- A Biographical Turn?
David Nasaw, opening a 2009 American Historical Review roundtable on biography, expressed the attitude many historians have toward the genre when he wrote that it “remains the profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff.”1 Many scholars, Nasaw noted, believe that biographies cannot provide the “analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected.”2 The roundtable featured nine articles from well-known historians, most of whom qualified their entries by claiming that their books were not “typical” biographies. These apologies aside, all the articles offered useful ideas for broadening the genre’s boundaries. Lois Banner emphasized the “power of culture in shaping the self, in accord with the belief that culture, not nature, is the primary force molding individual personality.”3 Judith M. Brown declared that she does “not see myself as a biographer” but as “a historian of a time and a region … who uses the medium of ‘life histories,’ of individuals and groups of individuals, to seek evidence to [End Page 163] probe many key issues.”4 In the case of historians working in ancient and medieval history, the sources for biography are limited, a situation that Robin Fleming uses to explain why scholars in these fields turn to prosopography, or multiple biographies.5 In his contribution to the roundtable, Jochen Hellbeck argued that traditional cradle-to-grave biographies “seem to limit, rather than enrich, historical understanding,” because their “focus on a single thinking and acting personality easily breeds self-absorption, at the expense of larger transpersonal dimensions.” Instead, he suggested that scholars should focus more on “how and why the sources that we treat as biographical raw material were produced in the first place,” a method that would “shift the perspective from a thinking and speaking biographical subject to the making of subjects of biographical experience.”6 Finally, as Kate Brown argued in her article “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” biographies do not even have to be about individuals but could be about places such as the Ukrainian heartland.7
One key point for historians, Nasaw concluded in his introduction, is to treat individuals as part of larger social structures and cultures. He approvingly cites Marx’s view from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.”8 Yet there is still room for the more “traditional” biographical approach. In her book on the genre, Barbara Caine writes, “biography can be seen as the archetypical ‘contingent 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.”9 Caine even writes that “a biographical turn” has taken place, one that involves “a new preoccupation with individual lives and [End Page 164] stories as a way of understanding both contemporary societies and the whole process of social and historical change.”10
A biographical boom has certainly taken place in our field of late. The study of Soviet subjectivity that began in the mid-1990s introduced a major rethinking of how we understand the modern self in general and the creation of Homo sovieticus in particular. Other scholars have charted equally ambitious, innovative approaches that span the centuries, even while treating the term “biography” with caution. In their creative collection, Portraits of Old Russia, Donald Ostrowski and Marshall Poe employed “imaginative historical re-creation” along with “informed speculation” to narrate the history of early modern Russia through the lives of individual people. The contributions to the volume craft “composites of individual lives, rather than biographies,” ranging from nobles to...