Prosopography and Biography

by Nigel Hamilton

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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

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