Prosopography and Biography

by Nigel Hamilton


Somewhere between sociology and biography lies prosopography. It’s like collectivization under the Soviets: the collective study of individual lives, often using statistical methods, to find patterns that individual studies may not be able to see. (Prosopography is probably a misnomer, though. The term was more or less invented by the British historian Norman Stone in the 1970s, but it really derives from the Greek word, prosopopoeia, which means literally to make a face or imitation of another person – -i.e. as a rhetorical device, distinguishing the speaker/narrator from an ancient or mythical character who is being quoted. Here in New Orleans, for example, it’s used by members of the Winston Churchill Society who, once a year, imitate the master of great rhetoric, in extracts from his speeches and witticisms. Pretty brilliantly, too.)

     Sociologists were delighted with Professor Stone’s invention in 1971; biographers less so.

       Biographers, by and large, are wary of “generalizing” as historians and sociologists do. To the biographer, beginning a new work, the individual is an exception to the rule, not an exemplar. The biographer wishes to question supposedly common knowledge – or lack of knowledge. The focus on a single individual allows the biographer to do what portrait photographers do as well: namely, to adjust the lens, aperture and timing to create a distinction between the subject and the background.

     This said, there is no denying the appeal of group biography – or of group photography. Who has not “sat” for a family photo, or school reunion? Such images tell a different story, after all, than an individual one. I have, for example, a copy of a painting of FDR on my desk – but a photo of FDR, Churchill and Stalin at Tehran, too. For it is in the differences between those three individual leaders, as well as their common purpose at their first summit together, that I can best see FDR in the human context of the great historical drama they were called upon to play, in November 1943: whether to go ahead with D-Day in the spring of 1944, as FDR and Stalin wished, or to try an alternative scheme in the Aegean, as Churchill wanted.

    Group portraits in biography and portrait photography, then, are a means to better clarify and distinguish the individual traits of their subjects – not to provide common patterns, as practiced in prosopography by sociologists and historians.

  Group portraits, to be sure, have become even more popular in recent years, I’ve noticed.

  David McCullough’s recent Wright Brothers was preceded by his group biography, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris – a biographical account of the men and women who ventured from America to the City of Light in the nineteenth century, and how their sojourns affected them, both there and on their return. And more recently there’s Sarah Bakewell’s new book: a group portrait of the Parisian postwar intellectuals who made Existentialism a household word: At the Existentialist Café.

 Bakewell’s best-known work is her award-winning life of Montaigne, How to Live. Her new work is Montaigne squared – in fact Ruth Scurr, in the Wall Street Journal, calls the book “a new form of group biography” – one closer to prosopopoeia than prosopography. At the Existentialist Café is, Dr Scurr writes, “a series of overheard conversations about life, death and politics.” Scurr – no mean biographer herself, and a teacher at Cambridge University – notes that the biographers of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus have for the most part been “too distracted by their sex lives and broken friendships,” whereas Bakewell is more concerned with their “exchange of ideas” – while not ignoring, in the context of their famous “free-love” Parisian community, the semen.

  In sum, Scurr feels, Sarah Bakewell has done biography a real service in this respect – and quotes a wonderful passage from the book that we might all take to heart. “I think philosophy,” Bakewell reflects, “becomes more interesting when it is cast in the form of a real life. Likewise I think personal experience is more interesting when thought about philosophically.”

   I can’t wait to read it.

Nigel Hamilton
First President, Biographers International Organization (BIO)

Honorary President, La Société de Biographie

Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston

CFP: Seminar on Biography at the ESSE Conference in Galway, 22 – 26 August 2016

Conference ESSE-13 in Galway (August 22-26, 2016)

Invention - Creative Responsive Theme

Biographical Studies are emerging as a field of research in the humanities, at a crossroads between several disciplines. This seminar would welcome 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.

Conveners :
Pr Joanny Moulin, Aix-Marseille University,
Pr Hans Renders, University of Groningen,

An edited version of this abstract will appear in The European English Messenger and on the ESSE conference website (seminar S63).

Please note that paper proposals should be addressed to and The deadline for accepting paper proposals is March 10, 2016.

