Letter from Richmond, VA (BIO CONFERENCE 2016)

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




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

saes_1398707163875-jpg (344×440)

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


Study day: “Biographical writings” – 27 May 2016


logo-lerma-rvb-1  IrAsia

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

(English below)


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

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


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.


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)


Publication : Signés Malraux : André Malraux et la question biographique

(English below)                

sous la direction de
Martine Boyer-Weinmann
et Jean-Louis Jeannelle


M. Boyer-Weinmann et J.-L. Jeannelle (dir.), Signés Malraux. André Malraux et la question biographique

Paris, Classiques Garnier, coll. Rencontres, 2016, 359 pages, 39 €
EAN : 9782812450983

Ces dernières années, de nombreuses publications ont éclairé d’un nouveau jour la puissance contemporaine du « mythe André Malraux ». N’est-ce pas lui qui décela dans Néocritique que l’individu avait atteint son apogée au xixe siècle (« de Rousseau à Napoléon, de Napoléon à Zarathustra, de celui-ci à Barrès et à Gide »), et diagnostiqua que, « soufflé par la bombe atomique », celui-ci se dissipait « en nous léguant la biographie » ? Cette réflexion collective est placée sous le signe intellectuellement complice de Jean-François Lyotard et de son Signé Malraux. Est ici interrogé le rapport éminemment contradictoire, fait de fascination et de répulsion, que Malraux entretint à la question biographique, et la passion plus ambiguë encore que sa propre existence n’a cessé d’alimenter, au risque souvent de masquer la complexité de son œuvre littéraire. 

Martine Boyer-Weinmann, professeur de littérature à l’université Lumière Lyon 2, dirige l’équipe de recherche « Passages XX-XXI ». Elle est l’auteur de La Relation biographique (Seyssel, 2005) et de Vieillir, dit-elle (Seyssel, 2013).

Jean-Louis Jeannelle, professeur à l’université de Rouen et membre de l’IUF, a publiéMalraux, mémoire et métamorphose (Paris, 2006) et Films sans images : une histoire des scénarios non réalisés de « La Condition humaine » (Paris, 2015). 

Publisher’s presentation – Classiques Garnier
Echoing Signé Malraux by Jean-François Lyotard, this collection explores Malraux’s eminently contradictory rapport, made up of fascination and repulsion, with the biographical question and the still more ambiguous passion that his own existence continued to feed, often at the risk of masking the complexity of his literary œuvre.


Martine Boyer-Weinmann, professor of Literature at Université Lumière Lyon 2, head of research program “Passages XX-XI”. Author of La Relation biographique (Seyssel, 2005) and of Vieillir, dit-elle (Seyssel, 2013).

Jean-Louis Jeannelle, professor at Université de Rouen, member of IUF (Institut Universitaire de France). Author of Malraux, mémoire et métamorphose (Paris, 2006) and of Films sans images : une histoire des scénarios non réalisés de « La Condition humaine » (Paris, 2015). 


Martine Boyer-Weinmann et Jean-Louis Jeannelle :  Introduction 


Jean-Claude Larrat : Malraux et son mythe (ou) Comment un écrivain échappa à sa biographie.

Si André Malraux découragea les intellectuels des années 1930 d’enquêter sur sa biographie, c’est parce que, chez beaucoup d’entre eux, le désir de mythes socialement efficaces l’emportait alors sur le désir de vérité historique. Mais dès 1933, André Malraux participe personnellement à la vie politique française et gage ainsi ses romans sur son action publique : il abandonne alors le dispositif fictionnel, grâce auquel il avait écarté, dans ses premiers romans, le regard biographisant.

– Gisèle Sapiro : Malraux entre champ littéraire et champ politique. 

La trajectoire d’André Malraux, écrivain devenu ministre de la Culture, est révélatrice de l’évolution des rapports entre champ littéraire et champ politique de 1920 à 1960. Elle dénote la politisation du champ littéraire et la constitution de la culture comme catégorie d’intervention publique. Ses compétences sur les cultures asiatiques et sa promotion du relativisme culturel, se trouvent reconverties dans le champ politique après la guerre.

– David Pettersen : Années 1930, la croisée des chemins. Lectures auto/biographiques et fictions polémiques.

