- The Pleasures (and Dangers) Of Biography
First, if I may, a confession. I do not like, and until recently rarely read, biographies. It is not that I doubt that there are good ones, or that I think biography is a lesser genre than narrative history writing, or that I dismiss the importance of individual women in making history. Mostly I find books that focus on the individual life too exclusive, too self-absorbed, and too packed with dinner parties; surely more tiresome than attending most parties is reading about them. And then, too many biographers fall in love with their subject and so, it seems to me, lose their balance. (Here I recommend Jill Lepore's article "Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography," whose self-deprecatory description of stroking "a lock of [Noah Webster's] hair in a tender embrace" in the archives made me laugh out loud.1 ) I learn too little actual history from most biographies—and too little about what the individual life really means in its time and place. I have heard the basic story (birth, the struggles of girlhood, the passions and limits of adulthood, death) before. I would certainly be far more bored reading about my own life than I am living it.
I know many historians who share my puzzlement that people actually read biographies; more, that they love them. Indeed, as a child, I enjoyed the little blue biographies about explorers and thinkers and people who performed a creative act that changed the world (though I admit I skipped the warriors and never found sea-stories much fun). Something about the biographical narrative—about living in another's skin, about identifying with a person from another time, another world, about imagining oneself in a heroic moment—draws people as few nonfiction genres do. I do not really get it. [End Page 205]
But I am researching and writing a biography, and so have embarked on reading dozens of them with an entirely new attitude. Certain preferences have inevitably emerged: I vastly prefer those whose authors do not love, or forgive, their subjects (Dan Carter's biography of George Wallace comes to mind2 ); I impatiently skim the ones with too many "important" guest appearances. Reminded of what historian Barbara Caine once called the "deep gulf between the biographical study of prominent feminists on the one hand, and the writing of the history of feminism and of women's movements on the other," I have been aware of navigating waters that are, at best, unfamiliar and, at worst, uncrossable.3
Feminist biography, Caine continues, while it tries to understand women in their place and time, necessarily focuses on people who transcended those constraints, who were exceptions or rebels or heroines. She points to collective biographies as a means of transforming the uses we can make of life histories. Alison Booth's How to Make It as a Woman contributes to this endeavor in important ways, both by exploring and explaining the pleasures people gain from reading women's lives and by illuminating the very act of compiling and honoring particular women's stories. Not itself a biography, it is a study of collective biographies (prosopographies) of women—those compendia of women's lives that sprung up regularly among the reading classes in part to celebrate, but as much to educate about, what women had, and therefore could, become. Booth's work teaches us not so much why people love biography, but what they are expected to learn, and teach, from the numerous individual stories gathered between a set of covers—or, in Booth's wonderful phrase, how "a...