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  • Theoretical Perspectives on Historians' Autobiographies: From Documentation to Intervention by Jaume Aurell
  • Barbara Caine (bio)
Jaume Aurell. Theoretical Perspectives on Historians' Autobiographies: From Documentation to Intervention. Routledge, 2016, xii + 267 pp. ISBN 978-1138934405, $148.00.

The predominance of historians among the many scholars engaged in the autobiographical turn and seeking to use some aspects of their lives or personal experiences to interrogate or illustrate their field of study has been widely noted. Jeremy Popkin has explored the different approaches to autobiographical writing among historians in France, Britain, the United States, and Australia. Robin Viner, too, points to some of the national differences in approach, while stressing the link between this current vogue for historians' autobiography and a growing interest in contemporary history. Indeed, so great is this sense of the importance of linking personal experience with the story being told that those who were born after the events they are researching sometimes note or even apologize for this lack of direct connection and experience.

This extraordinary proliferation of historians' autobiographies provides the foundation for Jaume Aurell's new book, as it has for several of his earlier articles. Aurell's concern is to link historians' autobiographies with intellectual history and changing forms of historiography, as well as to extend the focus of current discussion to individual works or national tendencies among groups of autobiographies. Following the work of Pierre Nora and Gabrielle Spiegel, both of whom have sought to link the beliefs, experiences, and obsessions of historians with the historical works they write, Aurell suggests that historians' autobiographies indicate the prisms through which they have interpreted the past. Hence they need to be examined within the epistemological sphere of intellectual history as well as being seen as literary works and as ones that fit within a broader autobiographical framework. The autobiographies of historians, he insists, are privileged sources of historiographical inquiry. There are historical as well as personal impulses behind them, as they reflect the methodological approaches that dominate historical inquiry at any period. Hence in many cases, they serve as particular kinds of academic texts, offering insights into historical assumptions while sometimes also serving to modify or even transform the discipline. Among the questions that interest him are what precisely the historical imperative behind the autobiographies [End Page 385] written by historians is and whether, by virtue of their discipline, professional historians are involved in a particular version of the "autobiographical pact" that demands a greater degree of historical accuracy than is expected of other autobiographers.

Aurell has assembled an extraordinary array of historians' autobiographies in his quest to answer these and a number of other related questions. Although he is concerned primarily with the twentieth century, he draws on earlier models of autobiography and so begins his discussion with the Life of Giambattista Vico Written by Himself (1731). He continues into the twentyfirst century: the most recent work he discusses in some detail is Sheila Fitzpatrick's My Father's Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood. In between, Aurell addresses a very considerable number of European, British, North American, and Australian works. Rather than simply celebrate the richness and diversity of historians' autobiographies on offer, he establishes a taxonomy to impose order upon the set of texts he studies. Aurell posits a chronological framework based on the time when a historian was trained that is divided into generational groupings. Within each of these groupings, he points to both different autobiographical styles and other distinctive features that illustrate a particular historical approach. Altogether, Aurell insists that there are six autobiographical styles, and the bulk of the book is concerned with explaining what they are and showing how particular works fit into the six categories he has established.

Dividing his autobiographers into three generations, Aurell suggests that each of these generations exhibits two autobiographical styles. The first, the interwar generation, produced some autobiographies that he describes as "humanistic" and others that he sees as "biographical." The former, exemplified by Croce, Collingwood, and Vogelin, wrote autobiographies which, Aurell suggests, "may be read as intellectual history written by transdisciplinary historians who tended to idealize a life devoted to speculative scholarship and use of self-reflection to better understand both...


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