Portraits of Progress: Men, Women and the "Selective Tradition" in Collective Biography

By Lanning, Robert | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Portraits of Progress: Men, Women and the "Selective Tradition" in Collective Biography


Lanning, Robert, Journal of Canadian Studies


This paper is an analysis of collective biographies published in English Canada during the late nineteenth century. Raymond Williams's concept of "selective tradition" is used to explore short sketches in biographical dictionaries, comparing the representation of socially significant occupations and the distinctions in representation between men and women. It is argued that collective biographies reflect both actual and ideological developments in Canadian society.

Toward the end of the last century biography was a popular literary genre, consumed in the home as leisure reading and popular education, and in school where it served as a tool for intellectual and personal development. The popularity of this literary form led Donald Creigton to call biography a "special branch of historical writing." Clara Thomas, in her assessment of Canadian biographical literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has written that "Any life or any talent can strike the biographer as wonderful, demanding from him an obsessive and patient effort towards framing, containing and elucidating the complexities of a personality and a time."(f.1) Yet a biographical approach to the analysis of Canadian society has not been widely explored by sociologists. However contemporary historians of the nineteenth century, like educators of the time, have discussed the value placed upon knowing the lives of those individuals linked to Canada's prosperity as a nation.(f.2) As Carl Berger has pointed out, Henry Morgan had limited creativity as a biographer, but his systematic presentation of persons was an attempt to recover something of their contributions to the "cause of Discovery, Civilization and Progress" in English Canada.(f.3)

Commentaries such as these are a recognition that biographers do more than write about individual lives. The "framing" and "elucidating" that is essential to their genre promote the ideology of particular historical moments and constitute an aspect of cultural reproduction. While biographies are ostensibly about the individual, it is not possible to avoid the institutional contexts of life-situations. Thomas notes, for example, the numerous biographies of clergy produced in the nineteenth century, which promoted their work as individuals, but also the religious thought and doctrines they represented and the relevance of these to the communities unfolding in the new world.(f.4) J.K. Johnson's collective biography of the members of the House of Assembly between 1791 and 1841 examines the successive occupational and political accomplishments of these men.(f.5) "Representative" qualities such as ethnicity, religion, land ownership and prominence in their initial choice of occupation all served to embellish the social character of these men, to show that during and after the fact they were worthy of the positions which they eventually attained. Similarly, Bruce Curtis developed his study of school inspection in Canada West during the 1840s around the collective biography of the first corps of inspectors. Factors such as wealth, education and commonality in cultural backgrounds contributed to the decisions of district governing bodies who chose particular men for this task.(f.6)

Biography is more complex than is suggested by its meaning of "life story." All stories, including the concrete "facts" within them, have their point of view, and biographies are no different. In his historical examination of the history of biography in England, Harold Nicolson began with the Oxford Dictionary definition: "the history of the lives of individual men as a branch of literature." Nicolson remarked that this definition prescribed "by implication that biography must be a truthful record of an individual and composed as a work of art."(f.7) Feeling that these implications required clarification, he distinguished between "pure" and "impure" biography. Besides being well-constructed, the pure biography was explicitly concerned with two essentially equivalent types of truth, the historical and the absolute. …

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