Cet article s’appuie sur la multibiographie de Maurice Serra, Les Frères séparés(Paris, 2008), pour analyser le dandysme dans les romans politiques publiés durant les années 1930 par André Malraux, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle et Louis Aragon. Il repère les échos, les lectures, et les critiques réciproques entre ces trois « frères » et montre de quelle manière la mise en scène du dandysme conduit à réfléchir sur les liens entre engagement et écriture, et sur la valeur de la littérature.

– Hélène Baty-Delalande : Malraux/Drieu. « Faire époque » ? 

La référence à Drieu nourrit ou altère le propos biographique sur Malraux. Consonance tragique de deux vies, résonance troublante des parcours, malgré la dissonance évidente des choix éthiques et politiques, aux yeux des critiques et des biographes, reconnaissances équivoques de Drieu lecteur de Malraux : ces diverses façons de les rapprocher contribuent à la remythification paradoxale de chacun d’eux, promus ennemis chevaleresques ou hérauts contradictoires d’une génération perdue.

– Jacques Lecarme : La réduction au biographique. 

« Tomber sous le coup d’une biographie », c’est la hantise des héros d’André Malraux qui ne veulent pas s’y laisser réduire. Avec le livre posthume sur Thomas Edward Lawrence, Le Démon de l’absolu, André Malraux signe sa seule biographie. Cet article compare l’entreprise biographique de Malraux et les mémoires de Thomas Edward Lawrence, Les Sept piliers de la sagesse et montre que la biographie, comme genre, reste inférieure aux mémoires ; et la troisième personne à la première.


– Jonathan Barkate : Les témoins de Malraux.

Fasciné par André Malraux, son entourage a longtemps donné de lui une image mythique, confortée par l’écrivain lui-même dans son projet antimémorial. La typologie des témoins dans le temps dessine quatre périodes et révèle que le mythe ébauché dès les années 1940 s’est affirmé jusqu’après la mort d’André Malraux, bien que celle-ci ait libéré la parole de certains proches et marqué le début de la démythification.

– Lucas Demurger : La haine André Malraux. Rhétorique de l’antimalrucianisme après 1947.

Si tout au long de sa carrière André Malraux a suscité bien des admirations, il a également provoqué des manifestations de rejet haineux. La rhétorique de l’antimalrucianisme a ses thèmes et stéréotypes, ses théoriciens, ses variations idéologiques et ses déclinaisons plus contemporaines. Les différents textes évoqués esquissent ainsi une « contre-biographie » d’André Malraux, rivale aussi bien du discours hagiographique que des textes composant Le Miroir des limbes.

– Claude Travi : Quelle biographie pour l’artiste ?

Dans un texte de 1951 consacré à Jean Fautrier, André Malraux constatait : « Les biographies des artistes ne m’intéressent que par les événements – assez rares – qui modifient leur art. » Loin d’y voir une volonté de l’écrivain d’occulter son « petit tas de secrets », cet article développe le paradoxe qu’une biographie est le contraire de l’écriture, sauf si elle est imaginaire ou écrite par un autre artiste, et s’appuie sur l’exemple d’Octavio Paz écrivant celle de Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz.

– Dolorès Lyotard : L’hypothèse autographique de Jean-François Lyotard.

Quels arguments de pensée commandent la « biographie », Signé Malraux, donnée par Jean-François Lyotard ? Comment les « Quinze propositions pour une biographie de Malraux » dont il a accompagné son essai, éclairent-elles la genèse du livre ? Nous verrons que l’œuvre de Malraux obéit à un geste de signature, dit « autographe », réclamant que le corps de l’auteur soit appelé à vivre en ses limites, exige la vie contredite, voire sacrifiée puisque renommée sous la seule condition de ce que Malraux appelle création.

– Jean-Louis Jeannelle : Outre-tombe des Mémoires. 

La consultation des manuscrits de Signé Malraux révèle que Lyotard a écarté de sa biographie toute une réflexion sur la nature de son projet, inspirée desAntimémoires. Mon hypothèse est que le déséquilibre chronologique de Signé Malraux et son déplacement de différents enjeux théoriques dans Chambre sourderévèle chez Malraux une crise du mémorable ayant atteint son acmé dans les années 1970 et dont Le Miroir des limbes est à la fois l’expression et la résolution.

Annexe 1. Jean-François Lyotard, la mêlée : la guerre de Malraux.

Annexe 2. Jean-François Lyotard, quinze propositions pour une biographie de Malraux.

Annexe 3. Jean-François Lyotard, « La Vie de Malraux doit être lue comme recueil de légendes ».


