Writing Biography: Historians & Their Craft

By Lloyd E. Ambrosius | Go to book overview

1.

Biography Matters: Why Historians Need
Well-Crafted Biographies More than Ever

Shirley A. Leckie

In September 1999, Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois—Chicago, attacked modern biography as “Minutiae without Meaning” in the New York Times. It had fallen into this sorry state, he maintained, because the old “master narrative models” had lost their meaning for contemporary readers. These included “the providential model, based on the idea that humans, tainted by original sin, inevitably repeat the failings of Adam and Eve, and the “wheel of fortune model, which sees cycles of luck and misfortune as determining life's outcome. Hence, modern biographers furiously collect details and then “invent or fabricate a meaning, based on their “favorite hobby horse, to hold their narratives together. But, in reality, Fish argued, they are “left with little more than a collection of random incidents, and the only truth being told is the truth of contingency, of events succeeding one another in a universe of accident and chance." 1

Since “cause and effect” remains the biographers' “stock in trade, Fish accused modern biographers of imposing on their work their own contrived “explanatory structure." 2 In the end, he concluded, every biography is actually autobiographical, but rather than revealing that fact to their reading audience, as true autobiographers do, they “can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their own story for the story of their announced subject.” Such chicanery renders the medium “a bad

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