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Reviewed by:
  • Biography and History
  • Jeremy D. Popkin (bio)
Barbara Caine. Biography and History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. vii + 152 pp. ISBN 978-1403987266, $29.00.

Barbara Caine’s admirably clear and concise book is both a stimulating analysis of the relationship between biography, on the one hand, and history and autobiography, on the other, and a manifesto for the importance of the individual life history as a genre. Caine presents her book as a contribution to the “biographical turn” (1) that she sees affecting our culture in the past few decades. In a postmodernist world suspicious of grand narratives of collective experience, she argues, “biography can be seen as the archetypal ‘contingent [End Page 329] narrative’ and the one best able to show the great importance of particular locations and circumstances and the multiple layers of historical change and experience” (2). Historians have traditionally considered biography as a lesser vehicle for exploring the past, while postmodernists have questioned its basic premise—the notion that there is any coherence in the notion of an individual life—but, Caine contends, in the hands of its contemporary practitioners, particularly those interested in women’s lives, biography has demonstrated its own importance and vitality. Appealing to general readers and at the same time contributing to major intellectual debates, biography now occupies a strategic position as both a form of life writing and a partner with more traditional forms of history.

As Caine notes, biography has been a recognized genre since ancient times, when authors like Plutarch saw it as uniquely adapted to teach moral lessons, and recognized that it might appropriately include details about its subjects’ private lives that history excluded. Her treatment focuses primarily on developments since the seventeenth century and on biographers writing in western languages. Within those limits, she deftly sketches the changing attitudes of historians toward biography, the development of the genre itself, the theoretical debates about the relationship between biography and autobiography, and the changing approaches biographers have employed to reconstruct their subjects’ lives. Even as historians have rejected the notion that “great men” make history, they have increasingly embraced the idea that individual life stories could illustrate the circumstances that shaped the lives of people in the past. As biography has come closer to the historical genre of microhistory, it has become a means for exploring the experience of women and other neglected groups. Historians have always recognized that biographies sell better than specialized monographs, and even scholars who denigrated the genre have often practiced it themselves.

Notions of what should be included in a biography and of the proper relationship between biographers and their subjects have changed over the centuries. Eighteenth-century authors like Samuel Johnson took their subjects’ social relationships as their main topic, aiming to illuminate their characters. The nineteenth century saw a turn to life stories told with “decorum, propriety, and restraint” (34). Subjects’ childhoods received more attention, but potentially embarrassing revelations about their sexual lives and private problems were excluded. Twentieth-century biographers, exemplified by Lytton Strachey, turned these strictures on their heads, emphasizing their subjects’ flaws; as subsequent biographers attempted to define the inner core of subjects’ lives, they focused ever more intently on relationships with parents and sexual partners and called on psychoanalysis to elucidate motives that the [End Page 330] biographees themselves might not have recognized. Although Virginia Woolf is not normally thought of as a biographer, Caine credits her with elevating the importance of the biographer as a writer, opening the way for the recognition, brought home by the new interest in life writing since the 1970s, that biography always includes an element of its author’s autobiography. Postmodernism has questioned the existence of that core of personality that mid-twentiethcentury biographers sought to define, but the development of the idea of identity as performance has opened new perspectives for biographical exploration.

Caine devotes a stimulating chapter to collective biography, a form she herself has practiced. Often overlooked in discussions of life writing, collective biography can be traced back to Plutarch and to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and forward to contemporary experiments in group biography, often built around the interlinked stories of members of a...