Category Archives: Reflections on Biography

INTERNAL EMIGRATION

by Nigel Hamilton

téléchargementYears ago – many years ago – I wrote a biography of Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich – also a writer. Both men were the first novelists to leave Germany once Hitler became Chancellor – and neither of them returned to their “Vaterland” during the Third Reich.

Heinrich Mann died in exile in America in 1950; Thomas returned to Europe two years later, but never  lived in Germany again, choosing German-speaking Zurich instead, which he found safer. For although he lectured both in East and West Germany, he found himself the butt there of hate mail and even articles attacking him – for having dared leave Germany in 1933! One particular critic was a novelist who’d stayed, and had gone into “inner emigration,” as he called it, proudly.

I remember, as Mann’s young biographer in my mid-twenties, feeling outraged on my subject’s behalf. God, Mann’s wife was part-Jewish, as was Heinrich’s – how could he have stayed in such circumstances?

Now in my seventies, half a century later, the concept of “inner emigration” has come to haunt me once again.

The election of Donald Trump is not the same as Hitler’s, of course – but there are parallels, and one of them is “inner emigration.” Like millions, I am shocked that a man of unique ignorance, political inexperience and unstable personality could have been elected to the most powerful post on earth – and by the damage he and his chosen appointees, backed by control of both houses of Congress (Gleichschaltung) could do to the world, from a warmer globe to trade war – even war itself! Worse still, the realization that this person represents literally scores of millions who voted for him – and perhaps more millions still, who didn’t vote, but support his views.

In shock I thus find myself, reactively, turning to my current biography of a previous president (FDR), in another time (the 1940s): trying as I do so not to watch or listen to the news, or even read the newspaper more than cursorily. For the post-election news is as alarming as the election campaign was.

Outrages against immigrants in America passing 500 already? Reversing agreements on climate change, international trade…

My heart sinks; it can only get worse – and Mr. Trump has not even been inaugurated!

I feel myself, in other words, going into “inner emigration” – and I wonder if it was like this for Germans in 1933, as Thomas Mann’s critic maintained?

History repeats itself, Marx once wrote, first as tragedy, then as farce. Are we now in the tragedy phase – and if so, how far is there still to go before farce – surreal, bleak but potentially catastrophic farce?

The tragic aspect is our clear awareness, here in America, of what is happening. There is no shortage of commentary or hand-wringing in the press, yet – unlike, say, Russia, where media opposition to the government and president was, and remains, shut down by new laws, intimidation, even plain murder.

But though there is still candid discussion in the media here, there is also a sickening awareness that this is no aberration, no “decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” The result of the U.S. election represents a vast, last-ditch formal affirmation of white bigotry, racism, anti-feminism, anti-intellectualism and gun-toting intolerance – an underbelly of America that was de rigueur in the South until the success of the Civil Rights movement, and is now back with a vengeance: this time, however, across the entire nation, save for the eastern and western seaboard states (in one of which, Massachusetts, I live). As such it can’t be changed or rectified any time soon: it is here to stay for some while. And that is the saddest, most tragic part. It would require a massive cultural re-education program, a national mandatory civics class no less, to return to a more tolerant majority – and no one seriously sees this happening.

In which case, history will have to take its course.

Which brings me back to history – or biography.

“Internal emigration”? Or “Here I Stand” protest – even at the risk of arrest, incarceration, death or deportation, if and when things get worse?

The German population in 1933 supported Hitler and his “Make Germany Great Again” mantra. Those that didn’t co-operate went into “inner emigration,” or were silenced. Or emigrated. Germany became the most dangerous “rogue” nation in the world – with little chance of things getting better, as Hitler attacked and suborned more and more nations that dared oppose him.

Germans for the most part did their loyal duty: involving mass extermination of Jews and those their Fuehrer deemed Untermenschen.

For several years the outlook looked bleak for civilization – until in November 1942, American troops landed in Northwest Africa: the Torch invasion. It succeeded – but there was no indication the Germans would do anything but fight to the death to retain territories they had overrun.

