ESSE 2016 in Galway: Seminar “BIOGRAPHY” 22-26 August

Last updated 30/07/2016

13th ESSE Conference: 22-26 August 2016

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Conveners : Joanny MOULIN (The Biography Society, Aix-Marseille Université, France) & Hans RENDERS (Biography Institute, University of Groningen, the Netherlands)

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.


Tuesday 23rd August 17.00-19.00 — “Historical Perspectives”
1. RENDERS, Hans (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) — Biographies as Multipliers; The First World War as Turning Point in the Lives of Modernist Artists
2. RICHARDS Page (University of Hong Kong, China) — Biography, the Historical Lyric, and Rita Dove
3. BROCK Malin Lidström (Luleå University of Technology, Sweden)  — Mad, bad or (just) sad? Recent biofiction of Zelda Fitzgerald
4. WILSON COSTA Karyn (Aix-Marseille Université, France)  — “Auguste Angellier’s Life of Robert Burns: an Indulgent Biography”
5. POLLAND Imke (Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, Germany)  — Imaginary Biography? Portraying the public and private persona in the royal biopic The Queen.

Wednesday 24th August 14.00-16.00 — “Biographers”
6. MOULIN Joanny (Aix-Marseille Université, France)  — André Maurois, or the Aesthetic Advantage of Biography Over the Novel
7. DE HAAN Binne (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) — Richard Holmes: A biographer-historian par excellence
8. THIRRIARD Maryam (Aix-Marseille Université, France)  — Harold Nicolson, the “New Biographer”
9. TREMBLAY Alexandre (Aix-Marseille Université, France)  — Giles Lytton Strachey and Biography: The Oddity of True Interpretation
10. SABLAYROLLES François (Université Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas, France)  — The Silhouetted Figure of the Biographer

Thursday 25th August 11.00-13.00 — “Interdisciplinary perspectives”
11. DI MASCIO Patrick (Aix-Marseille Université, France)  – Biographying Freud
12. FAUSEL, Heidi (Aix-Marseille Université, France) — A Study in Time Travel: Writing the Life of William Caxton
13. RENSEN Marleen (University of Amsterdam the Netherlands)  — Biography, Cultural Mediation and Transnational Studies
14. HARMSMA Jonne (University of Groningen, the Netherlands)  — From Model to Vision: A Biographical Turn in Political Economy?
15. POULOMI Mitra (Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, India)  — “Cinematic (Mis)representation of Femininity: Virginia Woolf in The Hours”

 Also see :

On Discovery

by Nigel Hamilton

téléchargementThe email, when it came, caused my biographer’s heart to miss a beat. A diary which the archive had thought lost – or not to have existed, despite mentions of it in a number of places – had been found! It was lodged together with other, more formal papers, in another file, and thus had not been catalogued as such.

It was just what I wanted. Instead of having to imagine what was in it, or assume it never existed, I would have it at hand: all 35 pages!

As an historical biographer – indeed any kind of biographer – there is perhaps no more exciting moment than this: discovery!

Relatively little work has been done on discovery in biography. In fact there is probably more discussion in academia of Professor A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession and its theme of biographical discovery than of any actual, real biography – or of discovery in general in biography. Which is a shame, for discovery is what motivates the biographer certainly as much as does the desire to construct a true portrait of an individual. The two really go together today, in fact they are almost inseparable.

Literary critics and scholars, of course, were delighted by Professor Byatt’s novel, since it threw up so many interesting tropes and insights into fiction – moreover into fiction as imaginary sleuthing. But I would wager there is probably no single major biography published today that has not involved real-life sleuthing just as intriguing and potentially story-altering as the plot of Possession – sleuthing that goes largely unrecorded, either by the biographers themselves, or by scholars of biography.

As theorists of biography and investigators of the practice of biography we would do well, I think, to do more of what Richard Holmes did so well in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer – only from the POV of our profession, as distinct from (or similar to) other professions.

Discovery is, after all, a remarkably potent lure in biography. Historians may also research unpublished documents, but they will at best add their tapestry of the past and its patterns. The biographer, however, is hoping to discover something deeper: something a novelist can only invent or plagiarize. The biographer is on a particular human being’s trail. He or she is constantly constructing and refining an identikit portrait of a subject: a jigsaw puzzle in which many pieces are missing, or are damaged, and therefore unreliable. Or, to use yet another simile, the process of biography is akin to the penciled answers we draft when doing crossword puzzles. The answers may seem to fit at first – yet still turn out to be wrong.

(Not that there is ever a right or wrong in biography, other than deliberate fabrication or insincerity.)

Discovery is thus a sort of blind man’s white stick, testing the ground for obstacles – yet also allowing the wanderer to move forward and avoid the falls or pitfalls in trying to understanding a real life.

In this sense Discovery is to the biographer what laboratory testing is to the theoretical scientist: searching for evidence that may contradict or confirm the hypothesis which the serious biographer, consciously or unconsciously, forms during the long journey towards the construction – or reconstruction – of a human life.

