Writing Biography: Historians & Their Craft

Writing Biography: Historians & Their Craft

Writing Biography: Historians & Their Craft

Writing Biography: Historians & Their Craft


The historian as biographer must resolve questions that reflect the dual challenge of telling history and telling lives: How does the biographer sort out the individual's role within the larger historical context? How do biographical studies relate to other forms of history? Should historians use different approaches to biography, depending on the cultures of their subjects? What are the appropriate primary sources and techniques that scholars should use in writing biographies in their respective fields?

In Writing Biography, six prominent historians address these issues and reflect on their varied experiences and divergent perspectives as biographers. Shirley A. Leckie examines the psychological and personal connections between biographer and subject; R. Keith Schoppa considers the pervasive effect of culture on the recognition of individuality and the presentation of a life; Retha M. Warnicke explores past context and modern cultural biases in writing the biographies of Tudor women; John Milton Cooper Jr. discusses the challenges of writing modern biographies and the interplay of the biographer's own experiences; Nell Irvin Painter looks at the process of reconstructing a life when written documents are scant; and Robert J. Richards investigates the intimate relationship between life experiences and new ideas. Despite their broad range of perspectives, all six scholars agree on two central points: biography and historical analysis are inextricably linked, and biographical studies offer an important tool for analyzing historical questions.


Lloyd E. Ambrosius

Between 7 and 9 September 2000, the Department of History of the University of Nebraska—Lincoln held its first Carroll R. Pauley Memorial Endowment Symposium on the topic “Biography and Historical Analysis.” We invited six prominent historians in various fields to reflect on their experiences as biographers. From their different perspectives, these scholars offered their insights into the writing of biography as a form of historical analysis. Professors Shirley A. Leckie of the University of Central Florida, R. Keith Schoppa of Loyola College of Maryland, Retha M. Warnicke of Arizona State University, John Milton Cooper Jr. of the University of Wisconsin—Madison, Nell Irvin Painter of Princeton University, and Robert J. Richards of the University of Chicago presented their original scholarly papers at the symposium. This volume is the product of their work.

Chosen because of the diversity of their perspectives on the symposium's theme-a reflection of their various personal and academic backgrounds, fields of expertise, and methodological approaches-these six scholars offered a broad range of interpretations. The three women had written biographical studies of women from different social classes in England and the United States. Their subjects included U.S. soldiers' wives and a historian, English queens, and an African American slave who became a leading feminist and abolitionist. Like their female subjects . . .

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