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The Paradox of Biography

Queen of the Humanities

By Joan D. Hedrick | HUMANITIES, May/June 1997 | Volume 18, Number 3

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argues that biographical history is low-power history. I remember sharing that view when I was in graduate school. When one of my fellow students in American Civilization at Brown chose to write a biography for his dissertation, I was sure that his preference for a descriptive and journalistic genre over the most rigorous form of intellectual inquiry, a critical paper, was a sign of his insufficient commitment to the profession. Today when I hear that a Ph.D. candidate has undertaken a biography I still have reservations -- but for the opposite reason, that it is such a demanding and ambitious form to undertake as one's first professional exercise.

There are some fairly obvious reasons for biography's ambivalent status within the profession. In the first place, biography is a popular form. Biographies are read in book clubs and given as presents to parents and children and friends. This alone is enough to make it suspect in the academy. In addition to its vulgar appeal, biography, rather than being in a true sense a "field of specialization," is interdisciplinary. In a profession distinguished by fields and specializations, interdisciplinary work is always open to the charge of being unprofessional.

I learned this the hard way. It took me three attempts and eighteen years to achieve tenure. My first book, a critical study of Jack London's life and work, was judged insufficiently professional to merit promotion. This was my first book, and today I would do some things differently. I might also stop to consider the hazards of presenting for tenure a Marxist feminist analysis of a noncanonical writer. But what attracted me to London was the lure of biography; the possibility of seeing and understanding in others patterns that were basic to the culture. As I expressed in my preface, "to understand Jack London is to understand our society and ourselves." Donald Pizer called the book "easily among the best studies of London, either as a man or a writer, ever published," but when the manuscript was sent out for my tenure case, it received mixed reviews. To whom does one send such a book? The American literature experts to whom it was sent had to struggle with the issue of whether Jack London, a hack writer, merited scholarly treatment. The Jack London scholars, all of whom were male, had to deal with my gender analysis and my being an interloper in the field. It was not sent to any feminist scholars, and if it had been, they would have been nonplussed that I was choosing to work on a male subject. The book was caught in a disciplinary crossfire.

But what is most memorable is the explanation I received from the academic vice president of my institution. He told me I had not received tenure because my manuscript lacked an "apparatus." When I expressed surprise and some dismay, he explained he meant a "scholarly apparatus." There was no overarching explanatory framework, no visible application of theory. Here was a paradox. The new frameworks that imperilled the book were invisible to this man. Either way, the book was judged to be insufficiently professional.

Interdisciplinary work raises the professional question, by whose disciplinary standards shall the work be judged? This is a professional problem, as my career exemplifies, but in the larger scheme of things, this is a solution, not a problem. The more work moves toward the interdisciplinary, the more it engages the largest issues of the humanities. Indeed, I think of biography as the queen of the humanities, synthesizing politics, history, culture, and literature in one accessible form. That the queen of the humanities lacks honor in the academy results not just from her popularity and interdisciplinary form, but from another paradox. We in the profession do not have well articulated critical tools for understanding biography. This is both cause and result of its low status.

If biography is low-power history, neither is it considered high literature, recognizable in the profession by the number of critical articles written about it. We have reviews of biographies (typically more about the life of the subject than the work of the biographer) and essays about the writing of biography (more often written by biographers than critics), but where are the scholarly articles devoted to analyzing patterns of selection and modes of organization that inform a particular biography? Why do we not have essays with titles such as "Voice and Argument in Nancy Milford's Zelda"? Since we don't, it seems fairly obvious that biography is not generally assumed within the profession to be an art.

Neither a critical argument nor a work of fiction, what is biography? It is, first and foremost, a narrative, a story that purports to be true. Stories have a different kind of power and authority from argumentative writing. This seems to me the most important reason for the paradox of biography. That biographies lack the overt apparatus of theory, methodology, and analysis seems to condemn them to a lower order of scholarly power. Yet the paradox here may be that the biographer has a more powerful and persuasive genre that comprehends all these. If the biographer is doing her job, the story that makes the text so accessible is also delivering an argument. That argument may be all the more seductive for being presented in an entertaining, narrative form. I know the biggest challenge I faced in my Harriet Beecher Stowe was figuring out how to keep the story and the argument going at the same time. But we don't have a critical apparatus for understanding how biography works.

