Walking the Boundaries
Paul Murray Kendall
Consider how uneasily biography lies between historical writing and belles lettres, somewhat disdainfully claimed by both.
For centuries, history regarded biography as a sort of poor relation, a hanger-on. An eighteenth-century historian perfectly reproduces the atmosphere of condescension when he confesses that he had "several times deviated and descended from the dignity of an historian, and voluntarily fallen into the lower class of biographers, annalists, etc." History regarded biogaphy as trivial or, in kinder moments, fragmentary. The historian surveys the great scene. He deals with church and state, with the mighty issues of war and peace, with the growth of constitutions and the fall of kingdoms. The biographer contents himself with a single individual and the slight thread of happenings that form his life.
In our own time this attitude has been, if not abolished, at least modified. Historians in increasing numbers -- particularly since the Second World War -- have themselves become biographers. Yet, fledgling historians in our graduate schools are not encouraged, I believe, to con biographies or study the methods of biographical research.
The distinguished American historian Dumas Malone, in an essay, "Biography and History," warns the biographer that "in his efforts to procure factual materials" he "must be as laborious and painstaking as any historian and he must be equally honest in interpreting them." Biography, then, if akin to history, had better wash its grubby hands before joining the company.
The essential nature of life-writing, however, becomes obscured if it is classed as a branch of history. Both explore the remains of yesterday and, as arts, interpret those remains; and there ends the similarity. Socrates and Cleopatra made their way in the world by their wits rather than by their beauty, but we should hardly class them as fellow intellectuals. The historian frames a cosmos of happenings, in