– Laurent Douzou : « Tout commença par un mystère de légende ». Une relecture de l’oraison funèbre du 19 décembre 1964.

Puissante dans l’instant, restée vive dans la mémoire collective, l’oraison funèbre prononcée par André Malraux pour l’entrée de Jean Moulin au Panthéon, le 19 décembre 1964, est plus complexe qu’il y paraît. Cette éclatante commémoration fut, en réalité, aussi une cérémonie privée. Son ordonnancement comme la teneur du discours d’André Malraux peuvent être décryptés à un double niveau, celui d’une foule saisie par une rhétorique puissante, celui d’une poignée de compagnons réunis dans une intime communion.

– Nathalie Lemière-Delage : Le démon de la biographie. La tentation de T. E. Lawrence.

Cet article étudie cette tentative avortée que constitua Le Démon de l’absolu en s’attachant, d’une part, au biographé, avec un portrait nettement métaphysique ; d’autre part, au biographique, avec l’écriture de l’aventure lawrencienne, ainsi que la biographie en tant que genre spécifique, dont les contraintes furent analysées par André Malraux, puis rejetées parce qu’antithétiques à sa création. L’aporie sera dépassée par Antimémoires, qui doit beaucoup au Démon de l’absolu.

– Sylvie Howlett : « Pensez à ce que serait la biographie de Stavroguine ! ».

Pour justifier l’abandon du Démon de l’absolu, André Malraux ironise sur « ce que serait la biographie de Stavroguine ». Seul Dostoïevski aurait pu sublimer Les Sept Piliers et en faire le moteur d’une interrogation philosophique et compositionnelle. T.E. Lawrence se mue en personnage conceptuel et en idiot slave pour la fabrique du réel de la Révolte arabe. Ces concepts deleuziens éclairent la démarche de Malraux qui, par sa biofiction karamazovienne, trouve sa voix et la matrice d’Antimémoires.

– Myriam Sunnen : Les moutons de Giotto, la correspondance de Van Gogh et les pantoufles de Balzac. Malraux et les « vies d’artistes ». 

Après avoir montré à travers des passages de Néocritique que l’attitude de Malraux à l’égard de la biographie est moins négative qu’il ne l’a suggéré ailleurs, cet article se propose d’analyser la présence d’éléments biographiques dans les écrits esthétiques. Ils permettent en effet de comprendre les incompatibilités entre l’approche biographique de l’art et la conception malrucienne de la création, tout en témoignant de l’intérêt d’André Malraux pour certains aspects de la vie des grands peintres.

– Joël Loehr : « Le dernier Malraux ». 

« Une autre biographie va-t-elle se créer face à celle que nous connaissons ? », se demande André Malraux qui mesure l’échec de la biographie traditionnelle à l’heure où l’individu a été pulvérisé, le temps chronologique attaqué, l’ambition de totalisation périmée. Il a toujours récusé les philosophies du conditionnement qui soumettent l’œuvre à la vie. L’hétérobiographie qu’il appelle de ses vœux croise d’une part le genre immémorial du dialogue des morts, d’autre part le genre moderne du colloque.

Index des noms. 

Index des oeuvres.


(Source: Fabula.org – La Recherche en Littérature)

The Making of Modern Biography

by Nigel Hamilton

téléchargementAlong with the distinguished New Orleans biographer Patricia Brady (Martha Washington, Rachel Jackson, etc), I helped some time ago to found a New Orleans Non-Fiction Writers Group. In a city so famed for its musical as well as culinary heritage it seemed strange that there was, until then, no way to bring together biographers, memoirists, historians and essayists in a regular creative, constructive, mutually supportive community of fellow practitioners.

               I use the word creative advisedly. For what becomes apparent, when you sit in on one of our meetings, is the sense of being present at the creation: the creation, one by one, of completely new works of non-fiction literature.

               Each member of the group shares where he or she is “at” in his or her current enterprise: exposing the project to the critical response of peers, while sharing current difficulties, challenges, or breakthroughs. It is a deeply rewarding exercise, held for just two hours every month. Without it I would feel the poorer, since it reminds me in the most comforting way that, although mine may be a somewhat solitary vocation as a biographer, I am part of a larger, collective, creative literary endeavor.

I instance our quiet, somewhat private writers group (though it is open to all) because it confirms my belief that the Biography Society can, if all goes well, contribute to a better public understanding of the “creative” aspect not only of non-fiction writing, but of biography in particular. And by that, I mean the conceptual, generative, artistic and intellectual investment that goes into the making of a good biography, even a great one.