The mixing of argument and story is an old form: Didactic stories have points, morals; religious literature commonly uses stories or parables to provoke awareness and insight. We sometimes recognize ourselves in stories and learn truths that we would resist if they were approached more directly. Stories are both unobtrusive and powerful at the same time. They can get around defenses. I remember in a women's studies class a discussion on the topic, do women get interrupted more often than men? One student made an observation I have not forgotten. She said, "When I make an argument, I am rarely allowed to finish; but when I tell a story, I am always allowed to continue until the end."

Perhaps all we have to do in order to value biography is to recognize it as a work of the imagination. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the biographer, who after all is confronted not with a story but with many thousands of discreet pieces of information and gaps in the record. In order to select details, the biographer must exercise authority over the mountain of information collected. I had to remind myself that it was there to serve my story; I must not be intimidated into serving it. This felt at times as if I were strong-arming my subject and putting her in her place. I was, finally, making my story more important than her story. When I say my story, I mean my understanding of my subject's story, my vision of what her life was like. I had to say to Harriet Beecher Stowe, "You were the artist then; I'm the artist now." I gave the shape of my book more weight than any individual piece of evidence. This involves, inevitably, an imaginative judgment. That judgment is based on fact, but it is powered by imagination. Without imagination the facts refuse to take on a shape, and result is inert. The biographer must see the world she means to recreate, and each fact or detail included in the narrative must belong in that picture.

This sometimes meant seeing what is invisible. For example, let us take Stowe's parlor apprenticeship. Stowe began her career when literature was an amateur pastime pursued by men and women in the parlor for entertainment and socialibility. This informal activity was an important part of Stowe's education, but it blends in with the texture of everyday life and does not announce itself with banners and turrets and college degrees. The biographer needs historical imagination in order to pick up on small clues to this parlor culture. In one place, Stowe remarked of her sister Catharine, "Scarcely any thing happened in the family without giving rise to some humorous bit of composition from her pen." She provides as an example Catharine's epitaph to a dead cat. Written at the request of Harriet, who was the "chief mourner" at funerals for animals, Catharine undertook her charge in her characteristic high spirits:

Here died our kit,
Who had a fit,
And acted queer.
Shot with a gun,
Her race is run,
And she lies here.

Great poetry? Surely not. But a clue to the everydayness of writing and reading aloud. Precisely because literature was not professionalized, because it was a quotidian act, women had access to it. The biographer needs to be able to see, around the edges of a snippet of doggerel, a world in which family and servants and boarders sat around a lamp in the parlor and enjoyed passing the small doings and sayings of their lives through the alembic of words.

The credibility of the biographer's narrative is established in some of the same ways that serve fiction: If the reader tastes the apple, the apple is real. This act of imaginative appropriation achieves what a whole chapter of arguments may not. As Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to her editor when she began Uncle Tom's Cabin, "My vocation is simply that of a painter . . . . There is no arguing with pictures and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not." In Uncle Tom's Cabin, think of the power of the brief scene in which Eliza crosses the ice of the Ohio River, clutching her child, with the slave catchers in close pursuit. It was said that when the novel was put on stage at the National Theater in New York, there was not one dry eye when Eliza reached the other side of the river. Stowe knew that evoking that response was worth chapters of arguments about the evils of slavery. Pictures not only bring the reader in and accord a novelistic kind of instant gratification, they serve argument, although argument must be understood here as it is in a work of fiction, not as a series of proofs, but as an artistic truth that is imaginatively apprehended.

