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  • Biography in Theory: Key Texts with Commentaries ed. by Wilhelm Hemecker and Edward Saunders
  • Joanny Moulin (bio)
Biography in Theory: Key Texts with Commentaries
Wilhelm Hemecker and Edward Saunders, editors
De Gruyter, 2017, viii + 288 pp. ISBN 9783110501612, $34.95 paperback.

This book is an English edition, revised and augmented, of Theorie der Biographie: Grundlagentexte und Kommentar edited by Wilhelm Hemecker and Bernhard Fetz (De Gruyter, 2011). Out of the forty-one articles it contains, twenty-six (63%) were in the first anthology in German, of which thirteen have been discarded, while nineteen new texts (46%) have been added in. The principle of composition consists in offering an abundant selection of essential contributions to the theory of biography since the eighteenth century, predominantly issued from the European tradition, with each text coupled with an article by one or several researchers of the Ludwig Boltzman Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Biographie (Ludwig Boltzman Institute for the History and Theory of Biography), founded in Vienna in 2005. The rationale for the game of musical chairs that has eliminated such authors as André Maurois, Emil Ludwig, Michel Foucault, Leo Löwenthal, Wolfgang Hildssheimer, and Anne-Kathrin Reulecke, to usher in Marcel Proust, Boris Tomashevsky, Roland Barthes, James Clifford, Carolyn Steedman, and Gillian Beer is not self-evident, but may simply be explained by circumstantial necessities. Be it as it may, it is regrettable the decision was not made to keep them all on board, even at the cost of reducing the length of the commentaries if such was the diktat of the law of the market, for the whole collection is so interesting and well-made that making it longer would have been better.

The work is intended as a textbook for students of biography properly speaking—that is to say considered as a distinct genre, no longer subsuming it under the umbrella of life writing, which also includes autobiography and memoir in all their forms. In this respect, this book does an immense service to the slowly emerging research field of biography studies, for at least three excellent reasons. First, by focusing on biography in the strict sense as a specific object of research, it liberates it from the epistemological quicksand in which it has too long remained stilted. Second, it provides us with a robust tool for the teaching of biography studies that [End Page 818] will do much to ensure the development of its academic institutionalization. Third, it is all the more efficient for being written in English—and incidentally, Johann Gottfried Herder’s “Fifth Letter on the Furtherance of Humanity” (1793) and Stefan Zweig’s “History as a Poetess” (1943) appear here in English translation for the first time—and therefore it may easily become an international course book. But furthermore, it reinforces the worldwide dissemination of the achievements of the researchers of the Viennese institute, of which it does more than adumbrate a sample state of the art. It also raises the hope that their two major contributions to the field, Die Biographie: Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte by Wilhelm Hemecker and Die Biographie: Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie by Bernhard Fetz, will soon be translated into English as well.

In his introduction, Edward Saunders explains that the title Biography in Theory, rather than “Theory of Biography” (Theorie der Biographie), is meant to “invite a more open, and altogether more sceptical, discussion” (1). This is a rhetorical precaution against a biting northwesterly anti-theory wind that has for some time chilled the literary zeitgeist. He pays lip service to writers like Ray Monk, the peremptory author of “Life without Theory: Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding,” who prefers “to see biography as an exemplar of Wittgenstein’s notion of the ‘understanding that consists in seeing connections’” (258), but paradoxically speaks as if such a statement was not a very insightful contribution to the theory of biography. For there is in fact a misunderstanding of what we understand by “theory,” because of a very transitory historical phenomenon by which, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, “Theory” exerted a temporary hegemony over literary science, of which it must nevertheless be an indispensable component, as...