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  • Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing ed. by Hans Renders, Binne de Haan
  • Carl Rollyson (bio)
Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, eds. Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing.With a Foreword by Nigel Hamilton. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2013. 456pp. ISBN 978-0773440920, $159.00.

This is an unusually comprehensive study of biography divided into four sections: Historiography of Biographical Studies, Biography and History, Biography and Microhistory, and Biography and Life Writing. In addition, Nigel Hamilton contributes a foreword that decries the way biography has become a “volleyball, punched between History and Language and Literature faculties”—a situation that is even worse, I think, than he suggests—and several appendices dealing with “Sex in Biography,” “The Personal in the Political Biography,” “The Biographical Method,” “Why Genealogy and Biography Are Not Kin,” and a final bid by Nigel Hamilton for “A Nobel Prize for Biography.”

In their introduction, Hans Renders and Binne de Haan define their terms, insisting that biography is the ”study of an individual” and “Life Writing is biographical research in the broadest sense”—so broad, in fact, that Renders and de Haan seem quite skeptical of its agenda, which too often, in their view, centers on uncritical use of autobiography and tendentious efforts to correct the historical record by including the voices of various minorities that have been underrepresented in biography and history. Curiously, Renders and de Haan provide no definition of “micro-history,” and this seems rather telling, since the section devoted to this subject is by far the weakest—not only because the plethora of definitions is bewildering but also because the turgid and fussy style of the essays is off-putting.

Theoretical Discussions of Biography includes eight contributors in addition to the editors: Nigel Hamilton is a well-known biographer, whose work includes books about John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and a short history of biography. Richard D. Brown has published several books in early American history as well as microhistorical studies for the New England Quarterly; Carlo Ginzburg is a notable microhistorian whose book The Cheese and the Worms is cited several times in this volume; Marlene Kadar has published extensively in the field of life writing, including coediting ARIEL: Life Writing [End Page 392] in International Contexts (2008); Giovanni Levi has published several micro-historical monographs, such as Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist; Sabrina Loriga specializes in the relationship between history and biography, as exemplified in Le Petit x. De la biographie à l’histoire (2010); Matt Peltonen, a social historian, has contributed articles on historiography and social science methodology to History and Theory, Max Weber Studies, and Scandinavian Economic History Review; Hans Renders, who has published many articles about biography in international journals, is chair of History and Theory of Biography and director of the Biography Institute, both at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, and is assisted by Binne de Haan, a Ph.D candidate at the Biography Institute. His thesis “analyzes the relationship between Biography and Historiography in the past three decades.”

What this grouping of scholars suggests is that Renders and de Haan have broken out of the Anglo-American sphere of biography studies that tends to dominate publications in English. Indeed, Renders alone contributes nine of the twenty pieces in this book. His range of reference is impressive, as the titles of his articles suggest: “Towards Traditions and Nations,” “Roots of Biography: From Journalism to Pulp to Scholarly Based Non-Fiction,” “Contemporary Values of Life: Biographical Dictionaries in the Nineteenth Century,” “The Limits of Representativeness: Biography, Life Writing and Microhistory,” “Biography in Academia and the Critical Frontier in Life Writing: Where Biography Shifts into Life Writing,” “The Personal in Political Biography,” “The Biographical Method,” and “Why Genealogy and Biography Are Not Kin.” When “The Eclipse of Biography in Life Writing” by Binne de Haan is added to the Renders list of articles, virtually half of this anthology contains within it a monograph with a set of convictions: 1. Life writing has dangerously diluted the role biography has to play as a critical contributor to an understanding of history. 2. Biographers can profit from the...