Life and times of lives in lines

Biography
June 1, 2007

Nigel Hamilton has been a critically acclaimed biographer for almost 30 years now. His most notable achievements to date are Monty , a three-volume Whitbread Award-winning life of Field Marshal Montgomery (1981), and the bestselling JFK: Reckless Youth (1992). He is currently in a middle of another epic biography, this time chronicling the ups and downs of Bill Clinton. In this precise, massively informative and scrupulously researched new book, Hamilton turns his gaze from the lives of others to that of his own art, life-writing itself.

Despite biography's being one of the most resilient and popular cultural forms we have, Hamilton points out that it has received relatively little scholarly treatment. It's an oversight, he argues, that must be addressed if we are fully to understand our culture, our lives and our past. His own contribution takes the form of this lovingly crafted life of life-writing, from its birth on the cave walls of prehistoric man through to the postmodern electro-mayhem of blogging.

Biography has a habit of conjuring and continuing to debate important questions. What are the roles of the individual, and of individualism, in different human cultures? How do we remember individual lives? Is the role of biography to commemorate or to criticise? How far is it acceptable to adulterate fact with imaginative fiction, even when the historical record is a moth-eaten fabric? Hamilton's achievement is to trace biography's evolving answers to these questions through human history by skilfully picking out his subject's responses to the pressures of religious and secular law, changing social assumptions and developing technologies.

Biography's first golden age was in Rome, where Plutarch, Suetonius and Tacitus brought the deified heroes of Grecian and Roman history crashing down to earth. It found a new raison d'être with the rise of Christianity, with its emphasis on the individual's struggle for personal salvation. In Islamic and Hindu civilisations, by contrast, depictions of the individual were either proscribed or, for doctrinal reasons, irrelevant. Much early Christian biography, however, didn't provide us with real human beings but with the refined spiritual products of hagiography, with one great exception: Saint Augustine's intimate and daring Confessions .

The Renaissance saw a huge expansion of the art of biography and a new interest in secular lives; but it also brought newly draconian measures of censorship that - in one form or another - would restrict the biographer through to the epoch-making libel judgments of the 1960s. Those with an interest in the dramatic potential of human failings, such as Shakespeare, would need to look elsewhere, to the more nebulous realms of imaginative literature. By the time of the Victorians, censorship and social propriety had conspired to produce a form of bland neo-hagiography, leaving biography in desperate need of a shake-up. A fresh impetus was supplied by the "new biography" of Modernism and then the rise of film, which between them placed a newly sexualised and edgy biography back at the centre of cultural debate, where it remains to this day.

Great biographies give us full human lives; they emphasise an individual's weaknesses as well as strengths. But biography's ability to fascinate comes in part from the sympathy that exists between biographer and subject. This is what makes biography an essentially human activity, but it also introduces the possibility of bias, of favourable interpretation and even of hero worship. Boswell's great biography of Samuel Johnson is unsurpassed as a compelling depiction of an individual life, but few would argue that it is balanced.

Hamilton's case for biography is strong and passionate, but at times he is prone to overlook the weaknesses of his own subject. Biography becomes a crusader in the cause of individuality, part of a Western response to "two seismic world wars fought against totalitarian ideologies that assigned no importance to the individual". But this is to lose amid the horrors of Stalinism what was important in Marx's anti-individualistic thinking.

Our "free" Western societies are also deplorably vain and selfish; we are well attuned to our own rights as individuals, but not to those of others, especially the rights of those not yet born to live on a functioning planet. Biography, especially in its recent fascination with the consuming habits of barely sentient footballers' wives, must accept its place in this culture.

But then, what do we really want from our biographers? Do we want them to strive towards an inhumanly scientific history, assuming that were possible? Do we want them to refine themselves out of the lives of their subjects? Or do we want living, thinking human beings, with their own biases and interests, engaging with other flawed but fascinating personalities? In refusing the former two, Hamilton has written a book that is insistently readable.

Tony Howe teaches English at University College, Oxford.

Biography: A Brief History

Author - Nigel Hamilton
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 345
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 9780674024663

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