Voyeurs or Scholars? Biography's Role in Labour History

By Knowles, Harry | Journal of Australian Studies, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Voyeurs or Scholars? Biography's Role in Labour History


Knowles, Harry, Journal of Australian Studies


Does biography have a utility beyond its mere existence? It is clear that within a number of disciplines, biography is more than just `a sort of sophisticated entertainment, [a] bedside companion after the daily torments in the labouratory or at the desk'. (1) Biography has the potential to extend the boundaries of various fields of scholarly endeavour. However, to fully explore this dimension, we need to see biography as a more integrated part of the historiographical process and less so as a separate standard account of someone's life. This article discusses the relationship between history and biography and surveys the role of biography in Australian labour historiography. It also examines biographical devices and methods employed by historians in other disciplines and concludes with some suggestions of how biographical method might be used in the writing of Australian labour history.

The Relationship between History and Biography

The writing of history and the writing of biography was for a long time seen as an identical activity. History was written about the lives and deeds of men whose historical significance was determined by men and whose subjects were the masters rather than the servants of men. This historiographical tradition climaxed with the Carlylean contention that `history is the biography of great men but subsequently foundered on nineteenth-century notions of collectivism and was almost totally estranged following the emergence of structuralist and Marxist approaches to the writing of history. By the late twentieth century, history writing had, in the words of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Laudrie, `condemned to death, the narrative history of events as well as individual biography'. (2)

Biographies continued to be written but remained locked out of mainstream historiography as the traditional historical narrative gave way to the structural and analytical methodology of the Annalist and Marxist schools. More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in how biographical writing should be approached and what methodologies should be employed. (3) This, in turn, has led historians once again to contemplate the role of biography in historical writing.

In reviewing this relationship between history and biography, it is useful to ponder the question of what we consider a biography to be definitions abound: from the mischievously disparaging (W H Auden's `gossip writers and voyeurs calling themselves scholars' (4)) to the serious and scholarly (Paul Murray Kendall's `the simulation in words, of a person's life, from all that is known about that person' or that of John Garraty's `the history of human life' (5)). There is no consensus amongst biographers or historians on the question of what biography is or is not. Much depends on the era in which the biography was written and the method or technique employed.

The reluctance on the part of many historians to embrace biography as a fellow traveller, and their somewhat jaundiced view on the subject of whether or not biography is a branch of history, has its roots in the form of biography written in the distant (but sometimes not so distant) past. Pre-Renaissance biographers fell squarely into the realm of hagiographers; biographies were written either to commemorate, glorify or merely to justify a great man. The Renaissance heralded the biography of denigration, an example of which can be found in Sir Thomas More's biography of Richard the Third. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell ushered in yet another stage of biographical development with the latter's life of Johnson. Boswell, it was said, successfully managed to synthesise scientific, scholarly research with an artistic use of language. (6)

The development of biography was retarded during the nineteenth century. With the emerging middle class under the influence of the evangelical movement, biography became, in Gitting's words, `the art of concealment'. …

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