Learning to love biographers

July 7, 1995

Ben Pimlott stands up for a derided bunch of individuals. A colleague recently told me a story that could have been meant to put me my place. He had been talking over the brandy at an international conference, he said, to a notable American academic about their own respective menageries. In the course of the conversation, he happened to mention that he worked alongside a political biographer.

"A political what?" blinked the prof. "A political biographer," replied my friend. "You mean he writes biographies of politicians?" asked the other. "Yes." "You mean he writes biographies of modern politicians in a political science department?" - the tone of incredulity was now rising - "why, in my country, he would have to be in a school of journalism!" Setting aside the issue of where political science and journalism come in the pecking order, there was no doubt of his drift: political biography is viewed across the Atlantic as a cerebrally dubious pursuit.

It would be pleasant to report that such snobbery is confined to the United States. Alas it is not. I remember telling a well-known British historian many years ago that I was writing a biography of Hugh Dalton, and why. After listening glazedly, he asked, without a trace of self-mockery, "But is it part of the discipline?" That such an exchange is seared in memory shows how much it hurt: I was made aware that many "proper" historians and political scientists find it hard to take biography seriously.

This is odd, for not only is biography the most traditional way of writing about politics and historical events (indeed, it is the oldest), it has become overwhelmingly the most popular.

Oh dear: "popular" is a word that raises hackles almost as much as "biography'. However, I mean here not just that it is popular among the public, but also that many historians and political scientists frequently double as biographers. Few of them would consider that they had been slumming it intellectually, and several first made their reputations with a biography.

Why then the prejudice? It would be reassuring to think that the main reason is jealousy. This could be a factor: after all, most academics secretly want to be read. However, a bigger reason is probably a mix of incomprehension, and a sadly accurate assessment of the short-comings of many practitioners. The incomprehension is of what the biographer is or should be trying to do: the just assessment is of what is too often served up.

One objection to biography is that individual lives and historical deeds - Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution, Roosevelt and the New Deal - are separate, and you learn little about the latter by studying the former. Another is based on an implied historical determinism - few lives matter as much as impersonal forces. A third is that when biographies go beyond the high politics, the information they provide is trivial (a point often expressed in the form: "I have no wish to know what Abraham Lincoln had for breakfast" etc). A fourth - philosophically distinct - reservation is that biography is flabby: as soon as the writer tries to get into the skull of his subject in order to speculate about motives and feelings, he becomes a fiction-writer, a fantasist, a kind of "human interest" journalist.

Perhaps at this point a dutiful biographer, loyal to his calling, should seek to refute such charges. Actually, I am inclined to accept some of them, and simply say that the critics are barking up the wrong tree.

I would prefer to argue that biography has and needs no justification: it simply exists as a form of historical writing and you can take it or leave it. Biography is not an adjunct of a "discipline", it is not trying to do anything, it has no earnest moral purpose as a genre. Instead - like pottery or basket-weaving - it succeeds, in a variety of different ways, when the consumer finds it pleasing.

My case for biography is that, at its best, it is as an art not a science: and that it is one reason why so many fine historians (and novelists) want to write it. Of course it has a relationship to other historical writing but it makes no apology about being creative.

By this, I do not mean that biographers should make things up. On the contrary, much of the power of biography lies in what Virginia Woolf called "the fertile fact". But biographers deceive themselves if they claim that all they do is give the facts in a logical sequence. In reality, a biography that works is nearly always one in which the author persuades the reader to empathise with, or somehow or other get under the skin of, the subject. Successful biography is not hagiographical, nor is it psychological: instead it tells a story as a kind of "truth novel", rigorously accurate, though also highly selective, and concentrating on plot, shape and intuitive effect, as much as on argument.

The biographer is also, refreshingly, a jack of all trades. Modern historiography and political science are preoccupied with specialisms: those who write about them often focus on currently fashionable controversies. The biographer is under the same pressure to write fashionably, but his topic inevitably takes him into unexpected corners. Biography takes the writer into territory he would not usually enter and encourages him to make connections that might otherwise never occur to him.

One reason for snootiness about biography is that an awful lot of it is heavy going. There are plenty of bad biographies, and proportionately more rubbish exists in this field than in many others. Looking at the range of biographies currently produced - 20 times as many as a generation ago - as well as the (on the whole) better quality of writing and research, I have the sense of a vibrant profession that is changing at a hectic pace.

Should there be "schools of political biography" alongside schools of journalism and the rest? That would be nice. Certainly there should be a club. At present, neither exists, and almost nothing is written about political biography, as opposed to its more respectable "literary" cousin.

It is about time there was, and I have no doubt that eventually there will be. Sometime in the 22nd century students will be doing PhD theses on "Lives of the Great: British political biography at the end of the second millennium", and some of us may get a mention.

Well, one can dream. In the meantime, we biographers have grounds for happy defiance. Let the fogeys condescend: with or without recognition, our parasitical genus will continue to thrive, for as long as the species animalis politicus provide the backs to jump on.

Ben Pimlott is professor of politics and contemporary history at Birkbeck. His Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks: Writing on Biography, History and Politics has just been published by HarperCollins in paperback. He is currently working on a biography of the Queen.

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