Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art

By Stephen B. Oates | Go to book overview

Ten
Biography as High Adventure

Stephen B. Oates

I found out that not only each book had to have a design but the whole output or sum of an artist's work had to have a design.

William Faulkner

When I began graduate studies in history in 1958, I was fascinated by the polygonal nature of the discipline. One could, I discovered, approach the past from any number of perspectives: as a social scientist who studies forces and trends; as a quantifier who employs statistics to illuminate patterns of behavior; as an intellectualist who explores the role and impact of ideas; or as a humanist who focuses on the human side of the past, examining how the interaction of people and events shaped the course of history.

Almost from the start, I was drawn to the humanistic approach, which made me something of a maverick even in graduate school. For in the late 1950s, professional historians as a group were moving away from humanistic history, and in the next thirty years would function increasingly as sociologists and statisticians, pouring their research into recondite, technical studies written largely for one another. During those years, I traveled a different road from most of my peers, a road that took me back to historical writing as literature-an old and honorable tradition too often disparaged in our analytical time. Inevitably, biography appealed to me as the form in which I wanted to write about the past, because the best biographypure biography -- was a storytelling art that brought people alive again, eliciting from the coldness of fact "the warmth of a life being lived," as Paul Murray Kendall expressed it. As I studied biography and historical narration, relishing the works of William Hickling Prescott, Bruce Catton, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., of Paul

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