How many times, one would like to know, have biographers had to alter their hypothesis thanks to Discovery?

We certainly have many interesting examples of the value of Discovery in the legal profession, where it plays a huge role today in the preparation of both civil and criminal cases. Discovery is the right of a client’s lawyer to see what information the opposing counsel has, relevant to the case in question. It was through Discovery, after all, that the right-wing writer, David Irving – who had sued the historian Deborah Lippstadt for libel in calling him a Holocaust-denier – was brought down in the High Court in London, in a case quickly dubbed “History on Trial.” Thanks to access to Irving’s correspondence with his publisher, the historian Sir Richard Evans was able to question Irving’s methodologies as a self-appointed “historian,” and show the court that Irving was not only a fabricator, but did not deserve the appellation “historian” at all.

For the biographer Discovery is just as important as it is to the jurist, despite the lack of attention that has been paid to it. For the biographer Discovery is a sort of compass-check when unsure – or too sure! Or in search, simply, of confirmation, or proof.

In a long life as a biographer I certainly treasure those moments of Discovery. Not just for myself, moreover, but bit by bit, discovery by discovery, as contributions to our craft. “I am glad you persevered,” the archivist wrote me her email, “and now we all know that this diary exists and where it reposes for the sake of other researchers.”

An accolade worth all the gold of El Dorado to the humble biographer.

(Well, not all the gold…)

Nigel Hamilton

The End

By Nigel Hamilton

Is it ghoulish to be interested in the final hours of a real individual’s life?téléchargement

Katie Roiphe had put together a book – a prosopography – of dyings in our time: The Violet Hour.

The title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, denoting the setting of the sun and the approaching end of day: “the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.”

Ms. Roiphe, whose last book was a group biography of eccentric Bloomsbury marriages, Uncommon Arrangements (2007), now follows the last days of a group of book writers: Susan Sontag, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and Sigmund Freud. According to today’s Wall Street Journal[1] the book is sadder than its predecessor, which charted the pursuit of love. In the new one, the reviewer tells us, Ms. Roiphe is more willing to offer judgment, a Final Judgment, on her charges – from Sontag’s furious denial she was mortal, despite her third bout of cancer, to John Updike’s rejection of the children of his first marriage.

Perhaps naturally, such books carry the whiff of plagiarism about them: the squeezing of many biographies written by other authors into a clever project. Doubtless those originating biographers will, in a sense, feel robbed – for what more haunting / elegiac /dramatic /symbolic scene is there to narrate in a biography than the record of a real life’s end?

Symbolic, because it is where we are all going, one day; elegiac, because it completes the tapestry the author has woven, from beginning to the final thread and border.

Yet by calling attention to that climactic moment in each chosen individual’s life, Ms. Roiphe has surely every right to compare them – just as, by implication and by analogy, Samuel Johnson did in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. The question how we will face our impending end is one that grows larger and more urgent as we age. Reading about how others have managed their exit – or mismanaged it – is very much part of what Dr. Johnson saw as the great virtue of modern biography: its willingness to record “the mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients” of a chosen life – and its lessons, inherent and overt, for us.

Ms. Roiphe has chosen the lives – or, rather, the deaths – of a select group of significant modern writers, Feud included. But a similar book might well be undertaken of the deaths of military figures, of presidents, of scientists, or religious men and women.

What makes the deaths of writers especially fascinating, surely, is that almost every writer I can think of has written, in his or her own work, about the death of others, real or fictional. And these chosen writers, in Ms. Roiphe’s telling, must now confront their own demise, before the biographical lens.

I have not yet read The Violet Hour, but I shall be interested to see whether, alongside her larger comparison of the way her authors faced death, she has been able to compare each author’s artistic version of death in his or her own work, and his or her own actual manner-of-death.

For example, Dylan Thomas’s most famous and haunting poem is his Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night – with its call to wise men, good men, grave men, and finally his own father, not to go silently but to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Dylan Thomas’s own dying, two years later, was certainly full of rage – but it was rage against himself, and how he had, instead of continuing to write wonderful poetry, had become at age 39 but a drunken celebrity, a performer of his own past work, “peddling and bawling to adolescents the romantic agonies of the dead,” as he himself put it.

The task of a biographer of writers is, among other things, to make the comparison, however sad, between “the romantic agonies” of artistic work and the realities of life – and death. Not to belittle the poet, or to disparage great work, but to help ensure that in our admiration of art we do not go overboard and create emperors without clothes.

The biographer’s job in our society, to put it another way, is to tether myth to reality, via honesty and human empathy.

Whether Ms. Roiphe has been too harsh on her clients I do not yet know: but I applaud her courage in pursuing what seems to me to be one of the chief justifications of our own art.

Nigel Hamilton

First President, Biographers International Organization (BIO)
Honorary President, La Société de Biographie
Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston

[1] Daniel Akst, “Facing Up to Death,” review of The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe, Wall Street Journal, March 5-6, 2016