On Teaching Biography

by Nigel Hamilton

NigelHamiltonFor a number of years, at Royal Holloway, University of London and
De Montfort University, Leicester, I taught biography.

A quarter century of writing biographies had burned me out; I decided therefore to follow Bernard Shaw’s dictum (in Man and Superman), “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

But how to teach a subject that has so rarely been taught, even after thousands of years of biographical works produced in our western cultures?

Teaching biography in England in the 1990s was certainly challenging. When asked to what intellectual faculty or discipline biography belonged, I could only say it was interdisciplinary. And that as such it deserved its own discipline, drawing as it does from so many others in its tropes and its insights, yet having such a constant preoccupation over the millennia: how to understand and record the real life of a human being?

In the end I was parked in the history departments of Royal Holloway and De Montfort – first as Visiting Professor of History, then as Professor of Biography.

How did it go? At Royal Holloway, where I taught undergraduates and postgraduates for five years, my course on the history of western biography in the 20th century was open to all students of the University of London. Most, however, came from within Royal Holloway’s student body, where the interdisciplinary range of proposed texts was considered eclectic, but interesting.

Over two semesters we examined, in chronological order, a whole gamut of biographical works in a number of different media, in an effort to show how the biographical imperative had expressed itself. And, as best we could, to posit why these texts might be seen as Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Western Biography – the title of the course.

At the outset I explained how lucky we were to be at the end of the twentieth century – for we were in a position to now know so much about the composition and background of these texts. And the lives of their creators.

Our mission would be to explore, historically, how these landmark texts came about; how they reflected the cultures in which they were produced; and how in turn they influenced those cultures, across ten decades. We would, I promised, obtain a fresh perspective on the century, and on biography’s development within that century. Moreover, though highly selective in our choice of landmarks, we would try to include multiple points of view: of biography as genre; as representation of a culture; as markers of different, often new media; and as expressions of the author’s intent or agenda – despite the so-called Death of the Author!

Each week I began with a brief historical overview of the period in which the chosen landmark text was published, staged, shown or broadcast. Then we would dig right in.

For most history students the course was initially tough to fathom – unlike anything they had been used to. Its very interdisciplinarity – involving literature, psychology, social science, media arts, and “straight” history – was a challenge. Gradually, however, they began to see it as a sort of historical cultural analysis, offering them the chance both to learn and to bring together different lenses on the past. The authorial component, far from being negligible as Roland Barthes had memorably posited, helped to lock down the weekly focus, and to present a more tangible, humanly interesting, hold upon the composition. From Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son to Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage, the fascination of learning who the author was, why he or she had produced the text, and what its impact had been in the course of the century, made it the most popular course in the History Department. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph der Wille (film biography as propaganda) and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (fictional film biography as coded exposé), the students were able to engage with great examples of the sheer interdisciplinarity and cross-dressing of modern biography, both as contrast to Victorian biography, and as precursor to a new century.

From being the orphan of history and the arts, biography was at last center stage.

In my postgraduate courses at Royal Holloway and De Montfort, it was possible to then put this interdisciplinary perspective to specific use. After preliminary discussions, students were able to choose a real life, and to subject it to comparative analysis –  examining the different ways, across the twentieth century, in which that life had been “biographised,” in differing media by differing authors.

This comparative approach proved, in turn, a richly rewarding opportunity to reflect on the cultural history of the century, as well as learning in greater detail how and why an author creates a biographical text, from research to composition and reception.

Of course, after five years of somewhat pioneering education, I found myself once more burned out – and ready to reverse Shaw’s dictum! I thus returned to “doing” biography with a sense of relief – though I received many letters and emails from former students saying how much their study (and enjoyment) of history had been changed by the courses. So much so that I decided to take time out from “doing” biography, several years later, and address at least some of what I’d learned in teaching biography. I therefore wrote two little books, Biography: A Brief History, and How to Do Biography: A Primer (Harvard, 2007 and 2009), to assuage my guilt at giving up teaching.

I confess the Société de Biographie has rekindled my excitement about the theorizing of the study and practice of biography, even though I am now too ancient to teach.

As Samuel Johnson put it, “I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.”

How true! By “use” Dr. Johnson meant the opportunity – somewhat in the same fashion as in fiction, but in biography’s case the delineation of a real life – to identify with an actual human individual, honestly recorded and portrayed by a biographer. Moreover, it did not necessarily have to be a career of grand achievement. “There has rarely passed a life,” he wrote in The Rambler, “of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful; for not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such a uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill but is common to human kind.”

Vive la biographie! Et l’enseignement de la biographie…

Nigel Hamilton

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