- Clio's Lives: Biographies and Autobiographies of Historians ed. by Doug Munro and John G. Reid
Doug Munro and John G. Reid, editors
Australian National UP, 2017, 214 pages. ISBN 978-1760461430, $50.
All critics dedicated to the analysis of autobiographies and biographies of historians have experienced, in one way or another, the extraordinary vitality of this genre in Australia. In an article published in 2007, Jeremy Popkin picked up on the notable propensity of Australian historians for autobiographical creation and the attendant exploration of the theoretical and practical borders between the subjective and objective ("Ego-histoire" 129). It is therefore a cause for celebration that a group of Australian historians and critics, coordinated by Doug Munro and John G. Reid, have brought together in one volume articles analyzing particular characteristics of these genres.
To set out the volume's purpose and contents, the editors begin their elegant introduction by citing the seminal autobiography of Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings (1796), the influential collective volume Essais d'ego-histoire (1987) [End Page 421] edited by Pierre Nora, and the two monographs devoted specifically to the subject of historians' autobiographies: Jeremy Popkin's History, Historians, & Autobiography (2005) and Jaume Aurell's Theoretical Perspectives on Historians' Autobiographies (2016). The editors go on to make it clear that the volume is inspired "by the increasing though still-limited body of scholarship connecting the writing of history directly with the lives of those who write it" (1), and that its main aim is "to examine the ways in which biography and autobiography can enhance historiographical understanding in four principal areas [historians' autobiographies; biography and national identity; academic biography; and collective biography], and to conduct a reconnaissance in each" (2).
In the first contribution, "Writing History/Writing about Yourself: What's the Difference?", Sheila Fitzpatrick reflects on how autobiographical writing works, focusing especially on the rhetorical restrictions pertaining to its practice. The author of celebrated autobiographies (My Father's Daughter and A Spy in the Archives) and a specialist in Soviet Russia, Fitzpatrick has previously reflected on the complex links between history and autobiography. Her research now leads her to delve more deeply into such essential questions as truth, reliability, and accuracy in history. The steadily growing practice of autobiography in recent decades responds to the desire to explore the connections between the objective and subjective at the heart of a discipline affected by the relativizing tendencies of the linguistic and postmodern turns, and above all by its slide from among the predictive social sciences to the creative humanities. The practice of autobiography has led Fitzpatrick to recognize herself as a historian-writer rather than a historian-researcher: "A historian-writer is probably what I always wanted to be; I did not particularly enjoy the effort in my early years in America to remake myself as a social scientist" (36). Fitzpatrick's reflections allow for a better understanding of those intricate relations between history and biography, between the supposedly objective and the subjective, and enable her to conclude that "the writing of history can also be seen as an art, in which our storytelling is shaped (within the conventions of our craft) by aesthetic considerations; [. . .] it comes closest to the writing of autobiography, which can scarcely be regarded as a distinct craft and is certainly not a science" (37).
Fitzpatrick's contribution serves as a theoretical introduction to the articles that follow, and, I would venture to say, to the whole volume. Doug Munro and Geoffrey Gray compare three accounts of childhood and early formation written from memory by historians. The autobiographies of childhood and youth by James Walvin, Sheila Fitzpatrick, and John Rickard demonstrate the natural tendency of historians to project their innate inclination for the conventional monograph genre when they write autobiography. Their writings from memory are paradoxically the result of retrospective investigations of their own lives carried out in a systematic fashion, rather than a creative exploration based on the spontaneous and emotive nature of memory. This is even more problematic when it comes to the subgenre "autobiographies of childhood," in which memory is naturally the...