As a result in January, 1943, President Roosevelt – who had tried to keep America out of war until the country was attacked at Pearl Harbor – sadly announced to the world, at a conference in Casablanca, that the Allies would have to pursue a policy of “unconditional surrender” of the Axis Powers. He did so because he recognized nothing short of total defeat would put an end to Hitler’s Nazi movement, which had infected the majority of German people – an infection that could not be cured by negotiated settlement. Goebbels’s declaration of totaler Krieg, several weeks later, confirmed the President’s judgment.

Despite Churchill’s and Stalin’s discomfort with the policy, Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” decision was duly carried out by the Allies, ending with unconditional German surrender in May 1945: VE Day.

It was the end of Naziism as a genocidal ideology of the masses. Though neo-Nazi groups surfaced in most western countries over subsequent decades, inspired by the swastika, such groups remained for seventy years fringe associations or parties. The memory of what the Third Reich had done, and what it had cost humanity to end the nightmare, had been too awful for most thinking people.

Are we, in America, guilty of amnesia? Now the presidential election is over, how should a “democratic” writer react? Protest? Inner emigration? Emigration?

A tide of almost exclusively white anti-intellectual populism has swept the nation. Will it drown out – even silence – all protests? Will we have then to wait in “inner emigration” until, inevitably, the mood exhausts itself, as the demography of the United States inexorably changes and the white majority eventually becomes a minority: the very fear that most activates Trump supporters? Or will there be a catastrophe – whether economic, ecological, military, or terrorist – that brings on a global conflagration, in which, finally, the forces of dying white, Aryan supremacy, as in the American Civil War and then World War II, will have to be confronted, and brought to “unconditional surrender,” lest they once again poison our universe?

I don’t know. But I think it important to tell the truth about the past and its people – which, as a biographer, I shall continue to do. Until silenced.

Nigel Hamilton, Ph.D.

Senior Fellow, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Author, “The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942” and  “Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

REVISIONIST BIOGRAPHY TODAY

by Nigel Hamilton

 Historians have been skeptical about téléchargementbiography since they invented it. By the same token biographers have been skeptical of historians.

Plutarch, in his life of Alexander the Great, felt impelled to remind readers he was writing “biography not history.” Histories, he pointed out, often told nothing of a “man’s character,” focusing rather on the facts of whether or not he won his battles. In his life of Timoleon, Plutarch rhapsodized on the joy he experienced in writing biography – treating history as a kind of mirror in which he could “adorn my own life by imitating the virtues of the men whose actions I have described. It is as though I could talk with the subjects of my Lives and enjoy their company every day.” Samuel Johnson later echoed that sentiment, but extended it to include both the “virtues and the vices” from which a thoughtful reader might learn.

For six years now, for my own part, I’ve been breaking bread with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not only am I glad to share his company in World War II, but I want others to, for the first time – since no historian has yet managed it. Moreover, in terms of lessons learned, I’m keen to show historians how for the most part they have wholly misunderstood FDR in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. Far from being the laid-back, avuncular leader who left his generals to direct the war – as well his ally Winston Churchill – FDR was, I argue, the strategic mastermind and the patient military director or conductor of the Allies’ victory in World War II. As I’m seeking to narrate, he was almost constantly having to overrule his generals. And most importantly of all, he was having almost constantly to put down the strategic insurrections or rebellions of his crucial but junior ally and self-declared “lieutenant,” Winston Spencer Churchill.

Some historians – especially those bought up on Churchill’s self-laudatory six-volume war memoirs, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature – are reluctant to accept my somewhat radical biographical reconstruction of the war, and of FDR’s commanding role in its military prosecution. At my doctoral defense last spring, at Groningen University, one professor – a distinguished historian – noted that he, personally, was convinced by the forensic detail and authority of my revisionist approach. He posited that the reason Churchill and his supporters in the history profession had gotten away for so long with such a flawed account of the prime minister’s primacy in the direction of World War II might best be explained by what he called “structural” reasons.

How right he was – and is!

One such wall that the revisionist biographer must scale is patriotic pride. Another is accepted dogma. A third is the personal stake people may have in a given interpretation. A fourth is the lack of evidence to counter myth.  And so on….

