Educational Biography as an Adventure in Genre

By Thomas, P. L. | Vitae Scholasticae, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Educational Biography as an Adventure in Genre


Thomas, P. L., Vitae Scholasticae


Stephen B. Oates, ed. Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

As a public high school English teacher in the upstate of South Carolina, with an undergraduate and master's degree in secondary English education, I found myself mostly ostracized from completing a doctoral degree. My heart had always remained with literature and writing, but my need to remain a fulltime teacher and my degrees in education resulted in my being directly told not to bother applying for a doctoral program in English.

And then I discovered the Ed.D. program at the University of South Carolina where colleagues of mine had completed degrees while working full-time, one writing a biography of Pat Conroy for his dissertation. And thus began my adventure in educational biography, reading Stephen Oates's slim edited volume, Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art. (1)

Paul Mariani, biographer of William Carlos Williams, offers what I suggest is the crux of why Oates's collection was foundational for me as a beginning biographer and why it remains important for the future of biography and educational biography. Offering Norman Mailer as an example, Mariani explains:

   Mailer's is not, perhaps, a "true" biography since he is enough of
   an iconoclast to break generic bindings when he can, but for
   biographical texture his book by and large succeeds where [Albert]
   Goldman's [biography of Elvis Presley] fails. This is because
   Mailer had the imagination to find a vehicle for [Gary] Gilmore's
   felt sense of reality in the relentless, quotidian, and ultimately
   stark quality of the language he himself used, a language which
   employs the techniques of journalism in much the same spirit of
   Andy Warhol painting his meticulous reproductions of Campbell
   soups: a medium of flat, unadorned and even tacky sentences,
   precise as plastic rulers, the thin tissue of syntactical
   connectives simulating the thin tissue of unconnectedness which
   turns out to have been Gilmore's life. (2)

As I look back now about twenty years, then, Oates's volume was and remains a powerful entry point for examining how biography remains a genre of tensions and debate-defined by those tensions and debates as a vibrant and important avenue for understanding the human condition writ large and small.

Biography as High Adventure

As an edited volume of essays by biographers, Biography as High Adventure is certainly not exhaustive, but it is incredibly important as a foundational entry point into a living genre, biography. And for those of us practicing educational biography, the debates and fluctuations found in biography are replicated and somewhat intensified for our subgenre. One of the most compelling aspects of the volume is the impressive list of essay authors, all biographers: Andre Maurois, Leon Edel, Paul Murray Kendall, Frank E. Vandiver, Catherine Drinker Bowen, Justin Kaplan, Mark Schorer, Barbara W. Tuchman, Paul Mariani, and Stephen B. Oates. Instead of cataloguing these chapters separately, however, I want to highlight the motifs running through the volume as a whole.

Especially important for novice biographers and scholars of biography, this volume includes a recurring emphasis on "standing on the shoulders of giants." Biography as a field and discipline includes significant seminal and key works and biographers, all of which build a foundation for biography as a purposeful discipline. While the essays are accessible and uncluttered by overt citations, readers are introduced over the course of the entire book to who and what one should read and consider; in this respect, Oates's collection is an ideal introduction to the field. As I re-read my original copy, in fact, I found a clear trail to the works that informed my dissertation beyond this collection itself, but I also recognize how reading this collection spurred my need to reach beyond Oates, especially to feminist biographical theory and debates. …

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