Biographical Borders

In his President’s Column in the most recent Modern Language Association Newsletter (Fall 2016), K. Anthony Appiah tells the story of how a few years ago he decided to organize his books. A daunting task. A philosopher, he tried first to sort his philosophy books into metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and political and moral philosophy on the other. The result was a philosophical mish-mash. Then he began to wonder whether books about French cooking should go with books about France or books about cooking. Should accounts of African Americans visiting Africa belong with books about Africa or books about America? This is a familiar dilemma for all who buy books, teach them, write about them, and struggle fruitlessly to construct a beautifully coherent shelving system.

As I read Appiah’s provocative column, it occurred to me that those who read, write, and attempt to shelve something as deceptively manageable as biographies run into similar roadblocks. Should all biographies focusing upon a single subject and adopting the conventional cradle-to-grave narrative belong on the same shelf? Perhaps, but then where do you place such books as Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida? She writes about three couples involved in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s: photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, and journalists Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. Photography perhaps, given Capa’s fame: but then what about Hemingway? Surely the book belongs on the Hemingway shelf. Or perhaps not, since Vaill’s book is a group biography and one could dedicate many bookcases to that sub-genre. And then there are slice-of-life biographies, books that zero in on a particular moment and then fan out to explore the rest of the narrative territory. Prominent among books on the group biography shelf one would surely find Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, the moving story of unknown ordinary people who took to the streets to fight for independence. But then Foster’s book is as much compelling social history as it is group biography. And Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe would surely confound Appiah’s shelving efforts in its deft study of figures such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Husserl, and Heidegger, and their intellectual and romantic relationships. Existentialism? WW2? Feminism?

Appiah, of course, is interrogating disciplinary boundaries, but as I read his column I realized more fully than I had before that the impetus for our Biography Beyond Borders day of roundtable discussions (to be presented by OCLW and BIO on November 5) was precisely an effort to leap the fences, to muck up all the neat shelving if you will.

Some twenty-eight biographers will gather at Wolfson, roughly two thirds of them American and one-third European, to discuss such questions as whether biography can be defined nationally; whether biographies of little-known figures (think of Foster’s Vivid Faces) garner more readers in Europe than in America; whether slice-of-life studies (think of Candice Millar’s recently published book about Churchill’s three-month long adventure of capture, imprisonment, and escape in the Boer War: Hero of the Empire) can safely be nestled next to a monumental study (998 pages) of Hitler’s first fifty years (Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939); and whether we can safely say there are any borderlines between history and biography; if so, how can we draw them?

In my recent reading, I found that Ruth Scurr’s innovative study of John Aubrey presented a provocative challenge since she contends that ‘Biography is an art form open to constant experiment’ and she constructs Aubrey’s diary based on his manuscripts, correspondence, and records of those who knew him. It’s an autobiography in the form of a diary written by a biographer. Where would we shelve it? But I’ve come to realize that answering this question is actually not that difficult: Scurr’s book belongs on that massive bookshelf called ‘Life-Writing.’ All of us who will meet on November 5 know that the generous fluidity of biography as a genre has long demolished the boundaries, broken down the walls, and generated multiple ways of writing a life.

Deirdre David is Professor Emerita of English at Temple University. Throughout her long career she has taught courses in Victorian literature, the history of the British novel, and women’s writing. She has published books dealing with social problems in the Victorian novel (Fictions of Resolution in Three Victorian Novels , 1981), the conflicted position of the woman intellectual in Victorian culture (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, 1987), and the importance of British women in imperialism (Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing, 1995). She also edited The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel (2001), and co-edited (with Eileen Gillooly) Contemporary Dickens (2009). She published her first biography in 2007 (Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life); her most recent work is Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (2013). She continues to teach as a member of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia University. 

Photo by Glen Noble (CC0 1.0)

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