As the example of Eliza suggests, pictures evoke strong responses. The biographer who succeeds in creating a world has placed the reader in it, has led the reader to see that world through the biographer's eyes. This is, it seems to me, a very great power, the power the make real a certain version of history and to impress that reality on the reader. My Harriet Beecher Stowe evoked a powerful response on the part of a reviewer in The Economist, who wrote: "Here is a very good book, full of anecdote, well-written, thoroughly researched, and with agreeably literate characters. Why, then, is it so irritating? Why does the reader feel like hurling it across the room?"

He complained, "The men in the story hardly register at all . . . . The book belongs entirely to spirited women who, like Harriet's mother Roxana, strap a good book to their distaffs and strive mightily to be free." He's right. The book belongs to the women, and putting women in the center was a conscious political choice. But I didn't announce it or defend it; I simply did it, leaving this poor fellow no recourse to rational argument.

It was precisely this power of story to evoke strong responses on the part of readers that made the novel suspect in the early republic. As late as 1847, a publication of the American Tract Society fulminated about the evils of reading fiction:

"To yield to such a hellish charm is like the voluntary sacrifice of one's body and soul on the drunkard's altar. Mental delirium tremens is as certain a consequence of habitual intoxication from such reading, as is that awful disease the certain end of the inebriate."

The cultural watchdogs asked whether works of the imagination and fancy were not in themselves dangerous. But as Noah Porter observed, "To decry the imaginative faculty and its products is to decry all literary culture if not to abrogate culture of every kind." The Literary Magazine observed in 1804,

"Those who condemn novels, or fiction, in the abstract, are guilty of shameful absurdity and inconsistency. They are profoundly ignorant of human nature; the brightest of whose properties is to be influenced more by example than precept."

In Revolution and the Word, Cathy Davidson suggests that the novel as a genre provoked particular attack in this country because it arrived "at a time when disturbing questions . . . about the limits of liberty and role of authority in a republic were very much at issue.

"Might not the American novel by addressing those unprivileged in the emerging society persuade them that they had a voice in that society and thus serve as the literary equivalent of a Daniel Shays by leading its followers to riot and ruin? Many of America's best educated and most illustrious citizens thought so, and the genre provided a locus for the apprehensions about mobocracy on both the cultural and political level."

Does biography undermine professional authority in the same way that the novel was thought to undermine clerical authority in the early republic? By appealing directly to a common reader in a narrative so transparent that no cadre of critics is required to explain the meanings, can biography be said to undermine the academic profession? Does it raise fundamental questions about the purpose of our profession? In a democratic republic, what is the function of professors of the humanities?

I believe that the stories we read have the power to shape our lives and our culture. If this were not true, the culture wars would not be fought so intensely. I also believe that scholars should engage the wider public in discourse. On the face of it, it seems strange for a democratic society to invest years of specialized education to raise up a group of scholars who talk mainly to themselves. It is important to authorize professors to pursue inquiry for its own sake, with no practical benefit. But this should not be confused with they very mundane business of enhancing one's power within the profession -- a highly practical benefit for the professor.

We who do desire to shape the reading of America will not succeed in the task until we address a wider public. This was brought home to me when I had occasion to look up the word "novel" in the dictionary. Someone had referred publicly to my "novel," Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. I let that pass, but within the same week I saw a reference -- in a publication of Yale University, no less -- to R. W. B. Lewis's "novel," Edith Wharton: A Life. This was enough to send me to the American Heritage Dictionary. I found nothing surprising in their definition, but what caught my eye was the sentence the editors provided to exemplify usage: "Uncle Tom's Cabin is a very bad novel" -- from James Baldwin's 1949 essay in Partisan Review. This dollop of literary criticism is offered to every eighth-grader who looks up the word "novel." Such deeply entrenched popular views will be dislodged only by engaging a wider public than reads scholarly journals. What we are disputing is the nature of our American heritage. This is an intrinsically political process that benefits from both direct speech and imaginative recreation of the past. In both of these, biography plays an important role.

About the Author

Joan D. Hedrick is the author of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994), supported by the Endowment, which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for biography. She is professor of history and director of women's studies at Trinity College in Hartford.

Funding Information

This article is adapted from a paper delivered in December 1996 at the Modern Language Association conference in Washington, D.C.