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  • Understanding Biographies: On Biographies in History and Stories in Biography by Birgitte Possing
  • Jeremy D. Popkin (bio)
Birgitte Possing. Understanding Biographies: On Biographies in History and Stories in Biography. Translated by Gaye Kynoch, UP of Southern Denmark, 2017, 232 pp. ISBN 978-8776749927, $32.95.

In an autobiographical introduction, Danish historian and biographer Birgitte Possing recounts how she was challenged at her dissertation defense in 1978 by a senior professor who wondered aloud what the study of the life of a single person—an unmarried woman at that!—could contribute to the understanding of the past. Since then, the abandonment of faith in "grand narratives" of history and the broad "biographic turn" in the social sciences and humanities has transformed the atmosphere. Nevertheless, biography remains, Possing contends, an undertheorized genre that has not attracted the attention bestowed on autobiography or the academic status of history. She offers Understanding Biographies, a revised version of a 2015 Danish publication, Ind i biographien, as an attempt to remedy this situation. Having devoted much of her own career to writing about women's lives, Possing wants to remedy a situation in which most biographies are written by men about men. She also wants to argue that biography is "inextricably linked to Western democratic societies' increasing focus on concepts such as the freedom, integrity and complexity of the individual" (30).

Short and accessibly written, Understanding Biographies is divided into four chapters, dealing with the definition of biography, critical approaches to the genre, the ethics of biography, and four case studies of how biographies today are written, read, and reviewed. Possing's discussion draws extensively on biographical literature from the Scandinavian countries that will be unfamiliar to most English-language readers, but she also discusses biographies and critical perspectives from the English-speaking world. Biography, as she defines it, is "a story about and an interpretation of a life" (22) that is written by someone other than its protagonist (she explicitly eschews the use of the term "subject" since, in her view, a biography necessarily reflects the subjectivity of its author, not that of the person whose life it narrates). It is a genre that is both "a branch of historiography as well as literary portraiture" (68).

Although Possing's definition posits a certain basic unity to the genre—in contrast to Philippe Lejeune's famous "autobiographical pact," for example, Possing requires that the author of a biography not claim to be the same person as its protagonist—she also insists on its multiplicity. She identifies eight distinct models or, in her terminology, "archetypes" that characterize different approaches to biography, ranging from "mirror" biography in the mode of Plutarch, meant to teach didactic lessons; to "interpretive biography," exemplified by Lytton Strachey; "life-and-times" biography; and "polyphonic biography" that deliberately proposes conflicting interpretations of its protagonist [End Page 449] (69–84). In practice, her interest is focused on the prevailing models of individual biography in the contemporary world; for a brief history of the genre, Barbara Caine's Biography and History offers a better introduction. To test her hypothesis that biography suffers from a gender bias, she compiled statistics on recent reviews of biographies in the American Historical Review and comparable journals. She is no doubt right that most such biographies deal with high-status men, but her reliance on data from publications devoted to the academic study of a past in which men occupied almost all positions of power seems bound to confirm her hunch. In general, Possing shows little interest in popular biographies and their authors, thereby missing women authors, such as the nineteenth-century "amateurs" discussed in Bonnie Smith's The Gender of History.

Possing's second chapter on "Attitudes, Principles, and Critics" is a scattershot affair, offering a highly compressed discussion of theoretical perspectives on biography, comments on a few leading practitioners, a proposed set of principles for biography authors, and a brief exploration of the "biographical triangle" that connects authors, their protagonists, and their readers. One might have expected Possing to identify herself with the "new biography" movement launched by American women's historian Jo Burr Margadant and others in the 1990s, but she professes to find little new...


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pp. 449-452
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