Sunday, November 20, 2005

Biography/Gender

This week we will complete our discussion of course themes. Our discussion will focus on our biography projects. For our class meeting and discussion on our blog, consider the following questions: How does a good biographer approach his or her subject? What special problems does biography pose for the historian, who is often far removed in time from his or her subject? To what extent should the biographer attempt to explore motivations, thoughts, emotions, and other aspects of the subject as an individual that may or may not have influenced their decisions? To what extent can the biographer do this? Consider Robin Collingwood's claim that the biographer should attempt to "get inside the minds" of their subjects. What problems does such an approach create? Please listen to the presentations of your peers via our pod casting channel on biography. Get the link to the biography channel for the course on the left side of the blog main page. We have pod casts from all but two or three of the students.

5 Comments:

At 3:53 PM, Blogger Joey said...

I think that in examining the role of the biographer we really do need to go back to a point that Carr made in which he stated that historians are products of their times. We discussed at length about how as historians it is extremely difficult (and some say impossible) to remove our cultural identity from the narratives we produce. I believe this is much more so with biographers who can not escape their own time but find themselves writing about a time when people thought differently. In my particular project, I remember wanting to label Ivan's realm with the term "state" even though that concept was a more modern idea and was not accurately the case with Ivan IV. Exploring the workings of the inner minds and inner thought processes seems to me to be more historical psychology rather than history. Historians often do want to know what some one was thinking when they did something. I'm often poised with the question, Why did Hitler kill all of those Jews? Well certainly I can belabor my inquistor with Hitler's ideological outlooks, his stance on the Jewish or non-aryan race. But these are just glimpses into the mind of Hitler. So at best I am working with a skeletal framework rather than a theoretical whole (unless we find some manuscript or recording that states something to the effect of "I was thinking this..."). Collingwood's approach is open to severe criticism because it involves a good bit of speculation that might lead different researchers in different paths. Also, there is little ability for the research to verify the thoughts of people. I would like to offer a question to the group that I came upon in my book Ivan IV: The First Tsar of Russia. Can a biographer writer a truly complete and authorative narrative based on the people around the subject rather than on the works of the subject itself? In my case, de Madariaga examined the lives of the people around Ivan rather than strictly adhering to the works of Ivan alone. Is this beneficial to the story? What problems arise when biographers attempt to tell the story of one person through the story of another? Thank you all for your biography projects, I enjoyed them thoroughly.

 
At 10:01 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Vess said...

I tend to agree with Joey about Collingwood's notion of biography. Too, what does the class think about psycho-history?

 
At 12:27 PM, Blogger Donnie said...

Joey, That is a very good question. People, who change history, definately have a profound impact on the people around them. To study the people involved with a figure is a great way to understand the impact of one's actions as well as the impact of one's persona. Studying those around the figure offers a new perspective on a figure which should be held with as much importance as studies done directly on the figure. In regards to psycho-history, I believe that it is very difficult to try to paint an accurate picture of one's inner thoughts and emotions, but if a greater understanding is what we intend to gain through our studies, we must attempt to decode those things. I thought it was very interesting when Kathleen pulled up the innaccuracies in regards to McCullogh(sp). Over the holiday, I met my Girlfriend's granddad for the first time. He is a big history buff, particularly of the great depression and WWII. He claims to have read nearly every work on the time period. He asked me if I had read McCullogh, because he was such a great historian. I told him I haven't, but I mentioned to him some of the problems in his citations and created sources and he had never heard of them. The fact that he had never critqued the sources of a historian he very much respects reemphasizes the necessity of correct historical research, because the average history buff reads author's works and does not question what they read.

 
At 1:03 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

I think a good biographer approaches their subject with as much objectivity as possible. They should make use of others' interpretations of the individual covered in the biography--assuming others have written on that person beforehand. However, the writer probably should not base too much import on another's interpretations and should contribute what he/she feels is most accurate and correct based on primary sources that include documents, oral interviews, news coverage if available, etc. A problem posed is that a biographer cannot possibly know exactly what life was like for their subject or how their subject reacted and why exactly they chose to make the decisions they did. Reasons for this go without saying. However, this very aspect of a biography could very well be what makes it extremely challanging, imaginative, and fascinating for readers. A biographer must use not only their imagination but also a most advanced practice of analysis--historical and psychological. A biographer must especially overcome the barrier of time; by that I mean that each decade even has vastly differing points-of-view regarding most any aspect of society, etc., etc. A good biographer for that reason must first and foremost be adept at being thorough in their research. Without as complete an understanding as possible of the time period in which their subject lived, a biographer cannot produce an accurate portrayal of that person's times or that person. Because the times shaped the person significantly enough. I think a serious effort in trying to understand the subject's thoughts, etc. is beneficial to readers and almost essential to a good biography. Readers are free to disagree with the biographer, but an attempt on the biographer's part adds to scholarly interpretations and for that reason is important. However, no single analysis of the biographer's should be without a basis or source. If so, the analysis is useless and a negative contribution to scholarly research. If it is based on much proof and substantial evidence, however, then one cannot easily question the chance of its probability as being truth. A subject in a biography usually is profoundly influential, however, and of course his/her decisions contribute to that influence. Therefore, YES, decisions should be pondered based on psychological reasoning. Robert Collingwood's phrase, "get inside the minds," bothers me a little because that's to me impossible in many respects. I think a biographer must make no claim that he/she has succeeded in doing such an impossible task. However, I understand Collingwood's urging writers to "attempt" such, but their attempt must be stated clearly as just that. To me that kind of approach presents above all else a problem of ethics. When even imagining that someone attempts to get inside my head, I simply shake my head at the futility in that--just as I do with a biographer claiming to have really done such a thing on their subjects.

 
At 4:26 PM, Blogger Joey said...

I was reviewing a transcript of the Society of Civil War Historians banquet held in Atlanta this month. The topic was Civil War biographies and throughout the course of the presentation I came up with several different questions. First, in regards to well known figures, how can the biographer develop a narrative that is interesting on a subject that has been well-documented while remaining academically sound to the research? It seems amazing to me that year after year another biography of William T. Sherman comes out. And still, that biography often is a best seller. Does the popularity of the subject drive its readership? Second, could it be argued that gender plays a role in writing a biography. Joann Cashin, a noted Civil War biographer, comments that she is often approached with questions such as: do you like your subject? do you have a crush on your subject? These questions raise the point of historical context and connectivity with the past. We do not have the same value system or cultural outlook of our subjects because their time was dramatically different. For example, if you researched documents of the early 19th century, the "Great War" was the American Revoultion (or the Napoleonic Wars, depending on who you ask). If you researched document at the begining of the 20th century, the "Great War" was the U.S. Civil War until 1914. In the 1950s, however, the "Great War" became World War II. The point is that in order to write good biographies we must realize that the people we study live in a different time. We must not scorn Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves. In Jefferson's day, slavery was not a questioned practice in the U.S.

 

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