Tag Archives: biography and literature

The Biographical Turn: Lives in History – H.Renders, B. de Haan, J. Harmsma.

Edited by Hans Renders, Binne de Haan, Jonne Harmsma
222 pages
© 2017 – Routledge

Paperback: 9781138939714
pub: 2016-09-28
Hardback: 9781138939707
pub: 2016-09-26


The Biographical Turn showcases the latest research through which the field of biography is being explored. Fifteen leading scholars in the field present the biographical perspective as a scholarly research methodology, investigating the consequences of this bottom-up approach and illuminating its value for different disciplines.

While biography has been on the rise in academia since the 1980s, this volume highlights the theoretical implications of the biographical turn that is changing the humanities. Chapters cover subjects such as gender, religion, race, new media and microhistory, presenting biography as a research methodology suited not only for historians but also for explorations in areas including literature studies, sociology, economics and politics. By emphasizing agency, the use of primary sources and the critical analysis of context and historiography, this book demonstrates how biography can function as a scholarly methodology for a wide range of topics and fields of research.

International in scope, The Biographical Turn emphasizes that the individual can have a lasting impact on the past and that lives that are now forgotten can be as important for the historical narrative as the biographies of kings and presidents. It is a valuable resource for all students of biography, history and historical theory.

Table of Contents


List of contributors


1 The Biographical Turn: Biography as Critical Method in the Humanities and in Society

Hans Renders, Binne de Haan and Jonne Harmsma


Section 1: The Biographical Turn in the Humanities

2 Biography as Corrective

Nigel Hamilton

3 The Plurality of the Past: Historical Time and the Rediscovery of Biography

Sabina Loriga

4 The Life Is Never Over: Biography as a Microhistorical Approach

Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon

5 Personalized History: Biofiction, Source Criticism and the Topicality of Biography

Binne de Haan

6 The Life Effect: Literature Studies and the Biographical Perspective

Joanny Moulin

7 Biography as a Concept of Thought: On the Premises of Biographical Research and Narrative

Christian Klein


Section 2: The Biographical Turn in Fields of Knowledge

8 Biographies as Multipliers: The First World War as Turning Point in the Lives of Modernist Artists

Hans Renders and Sjoerd van Faassen

9 ‘Honest Politics’: A Biographical Perspective on Economic Expertise as a Political Style

Jonne Harmsma

10 Rediscovering Agency in the Atlantic: A Biographical Approach Linking Entrepreneurial Spirit and Overseas Companies

Kaarle Wirta

11 Building Bridges to Past Centuries: Religion and Empathy in Early Modern Biography

Enny de Bruijn

12 Palatable and Unpalatable Leaders: Apartheid and Post-Apartheid Afrikaner Biography

Lindie Koorts


Section 3: The Biographical Turn in Academia and Society

13 Biography Is Not A Selfie: Authorization as the Creeping Transition from Autobiography to Biography

Hans Renders

14 What Are We Turning From? Research and Ideology in Biography and Life Writing

Craig Howes

15 Liberation From Low Dark Space: Biography Beside and Beyond the Academy

Carl Rollyson

16 From Academic Historian to Popular Biographer: Musings on the Practical Poetics of Biography

Debby Applegate




Book Review: Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography by Michael Benton

Reviewed by Joanny Moulin 

Michael Benton.
Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
192 pages. 67,20€.
ISBN-10: 1137549572. ISBN-13: 978-1137549570.
E-book ASIN: B015YB0HQQ. 

Benton_Towards a poetics

In Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography Michael Benton, Emeritus
Professor of Education at the University of Southampton (UK), elaborates on the themes of his earlier Literary Biography: An Introduction (Wiley Blackwell, 2009), of which a new edition comes out at the same time. Whereas in the previous monograph the theoretical discourse was chiefly summed up in the introduction, whereupon there followed a sequence of case studies grouped in twelve chapters, in Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography the theoretical remarks and the illustrative examples are blended together, in an amply documented analytical survey of remarkable twentieth-century British biographies, with some excursions into the nineteenth century, especially to illustrate the notion of “comparative biography”, defined by Richard Holmes as examining “the handling of one subject by a number of different biographers, and over different historical periods”. In both his books on literary biography ­­­­— i. e. biographies of writers, and not what he calls “aesthetic” biography as opposed to “documentary” or “efferent” biography (the terms are borrowed from L. Rosenblatt’s 1978 essay The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work)—, Benton’s chief postulate is that biography is characterized by “a generic dualism”, or in other words that biography is a hybrid of historiography and fiction, “grafting together the literary and the historical”. What Benton used to call the “twofoldness” of biography is now supplemented by the new concept of “bifocalism”: a term which “reflects the truism that, when looking at the past through the lens of the present, the process of recreating the ‘lives and times’ of the subject contains both the ‘now’ and the ‘then’, a paradox caught in the idea of the ‘contemporary’. For the biographer is engaged in a double act — in reinterpreting the life in order to represent it for a contemporary readership and, at the same time, trying to capture a portrait of the subject in period context, as a figure of the time as might have been seen by his or her contemporaries”. In an effort to examine the adaptability to biography of Genette’s conceptual tools of “histoire” (“story”) and “récit” (“text”) in Narrative Discourse, Benton concludes that “the biographer is more constrained than the novelist in handling time, in terms of order, duration and pace of narration, because “the given pattern of the life remains inscribed in the biography and cannot be changed without distorting the story”. This postulate of “the given pattern of the life” is likely to raise some eyebrows, as well as some other assertions, as for instance that “narration in biography is done by the actual writer — there being no fictional narrator, either dramatized or covert”, or that “biography seems uninterested in questioning the principles of composition upon which it is based”. However, Benton’s new book opens very interesting directions for research in biography theory, especially insofar as it points out the importance of the reception of biography. For instance, reflecting on Hayden White’s theses, Benton asks: “how far are structural models from literature responsible for the interpretations we make in biography?” His most thought-provoking considerations appear in the last chapter, “Framing a Poetics of Literary Biography”, where he sums up the theoretical contents of his books, and further elaborates upon the “narrative strategies” of biographers. Precisely because of its characteristic “tension between literary rhetoric and historical method”, Benton says as he draws to his conclusion, biography is “a literary genre that offers subtle and sophisticated reading lessons”. On the whole, Michael Benton’s Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography is interesting primarily because it brilliantly tackles the texts of many noteworthy biographers, doing them the rare, but highly deserved favour to analyse their writings as literary texts, thus contributing to giving biography as a genre some lettres de noblesse. From the theoretical point of view, although Benton’s book unassumingly limits its scope to “literary biography”, it holds in store several seminal insights toward a general theory of biography.

