Category Archives: Reflections on Biography

Letter from Richmond, VA (BIO CONFERENCE 2016)

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)

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

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