biography, reflecting authorial bias; and comparisons between different biographies, over time, of a single president, and the implications of this. Group biographies of presidents can also be compared. This makes it possible to trace recent changes/developments in presidential biography as a whole (from commemorative to critical), but also developments/changes in the interpretation of a single president and the president’s acts.

Finally the post-presidency will be addressed in presidential biography.

In sum, the volume will offer a fresh, broad and illuminating insight into presidential biography, at a time when the role of the U.S. president is still of major historical importance, domestically and globally.

Program

14.00 Opening by honorary chairman Prof. Hans Renders (ICOG/Biography Institute/University of Groningen)

14.00-14.20 ‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the founding of the United Nations’ Nigel Hamilton (University of Massachusetts Boston)

14.20-14.40 ‘Presidential Biography and the Civil Rights Movement, 1950-1980’ Prof. Doeko Bosscher (University of Groningen)

14.40-15.00 ‘Two biographers of François Mitterrand: Pierre Péan and Jean Lacouture’ Prof. Joanny Moulin (Aix-Marseille Université; president of The Biography Society/Société de Biographie)

15.00-15.20 ‘Heads of State: The Impact of Presidential Biography on Public Opinion’ Dr. Binne de Haan (ICOG/Biography Institute/University of Groningen)

15.20-15.45 Coffee/tea break

15.45-16.05 ‘Some Personal Glimpses of Recent American Presidents’ Dr. David Chanoff (Boston College)

16.05-16.25 ‘Mission-X: Jelle Zijlstra’s quest to undo the Nixon-shock’ Jonne Harmsma, MA (ICOG/Biography Institute/University of Groningen)

16.25-16.55 ‘Legitimate and illegitimate leaders: When heads of state become symbols’ Dr. Lindie Koorts (University of the Free State, South-Africa)

 

"Biography Theory & Practice" is the blog of a research network in biographical studies<hr />"Biography Theory & Practice" est le carnet d'un réseau de recherche en études biographiques.