Atticus Finch

by Nigel Hamilton


NigelHamiltonConfession: I may be the last person reading in the United States who hasn’t read Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Oh, I saw the film, starring Gregory Peck. And in days gone by I taught a history class that featured Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – which he famously called a “non-fiction novel” – as a landmark text in the development of biography. Harper Lee had acted as Capote’s assistant and scout while he researched his chronicle of a mass murder. But Lee’s novel? No.

Once I moved to the U.S. permanently in 2000 I bought a copy, meaning to read it. The matter of race – which occupied a far lower place in British culture wars than social snobbery, immigration and gender issues – was here a dominant, on-going discourse in the new century. I had undertaken to write a biography of Bill Clinton, the outgoing – in both senses of the word – president, and I went multiple times to Arkansas, in the South, to research his Southern background: in Hope, Hot Springs, and Little Rock. That experience was itself so shocking for a transplanted Brit that I somehow never got round to reading Lee’s novel.

 And now she is dead.

In tribute to Lee’s contribution to modern American literature The New York Times has not only published an extended obituary, but reprinted its original July 13, 1960, review of the novel.[1] And a new “appraisal” by its lead book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani.[2]

Now, it is true that I do not like Ms. Kakutani, who once labeled me an “egregious Brit” for daring to write about Bill Clinton’s private life, as a serious biographer. To my mind she has zero understanding of the aesthetics of biography as a genre, and suffers the same problem as Janet Malcolm over issues of privacy and the misuse of copyright.

Nevertheless Ms. Kakutani is a very fine reviewer of fiction, whose constantly mutating aesthetics and changing fortunes she does appreciate. Her “appraisal” of Harper Lee is beautifully written – and intriguing from a biographical perspective. For in 2015 it was announced that Lee – who was something of a recluse, à la Miss Havisham – had, after all, written another novel: Go Set a Watchman. Its first printing in the U.S. was 2 million copies, and it leaped on publication to the top of the bestseller lists.

The new novel, however, turned out to be an old one: in fact the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. The publisher, Lippincott, had rejected it, but had paid her a small advance to rewrite it with the help of one of their editors – which, after a long delay, during which she helped Truman Capote research his book, she did: to world-wide applause. Fifty-five years later, in 2015, Lee’s lawyer had then discovered the manuscript of the first version, while rummaging through “Miss Havisham’s” papers.

Should a first draft be published, people asked, if its quality was manifestly inferior to Lee’s later one? Was Harper Lee – living in an Old Folks’ Home – sufficiently compos mentis to authorize its publication? Was it all a case of publisher’s greed?

Ms. Kakutani’s new appraisal, however, focuses on the far greater issue: namely the revelation, in Go Set a Watchman, that the narrator Scout’s revered father, Atticus Finch – staunch defender of a wrongly-accused black man, on trial for rape, in Maycomb, Alabama – had actually been a segregationist and a bigot himself!

Literary critics will doubtless mull over the difference between the two novels, or rather differing versions of the same fictional story. They will, for example, take note of the greater maturity and creative fictional craft in Lee’s writing by the time she published To Kill a Mockingbird. But Ms. Kakutani, to her credit, draws attention to the biographical and historical trajectory.

“[S]omewhere along the along the way, Harper Lee’s approach toward her material – and the Atticus figure, in particular, changed,” Ms. Kakutani notes. “The differences between the two books also underscore the effect that time has on how stories are told – and read.” Mockingbird had “allowed readers in the 1960s to congratulate themselves on how far race relations had progressed,” but Go Set a Watchman, “in contrast, was both set in the 1950s and written then,” she pointed out,[3] “and it underscored just how horrific race relations and social justice were.” Ms. Kakutani was therefore moved to applaud the publication of the earlier version. “In such respects, Ms. Lee has given us, in her two published novels, documents that allow us to measure how times and attitudes about race have changed, and – given continuing injustices today – how terribly far we have yet to go.”[4]

René Wellek and Austin Warren would be appalled to read this, were they still alive! In their Theory of Literature the two mastercritics memorably damned – in a chapter they called “Literature and Biography” – biography. Biography was, they claimed, no more than the leavings of literary study, and had nothing to offer “critical evaluation” in the academy. “No biographical evidence can change or influence critical evaluation,” they stated.[5]

How obtuse! How purist! How reflective of the time when they were first writing (the early 1940s)!

