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1 8 Historically Speaking · May/June 2004 Get a Life! Reflections on Biography and History Joseph Ellis 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 oflife-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 ordinaryis 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 oftalent 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 / think we have apretty serious generalization problem in theprofession nowadays. Ranke-like statements about discovering the unvarnished truth have been epistemologically naivefor almost one hundredyears. union which exposes it to the virulent perils ofprofessionalization. Ifwe all went to a Modern Language Association conference, we could see these perils displayed conspicuously in the jargon-choked and laughablypostured pursuits ofthe 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." What is the source of biography's appeal to readers? We know that 40-60% of American readers get the bulk of their knowledge of history from biography. So the appeal is clear. To say that biography puts a human face on history is true but facile. More panoramically, biography operates on an assumption that has been a central premise ofthe humanistic tradition in the West since the Renaissance, namely, that the individual life is worth knowing for its own sake because the individual life is the sovereign unit of history. The term biography actually entered the lexicon in the 16th century alongside that seminal premise . And we continue to live in a culture here in the United States that celebrates the individualistic idea as a core principle of our liberal polity. Moreover, there is a secret truth that has remained true over the ages, from Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans to the Lives of the Christian Martyrs written by monks and church fathers: namely, we study other Uves in order to learn how better to live our own. I realize that as card-carrying historians we are obliged to question this human...


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