All revisionist work must encounter such “structural” defense, or counterreformation, as it might be called – in fact I’m sure it’s little different in other areas of knowledge. A new proposition in science, say, or paleontology, or biology, will rarely be welcomed without fierce opposition – especially where professional reputations are at stake. In history, too. But biography is, I think, on an especially contentious ground, structurally and culturally. Just as Plutarch extolled the pleasures of his subjects’ company, so too do aficionados and supporters of a revered individual – and who feel threatened by revisionism.

In reevaluating Franklin Roosevelt as the true architect and director of military operations in World War II, in other words, I am bound to upset those who are wedded to the notion that it was the U.S. generals, not the U.S. President, who were chiefly responsible for strategy and victory in World II, as well as the many who stand by Winston Churchill’s magisterial account of his own leadership in his 6-volume account, The Second World War – namely the vast, colorful canvas Churchill painted in which it was he, not FDR, who was the strategic military genius behind the winning of WWII. And the first line of the structuralists’ defense of such a hero will always be to attack the factual basis, or evidence being put forward, in the revisionist case.

There are two aspects of this that I would like briefly to examine today. The first relates to what Hans Renders, in his forthcoming collection of essays on modern biography, calls “the biographical turn.”[1]

               Now in the late 1980s and early 1990s it became fashionable to decry the trend among modern biographers to write long, and in great forensic detail. As Lord Skidelsky put it, the “professionalization” of biography, especially among American university-led biographers, was leading to “works of scholarship rather than the imagination.” Janet Malcolm took up this claim in order to defend Ted Hughes, the husband of Sylvia Plath, in her 1994 investigation of biographers seeking to understand Plath, memorably accusing them of using “the apparatus of scholarship” to give “an appearance of bank-like scholarship and solidity, when the biography was nothing but a burglar, a busybody, a voyeur “simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.” Even thirty years later, long after Hughes had died, Ms. Malcolm was trumpeting his postmortal right to silence, by pointing to the errors in Professor Jonathan Bate’s new biography, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life.

               In seeking to understand the “professionalization” of biography in recent years I’ve argued in my essay “Biography as Corrective” in the Biographical Turn, that far from being an effort to conceal the nefarious motives of burglars and voyeurs, the length and forensic detail a modern biographer feels he or she has to exhibit are professionally necessary to overcome the structuralist walls put up by opponents – the very likes of Ms. Malcolm! Lytton Strachey may have been successful in mocking the myths of his Victorian models in Eminent Victorians, but his amusing, succinct irony, without forensic new research, was ultimately found to be insufficient in a new century of scientific investigation to change people’s minds. Biographers have thus been forced to resort to ever higher levels of scholarship if they are to succeed in correcting historians’ structuralist defense mechanisms.

It was for this reason that, for the second volume of my “FDR at War” trilogy, I was grateful to the Biografie Instituut at Groningen University for offering me the chance to develop and present my manuscript in part for the university’s Ph.D. program, in order to ensure that, with their help, it would pass scholarly muster once the book met the inevitable structuralist defenders of the faith: those reviewers, readers and aficionados who cannot accept that the U.S. generals in World War II were dangerously wrong in 1942 and 1943, or who cannot accept that Winston Churchill was not the strategic genius of World War II that he claimed to be, after president Roosevelt was no longer alive to contest their versions.

The second aspect I would like to consider here is the possible analogy between modern biography and our justice system.

In order to better understand how the serious, revisionist biographer operates today it may be helpful for us to see him or her as a prosecuting attorney. The biographer, in this analogy, assembles a case to present to the jury – i.e. the reader and reviewer. He or she will have to be a master of rhetoric, and of detail. For the structuralist defense will do everything possible to question and discount the evidence the biographer produces – since otherwise, the defense’s client may go to jail!

               Revisionist biography, in other words – especially biography that seeks to correct history – is not only an exercise in good, Ciceronian argument, it must take account of the likely methods that the defenders, or opponents, in the case will employ. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was the “dream team’s” famous mantra in the famous O.J. Simpson trial (referring to a blood-stained glove) – and it proved enough, together with efforts to question the factual evidence (DNA included) of the prosecuting attorney, Marcia Clark, to free the famous black footballer and broadcaster (though he was later convicted in civil court).