No, it is clear today that biographers and historians are essential to the study and critical evaluation of literary works. Ms. Kakutani’s “somewhere along the way” is the key – and it will be fascinating to see, in the coming years, how Ms. Kakutani’s fine tribute will encourage biographers to retell Harper Lee’s true story, not only as a reflection of her own literary trajectory, but that of America, and its readers – including, eventually, me!

Nigel Hamilton
Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston

[1] William Grimes, “Nelle Harper Lee Dies at 89; Wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” New York Times, February 20, 2016, and Hebert Mitgang, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, July 13, 1960.

[2] Michiko Kakutani, “The Loss of Innocence, First as Children, Then Again as Adults,” ” New York Times, February 20, 2016.

[3] My italics

[4] Kakutani, “The Loss of Innocence,” loc. cit.

[5] René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, Third Edition, (1977, 80).

“Knowing” the Subject

by Nigel Hamilton

The history of biography is studded with cases where the biographerNigelHamilton knew the biographee in person – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Naturally, in terms of objectivity, this makes those biographies suspect in the academy – guilty of inevitable bias, whether negative or positive.

Who would not willingly exchange an ‘objective’ biography of the elusive Shakespeare, though, for one penned by a biographer who had actually known the Bard in person?

The fact is, all good biographers seek to emulate the knower-in-person. We seek to convey personality, as Virginia Woolf deemed the primary objective in modern biography, and to create in the reader’s mind an intimacy with the subject that one might call ‘literary friendship.’ To achieve this, following Dr. Johnson’s prescription, we try to describe the biographee in his or her habitat, as well as well as in public office. We try to quote those who have actually met or known the subject in person. And we use the subject’s own writings or recorded sayings – in diaries, letters, memoranda, drafts, conversations, texts – to simulate a sort of longer conversation, or audience with the subject. We want the reader to close our books feeling he or she had gotten to “know” the biographee, in good times and bad, and is consequently empowered to form a judgment, not only of the biographee’s public life, but personal life, and their intersection, for good or ill.

That biographical imperative, re-emphasized by Dr. Johnson, probably goes back to the encomia or spoken tributes delivered in Greek and Roman times – just as the tradition survives today at memorial services, where people who actually knew the deceased in person stand in front of mourners to offer a personal memoir or vignette, in advance of society’s judgment – or failure to judge.

Personal or simulated knowledge of the deceased, then, is thus a sort of sine qua non of biography. Suetonius, who had worked at the imperial library in Rome and knew many witnesses to the succession of emperors he described in AD 121 in his Twelve Caesars, set an unforgettable example of personalized biographical description. The four Gospels, written around the same time, set an even more influential example, however. Who has not heard preachers even today quoting the gospel writers as if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had actually met and known Jesus of Nazareth personally (which they hadn’t), so brilliantly did they depict his life? Indeed, their biographies, each distinctive in its own way, are tours de force that have become the ultimate proof that Jesus was actually a real person, given the paucity of contemporary historical evidence.

 It would be interesting, then, to interview biographers today on this aspect of biography: personal knowledge of the biographee, and simulated knowledge. What is the difference – or rather, how has that difference affected certain biographies?

In this connection the most salient example here in the United States is the South-African born biographer, Edmund Morris, whose trilogy on President Theodore Roosevelt[1] may never be surpassed as a literary as well as historical masterpiece. The rapturous welcome given to its first volume led to Morris being appointed Official Biographer of then-President Ronald Reagan, in 1985. He would, he was promised, get to know the President in person – even be allowed to be a fly- on-the wall in National Security meetings at the White House.

The resultant opus, Dutch,[2] was in many ways a disaster. Morris found himself conflicted, and unable to deliver the manuscript – which took fourteen years to compose. I well remember Edmund showing me the beautiful black, craftsman-made Official Biographer’s desk he had commissioned with his advance royalties, and the special, oversized card index drawers it contained. They slid in and out silently, without so much as a whisper, and on the cards themselves, his tiny, italic handwriting testified to his artistic sensibility. Yet they were almost empty, save for a line or two, at most. He found he simply couldn’t figure the President out, and therefore couldn’t throw himself, as expected, into the conventional garb of a biographer as he’d done with Teddy Roosevelt – whose life he had had to put down mid-way through the oeuvre.