Joanny Moulin
Aix-Marseille University

Biography and Detective Fiction

By Nigel Hamilton


When I told my fellow writers in the Boston Biographers Group (BBG) that I’d stopped work on FDR and was reading detective novels, there was kind of gasp of incomprehension.

Detective fiction?”


“But why?” they asked

“I’ve got writer’s block.”

“And detective fiction solves writer’s block?”

I blushed. “It might.”

At the next meeting, held at the Lutheran Church near Harvard Square, I was asked if it had helped.

“Not yet,” I admitted. “But I’ve definitely improved the sales of Henning Mankell.”

The month after that, though, I was healed.

“No more writer’s block!” I announced with relief, as if I’d overcome planter fasciitis, or tennis elbow.

“Was it Mankell?” someone asked.

“It was!” I responded, full of gratitude. “I feel like writing to thank him.

“That’d be difficult,” someone else pointed out. “He just died.”

Mankell – creator of Detective Inspector Kurt Wallender, the overweight, flawed, workaholic policeman from Ystad, near Malmö, Sweden?

“Yep. Aged 67.”

Wow! I was shocked.

“No more Wallender tales,” someone said, elegiacally.

“Unless, like famous fictional heroes – Sherlock Holmes, James Bond – another writer resurrects him,” said someone else

People were looking at me.

“No, no, no!” I protested. “I’m 71 already!”

Too old to switch gears (all cars are automatic transmission here), let alone profession.

Not always, though, I had to admit. My friend Larry Leamer – a group biographer of the Kennedy women as well as men – had just written a one-woman biographical play about Rose, the Kennedy family matriarch, and was getting it produced on 42nd Street, New York… (More about that another time.)

To study the relationship between detective fiction and biography might be a neat project for someone, some day, however. The biographer is, after all, a real-life literary detective. He or she may not be charged with solving a crime, but the process of biography is remarkably similar, surely.

Think about it, I urged my colleagues. Assembling evidence, following a trail, interviewing witnesses, drawing up a verifiable chronology, examining forensic evidence, testing hypotheses, checking facts and records, approaching family members, deciding what will hold up in court and what won’t, dealing with the media… And the long hours! The workaholic, obsessive focus on the single investigation: on researching, eliciting, presenting the truth – or best-effort at truth – about a real human being’s actions. Meeting daily the challenge of innocence or guilt; daring to move beyond assumptions, false information, defenses, deceit, lies, posturing, even hostility on the part of those with a vested interest in preserving a well-varnished reputation…

Yes, the biographer may not wear a sidearm or holstered gun (unless from Texas!), but he or she can certainly empathize with fictional detectives. Both police detectives and private detectives.

We are, in our way, akin to private detectives, after all: employed to research and report on the behavior and character of selected individuals. One such detective I know in Boston has a further degree in psychology; she spends much of her time checking out the truthfulness of potential witnesses before trial – something I also do now almost by rote, as a biographer, after almost half a century of investigative work.

And Detective Inspector Wallender, the Swedish curmudgeon? What was so gratifying, so restorative for me in reading of his exploits in little Ystad, I was asked?

Escapism, yes – to the extent that all fiction is a mythic escape from reality into a world of make-believe, where truth doesn’t matter, and where entertainment – both high-brow (“literature”) and low-brow (“pulp fiction”) – is all. But Henning Mankell’s achievement was to me far more than the creation of a brilliantly fallible yet intuitively-inspired fictional detective, I insisted. It was Wallender’s dogged, methodical pursuit of the truth that was Mankell’s wonderful contribution to the genre, in my humble view as a blocked biographer searching for a magical elixir that would free my pen. There were very few set-piece dramatic scenes, or pyrotechnics; rather, I found myself happily following the ageing, stumbling detective as he began at zero, and so often returned to zero in terms of solving swiftly the puzzle or riddle of a murder. He was deplored by his superiors, given his contempt for the media and his refusal to rush to judgment, or hand over to others. He believed passionately in the process of detective work: that ultimately the truth, or something close to verifiable truth, will emerge, over time – and patient investigation.

I loved that conviction. I loved the simplicity of Ystad, the little town with its tough drink-driving laws and summer beaches. Reading Mankell’s tales of the Ystad detective I found myself re-centering my focus, my gaze, my concentration. Few thrills: just the patient, relentless process of investigation, in the pursuit of the truth about a human being – and a modicum of justice, even after death.

Bravo Mankell! And en avant with FDR…

Nigel Hamilton