In another post I will look at the interesting way Commander in Chief, the second volume of my FDR trilogy, has fared before the jury since my PhD defense and publication.

For now, however, let me end by saying this. Revisionist biography – biography that has a moral agenda in contesting received opinion, and seeks to revise the current judgment of an individual in history, whether in the academy or in public – is a serious mission. Like the quality of our justice system as it is practiced, it has serious ramifications for the health of our society.

As proponents of the theory, justification and practice of biography in the modern world, members of the growing Biography Society have a noble purpose. In an age of Twitter, “professionalizing” biography is not a mask for burglary or voyeurism, pace Ms. Malcolm; it is a crucial, integral part of facing the many challenges – and ensuring the longevity – of the genre, today.

 An award-winning historical biographer, Dr Nigel Hamilton is currently a senior fellow at McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston.
He is the author of:

[1] Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, The Biographical Turn [Routledge, forthcoming]

What Next?

 By Nigel Hamilton
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Asked to write something for the 30th anniversary issue of Auto/Biography Studies on the theme “What Next?” I first balked, then wrote something. Was thanked and was then asked gently to get to the point, i.e. where we are going. So reluctantly I added more, looking ahead….

How, though, convey in a few words the rich field that is opening before our very eyes – but to which, as academics, we cannot do justice, since biography is still not accepted as its own interdisciplinary field in the academy?

               I couldn’t – or only summarily.

One of the most promising and exciting areas of biographical study, I predict, though, will be the no-man’s land between biographical fact and fiction – a land that is continually increasing in mass.

I have not seen reliable statistics but I would wager that, over the past dozen years, the number of real-life, named figures in fiction has doubled, at the very least – and is now increasing exponentially. If we include screen (biopics), stage dramas (thesbios), as well as romans à clef, based-on real characters, (parabios) we could be talking revolution. As in Lin-Miranda’s latest play Hamilton which has been sensationally successful on Broadway and – like a boomerang – is now arcing back as a best-selling book.

Creative writing teachers are already fascinated by this shapeshifting, in a world where all kinds of boundaries are easing, even disappearing. But what are we, as students of biography, doing to teach this phenomenon, and the many questions it raises for biography?

What exactly, we ask ourselves, is really going on? Are novelists running out of characters to invent? Or is the public fascination with celebrities – at least in the West – such that novelists and their publishers are retreating, pour mieux sauter: reckoning that the stories biographers relate are stranger or stronger than fiction, and can be exploited in fiction, or dramatization? Are they trading, literally, on the dropping of names the public will recognize, and be curious about such fictionalized, dramatized stories – a first pivot or sales guarantee in their pocket?

               Surely, though, it must go deeper than this?

One avenue of research the Société de Biographie might sponsor or encourage is the interviewing of fiction-writers – asking them directly: why are you choosing to present real people in your fiction so much today? Do you not see a possible danger, in that you may – if you are not a serious biographer – completely misunderstand, or may misconstrue the real life of the individual you portray? How do you think this will impact our culture and society? (For example, Hilary Mantel, in Wolf Hall, her fictional portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the chief of staff to King Henry VIII.) Do you even care, if it allows you to create an artistic masterpiece? (And be paid better, in the process, for having chosen a celebrity.) What exactly causes you to take that risk today?

I am no novelist, so am unwilling to guess. Nevertheless I love reading fiction – especially as an antidote, even escape, from my clinical study of real lives. So I find myself intrigued – unwilling to be too judgmental as a biographer, or biographer trained as an historian. When I read stories or accounts of prominent novels’ backstories in a newspaper – especially where the subjects are, or were, real people – I find myself intrigued.

One such article appeared this week in the New York Times. It was titled (in the print edition) “Childhood Fixation Becomes a Novel,” and its subtitle was “Emma Cline’s Manson Obsession.”