               It disappoints me, frankly, that we focus almost exclusive academic and educational attention upon fictional art: upon the creative process in fiction; upon artistry in fiction; upon its significance for us, as readers of fiction. And yet devote so little attention to modern biography, even though modern biographies are, in their way, often far more creative in their composition, more artistic in their narrative storytelling, and probably vastly more significant to us as readers, both personally and in terms of our society’s appreciation of the past, than most contemporary fiction!

               Participating in my writers groups in Boston and New Orleans I am privileged to watch the generative process, as it pertains to the creation of a non-fiction work. Over the months and years of development of a fellow member’s work I follow its initial, hesitant compositional molding, and the iterative, creative process that follows as the author struggles with the challenges and demands of the craft. Yet who in the world outside our groups is ever aware of that creative path leading to the finished work – the challenges faced, the battles fought over voice, narrative, source, insight, revelation, presentation?

Reviewers have a lot to answer for, as well as our teachers of literature.

Seldom if ever do reviewers identify, let alone comment on, the style or structure of our major biographies: the choices we have made in conveying personality, character, performance, failure, agency…. It is as if such works arrived ready-made, prêt à porter, in the literary market without genesis, without hesitation, without struggle. Moreover biographies are mostly seen and evaluated by such reviewers as information – preferably new. Or re-interpretation. Not, however, as a literary contribution to our culture. Which is sad.

How might we overcome this almost willful misunderstanding of biography in its literary, compositional mode in modern society – akin, say, to modern serious music?

               First off, literature departments in our universities could be urged, even shamed into paying the same attention to biographical texts as some have begun to do with certain kinds of non-fiction beyond “pure” fiction.

Since so many students have been minded in recent years to write their own autobiographical blogs and “selfies” in prose, literature professors have accepted the need to teach “memoir,” as well as other forms of “creative non-fiction,” including essays and “narrative non-fiction” dramatic stories. By teaching these “extra” curricular literary endeavors via textual analysis, dissection, backgrounding, perspective, artistic appreciation, cultural and historical placement, and the encouraging of students to try their own hand, such teaching has transformed and “modernized” many English language and literature departments in the U.S. If this is so, however, why not encourage teachers to extend their purview still further to include profiles, obituaries and great biographies – areas that, until now, teachers have been less than competent or even interested to do?

Teaching biography as part of non-fiction writing courses is certainly one important key: taking great biographies and exposing them to the same critical apparatus as fiction. But we could also, I would argue, also engage with the creators of modern biography.

Why not, I feel, go behind the texts that biographers ultimately put out and make available for our dissection? Why not explore the machinery, the creative process by which a biographer actually creates a great literary portrait, as much as a sculptor does a bust? Why not examine the materials a biographer has selected and used; watch the decisions he or she has made in composing the work – noting the changes, the iterations, that are made on the long journey to the finished portrait? Why not attempt to follow, in retrospect, the creation of a great work of biography? In that way we could, as a society, better learn what exactly goes into the making of a good or even great biography, rather than merely reviewing its ultimate presentation to the public. In that way we could help enlarge our society’s somewhat limited current appreciation of modern biography as literature, not simply knowledge.

For almost five decades I have practiced my profession as biographer, and have witnessed first hand how the genre has evolved in tandem with larger cultural, social, and artistic developments in our society. Both in my own work and in participating in non-fiction writing groups in London, Boston and now New Orleans, I am proudly aware that behind the text there is almost invariably a deep, intimate story of intellectual, artistic and moral engagement, as the biographer endeavors to combine scholarly investigation, imaginative structural composition, and fresh narrative technique to produce a credible, yet also artistically-fashioned work of modern literature as well as individual history.

That process – which for good or ill every modern biographer must undertake – is the  challenge facing the biographer today. Writ large it also forms an important theoretical justification of the developing genre of modern biography: one that the Biography Society is preparing to examine in depth, interdisciplinary breadth and international compass in the coming months and years.

I must admit, even though I report each month on progress in my current FDR trilogy, I also feel greatly excited to be a part of this new academic focus on the biographical firmament in which I have invested so much of my life!

               Vivat vita!

Nigel Hamilton

First President, Biographers International Organization (BIO)

Honorary President, La Société de Biographie

Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston
Author, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 and Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

"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.