Letter from Richmond, VA (BIO CONFERENCE 2016)

BIOGRAPHERS INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION
7th ANNUAL CONFERENCE
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)

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