Emma is all of 27. Her debut novel is The Girls. Interviewed by Alexandra Alter, Ms. Cline said she traces her obsession back to the age of 7, when her parents used to drive her past San Quentin State Prison, where Charles Manson is still incarcerated. “That’s Manson’s House,” they’d say.

True to the tide of feminism and postfeminism sweeping our culture these past five decades, Emma was more curious about Manson’s “willing executioners” – his female acolytes – than about the psychopathic cult leader himself. “I felt everyone had heard enough of that story,” she told Ms. Alter. The monster’s “accomplices and devotees seemed like footnotes in his story,” she protested. She had lived in a small, commune-like family herself, with seven siblings – “extremely chaotic and feral,” as she put it. After failing to make much headway as an actress, she went to Columbia University’s MFA creative writing program – and The Girls was the result, garnering a million-dollar advance and screen rights sold on the way.

I, of course, would like to know more about this aspect of invention (and Ms. Cline). Where, though, can I study the business of being a biographer, in the same way as Ms. Cline learned at Columbia to be a novelist? Why are there no similar schools and programs for aspiring biographers, fascinated by truth?

But back to the point: the way true-life stories or potential stories are becoming the go-to dinner for aspiring fiction writers. According to Ms. Alter of the New York Times, Emma Cline’s novel The Girls is “arriving in the middle of a new wave of Manson-themed entertainment” – with Mansons’ Lost Girls, a TV-drama broadcast only last February, and a forthcoming TV series called “Aquarius,” about a fictional detective investigating Manson…. Plus two feature films on Manson already in the works!

Most will rely on the work of real biographers of real people, such as Jeff Gunn’s 2013 Manson – or, in Miranda’s case, Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. How ironic, then, that Ms. Cline’s and Mr. Miranda’s productions will become the stuff of Columbia University MFA dissection, as time goes on – but no-one, in the academy, will be examining such translations in terms of biography and the quest for truth!

Why are we, who are devoted to biography and the study of real lives, not teaching this phenomenon from our standpoint, as guardians of the search for the true stories of our own and of others’ lives in our modern culture (however tough the search for truth)?

Where are colleges and universities in the bid not only to examine popular culture, but to preserve, if possible, certain aspects crucial to our humanity – to truth as opposed to myth (however seductive, interesting or artistic the myth)?

As I ended my short piece for Auto/Biography Studies: “In biography’s house there are many mansions. One day real students will, I hope, be encouraged to enter.”

Nigel Hamilton

Nigel Hamilton is author of Biography: A Brief History (2007), and How To Do Biography: A Primer (2008). Dr. Hamilton is Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.

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)

The Making of Modern Biography

by Nigel Hamilton

téléchargementAlong with the distinguished New Orleans biographer Patricia Brady (Martha Washington, Rachel Jackson, etc), I helped some time ago to found a New Orleans Non-Fiction Writers Group. In a city so famed for its musical as well as culinary heritage it seemed strange that there was, until then, no way to bring together biographers, memoirists, historians and essayists in a regular creative, constructive, mutually supportive community of fellow practitioners.

               I use the word creative advisedly. For what becomes apparent, when you sit in on one of our meetings, is the sense of being present at the creation: the creation, one by one, of completely new works of non-fiction literature.

               Each member of the group shares where he or she is “at” in his or her current enterprise: exposing the project to the critical response of peers, while sharing current difficulties, challenges, or breakthroughs. It is a deeply rewarding exercise, held for just two hours every month. Without it I would feel the poorer, since it reminds me in the most comforting way that, although mine may be a somewhat solitary vocation as a biographer, I am part of a larger, collective, creative literary endeavor.

I instance our quiet, somewhat private writers group (though it is open to all) because it confirms my belief that the Biography Society can, if all goes well, contribute to a better public understanding of the “creative” aspect not only of non-fiction writing, but of biography in particular. And by that, I mean the conceptual, generative, artistic and intellectual investment that goes into the making of a good biography, even a great one.