I felt for him, having had the reverse experience: writing (to positive reception) a trilogy about a man I had known intimately (Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein),[3] and then writing (and encountering great abuse for doing so) intimately about someone I hadn’t met or known – John F. Kennedy!

Dutch aroused, if anything, more controversy than my JFK: Reckless Youth.[4] Reagan was, in 1999, still alive, though incommunicado and suffering Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan’s family, acolytes, aficionados and worshippers were furious – as were scholars who’d been denied access to Reagan’s papers while Morris underwent his biographical soul-searching. But Morris had been adamant, aware that he couldn’t simulate a biographer’s intimacy with a President he had in fact actually gotten to know – and couldn’t figure out. In the end he had hit upon a technique well-known to novelists and playwrights: namely the invention of someone who has personal knowledge of the subject: a fictional narrator who has known and observed Reagan since his early days, even before Hollywood.

This method is still standard fare in fiction – as for example the novel I am reading by Robert Harris: Dictator, the third volume of a fictional biography of Cicero, as narrated by Cicero’s slave, the scribe and stenographer Tiro (who actually was Cicero’s slave)[5]. Laila Lalami, used the same tactic in The Moor’s Account, her equally brilliant novel describing the real-life Narváez Expedition to the Florida and the New World in 1527, also using a slave as narrator (who also was a real person, Estevanico).[6]

In Dutch’s case, however, the biography was considered a no-no. In the still conventionally-minded context of 1999 all proverbial hell broke loose: Morris attacked and excoriated from every side. I remember dining with Morris and Sylvia Jukes, his wife, who is also a very distinguished biographer (of Edith Kermit Roosevelt and Clare Booth Luce). Edmund was racked by the injustice of Dutch’s reception; after all, he rightly complained, he had only attempted to do what every biographer worth his or her salt should try to do: by inventing a character, a narrator who had known Reagan since young, to convey a sense of such proximity and personal knowledge of the biographee as to approximate to the “truthful transmission of personality,” in Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase (when damning Sir Sidney Lee’s life of King Edward VII as “unreadable”).[7]

“But darling,” Edmund’s wife remarked in a gently admonishing way, “you were the Official Biographer.

“Knowing the subject” is thus a somewhat conflicted aspect of biography. One that deserves, to my mind, to be more deeply studied if we are serious about theorizing modern biography .

In this regard, students of biography need to be willing to take on the role of serious journalists as well as textual and archival scholars: that is to say, to be willing to go out into the real world and speak with the writers of biography today. We need to be willing – as scholars of cinema, for example, have done with filmmakers and scriptwriters for decades now – to find out from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, the biographical challenge as biographers see and have experienced it in the production of their work, not just in the work itself as text. And we need to do that while major biographers of our time are still alive.

David McCullough – master-biographer of John Adams, Truman and the Wright brothers – is already 82, for example. Morris is 75.

“Don’t be shy!” I would fain urge students of biography. “Biography is an endlessly fascinating undertaking, as well as field of study! Draw up a survey! And go ask practicing biographers how they have dealt with the business of ‘knowing the subject.’”

Moreover, thinking of James Boswell, why not focus on him as a great mentor in conducting research into how biographers operate? “Put up his portrait (in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh) as your Screensaver – not only for his ultimate chef d’oeuvre, which took us so close to ‘knowing’ Dr. Johnson that even today we can almost reach out and touch the great Doctor, but for the way in which biographer-Boswell accomplished that: on the eventual page, but also in the trail leading to the ultimate text, namely the records we now have of the book’s fascinating genesis.”

Nigel Hamilton
Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston

[1] Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979); Theodore Rex (2001); and Colonel Roosevelt (2010).

[2] Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (1991).

[3] Nigel Hamilton, Monty: Making of a General (1981); Monty: Master of the Battlefield (1984; and Monty: Final Years of the Field Marshal (1987).

[4] Nigel Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth (1992).

[5] Robert Harris, Imperium (2006); Conspirata (2009); and Dictator (2015)

[6]Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account, 2014.

[7] Virginia Woolf, “The New Biography,” New York Herald Tribune, October 30, 1927.