Joseph Ellis: The State of Biography Today

Roundup: Talking About History

Joseph Ellis, in Historically Speaking, the bulletin of the Historical Society (June 2004):

What is the current status of biography within the historical profession? I would say it is a bastard, or perhaps an orphan periodically adopted as a welfare case by history or English departments. The hegemonic power within the historical profession for the last thirty to forty years has been social history, which cuts against the biographical grain in multiple ways. It makes the collective rather than the individual life the primal unit of study. It privileges the periphery over the prominent figures at the political center, who become “dead white males” and their respective stories elitist narratives casually dismissed as “great man history,” even when the subject is a woman, or even when the story told undermines the entire notion that men make history. Any aspiring graduate student in history who expresses an interest in, say, Thomas Jefferson and his first term as president, rather than the Creole population that Jefferson appropriated for the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, has inadvertently committed professional suicide.

Is the dominance of social history a bad thing? I think it is bad for the profession of history because it stigmatizes the venerable tradition of life-writing, which in fact has a pedigree as long as or longer than history, dating back to the chronicles chiseled on the stone slabs of Egyptian pharaohs in 1400 B.C. It also sustains the myth that biography invariably imposes a simplistic set of assumptions about human agency, namely that men make history rather than the other way around, which is a patent falsehood. Its focus on the inarticulate and the ordinary is also rooted in the preposterous presumption that most students and readers already know the mainstream story of American history—an illusion that would not survive scrutiny for five minutes in any undergraduate classroom in the land. And like any methodological or ideological bias, it channels the full range of talent in the profession into one corral, rather than letting it wander free on the open range of its own choosing.

On the other hand, I don’t think it is a bad thing for biography. The intellectual health of biography, I would assert, is largely a function of its outlaw status. The question is not whether biography should be welcomed into the house of history, but whether biography should consent to the union which exposes it to the virulent perils of professionalization. If we all went to a Modern Language Association conference, we could see these perils displayed conspicuously in the jargon-choked and laughablypostured pursuits of the trivial, all packaged in literary categories specifically designed to be unintelligible to all but the chosen few. Historians are, I fear, blind to the same evidence when we are the chosen few. Biography, it seems to me, is better off as a “wild thing.”...

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