               It disappoints me, frankly, that we focus almost exclusive academic and educational attention upon fictional art: upon the creative process in fiction; upon artistry in fiction; upon its significance for us, as readers of fiction. And yet devote so little attention to modern biography, even though modern biographies are, in their way, often far more creative in their composition, more artistic in their narrative storytelling, and probably vastly more significant to us as readers, both personally and in terms of our society’s appreciation of the past, than most contemporary fiction!

               Participating in my writers groups in Boston and New Orleans I am privileged to watch the generative process, as it pertains to the creation of a non-fiction work. Over the months and years of development of a fellow member’s work I follow its initial, hesitant compositional molding, and the iterative, creative process that follows as the author struggles with the challenges and demands of the craft. Yet who in the world outside our groups is ever aware of that creative path leading to the finished work – the challenges faced, the battles fought over voice, narrative, source, insight, revelation, presentation?

Reviewers have a lot to answer for, as well as our teachers of literature.

Seldom if ever do reviewers identify, let alone comment on, the style or structure of our major biographies: the choices we have made in conveying personality, character, performance, failure, agency…. It is as if such works arrived ready-made, prêt à porter, in the literary market without genesis, without hesitation, without struggle. Moreover biographies are mostly seen and evaluated by such reviewers as information – preferably new. Or re-interpretation. Not, however, as a literary contribution to our culture. Which is sad.

How might we overcome this almost willful misunderstanding of biography in its literary, compositional mode in modern society – akin, say, to modern serious music?

               First off, literature departments in our universities could be urged, even shamed into paying the same attention to biographical texts as some have begun to do with certain kinds of non-fiction beyond “pure” fiction.

Since so many students have been minded in recent years to write their own autobiographical blogs and “selfies” in prose, literature professors have accepted the need to teach “memoir,” as well as other forms of “creative non-fiction,” including essays and “narrative non-fiction” dramatic stories. By teaching these “extra” curricular literary endeavors via textual analysis, dissection, backgrounding, perspective, artistic appreciation, cultural and historical placement, and the encouraging of students to try their own hand, such teaching has transformed and “modernized” many English language and literature departments in the U.S. If this is so, however, why not encourage teachers to extend their purview still further to include profiles, obituaries and great biographies – areas that, until now, teachers have been less than competent or even interested to do?

Teaching biography as part of non-fiction writing courses is certainly one important key: taking great biographies and exposing them to the same critical apparatus as fiction. But we could also, I would argue, also engage with the creators of modern biography.

Why not, I feel, go behind the texts that biographers ultimately put out and make available for our dissection? Why not explore the machinery, the creative process by which a biographer actually creates a great literary portrait, as much as a sculptor does a bust? Why not examine the materials a biographer has selected and used; watch the decisions he or she has made in composing the work – noting the changes, the iterations, that are made on the long journey to the finished portrait? Why not attempt to follow, in retrospect, the creation of a great work of biography? In that way we could, as a society, better learn what exactly goes into the making of a good or even great biography, rather than merely reviewing its ultimate presentation to the public. In that way we could help enlarge our society’s somewhat limited current appreciation of modern biography as literature, not simply knowledge.

For almost five decades I have practiced my profession as biographer, and have witnessed first hand how the genre has evolved in tandem with larger cultural, social, and artistic developments in our society. Both in my own work and in participating in non-fiction writing groups in London, Boston and now New Orleans, I am proudly aware that behind the text there is almost invariably a deep, intimate story of intellectual, artistic and moral engagement, as the biographer endeavors to combine scholarly investigation, imaginative structural composition, and fresh narrative technique to produce a credible, yet also artistically-fashioned work of modern literature as well as individual history.

That process – which for good or ill every modern biographer must undertake – is the  challenge facing the biographer today. Writ large it also forms an important theoretical justification of the developing genre of modern biography: one that the Biography Society is preparing to examine in depth, interdisciplinary breadth and international compass in the coming months and years.

I must admit, even though I report each month on progress in my current FDR trilogy, I also feel greatly excited to be a part of this new academic focus on the biographical firmament in which I have invested so much of my life!

               Vivat vita!

Nigel Hamilton

First President, Biographers International Organization (BIO)

Honorary President, La Société de Biographie

Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston
Author, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 and Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)