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Biography: A Brief History.

Biography: A Brief History. By NIGEL HAMILTON. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press. 2007. xv+345 PP. 14.95 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-674-02466-3.

This book comes plastered with accolades: 'profound', 'insightful and provocative', 'lively', 'emphatic'. It is all these things except for, perhaps, the first. Polemical, vivaciously written, beautifully illustrated and produced, it provokes reaction. Indeed, it is somewhat 'reactionary', a defence of biography, applauding the notion of a unitary self, of the 'individual' as the conceptual centre of Western liberal democracy. Biography asks why there is 'no single, accessible introduction to the subject' (p. 1)--and provides one.

The limitation of the term' biography' to the respectful printed record, it is argued, has marginalized women and homosexuals in a dominant patriarchy, and the form itself as an object of study. Only one university, Nigel Hamilton points out--Hawaii--takes the subject seriously and has a scholarly journal dedicated to it. 'Biography', then, must include autobiography and portraiture of any kind (painting, memorial busts, biopics, TV documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles). No distinction is made between self-portrait and portrait, between scholarly and journalistic work, between fiction and non-fiction. It is, simply, 'life-recording' (p. 11) in whatever medium. This noble race of life-recorders, however, has constantly been obstructed by the agencies of the state and other vested interests. The devils in this melodrama are the opponents of free speech: the ministers political and theological, the Hays Office, literary estates, the copyright and censorship laws. The pre-Boswellian heroes are Plutarch, St Augustine, Cellini, Sir Walter Raleigh ('biography's first martyr' (p. 69) after his imprisonment and execution for publishing The Historie of the World (1614)), and Dryden. Then comes a culture-shift away from laundering hagiography. 'If a man is to write A Panegyrick,' Samuel Johnson advised Boswell, 'he may keep vices out of sight, but if he professes to write A Life he must represent it really as it was' (p. 87). Hamilton's preference is clearly for the' warts-and-all' life: 'messy, vivid, and colourful' (p. 91). It is presented as offering' therapeutic benefit' in an 'education of the senses' (p. 89).

This steady drift towards realism is exemplified by Lytton Strachey' Eminent Victorians(i918) and Harold Nicolson' Portrait of a Marriage (1973). The first ironized the 'two fat volumes' (p. 119) of 'Victorian pseudobiography' (p. 100), the second outed Nicolson's parents as practising homosexuals. The' subjective' biography had arrived, the biographer as artist, validating the marginal (p. 165). Confessional autobiography developed exponentially. Freud had made all this possible with his case studies and his Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1910). Virginia Woolf experimented with the form, writing a life of her dog. Picasso is cited as another modernist cracking the varnished surface of portraiture, redefining it as a record of '"the artist's personal responses to the subject'" (p. 163). The result was that the traditional print life came to be seen as' unchallenging, [...] inartistic, psychologically deficient, and sexually prim [...]. It was over' (p. 190).

This is the point at which oversimplified history begins to strain beneath its generalizations. After the Second World War, apparently,' biography had finally found a new socio-political significance in an open society. People were sick of ideology [...]' (p. 189) and the form 'would never again be permitted [...] to kowtow to respectability' (p. 191). But if the defence of reputation is no longer an issue, why do publishers, editors, and film-makers employ lawyers? What about ghost-written autobiography? And if 'ideology' was dead, how do we explain the Cold War? The new subjectivism of modernism and postmodernism is apparently embraced yet with no acknowledgement of the epistemological collapse, the sense of multiple selves, essential to the deconstruction of Victorian realism. Hamilton's book is, in effect, a defence of realism, his chapter on the death of the author a lightweight snook-cocking at Barthes and Bakhtin as members of 'a group of intellectuals' (p. 206) resentful of the power of authors to control their texts. 'Barthes and Derrida', he asserts, 'were exposed and derided' (p. 213). Of course they weren't: and yet Hamilton wishes to defend feminism, gay liberation, cultural multiplicity, and the study of ordinary lives, strangely ignoring the ways in which postmodern notions of the self have enabled such liberal thinking. The biography he admires is 'history without theory' (p. 190). Yet his own history is deeply ideological. What is lacking here is any serious engagement with the ethics of biography. Only one side of this is presented: the right of free speech. The other, the colonization and prostitution of a life for profit, is largely neglected. He cites Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman (1994) as' by far the most brilliant expose of the workings of modern biography' (p. 276), yet the object of her assault is the object of Hamilton's defence. The moral question she examines--who owns a life?--is effectively answered by him as 'The biographer'. And the big question, 'Where does fact end and interpretation begin?' (p. 15), is sidestepped.


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Author:Stannard, Martin
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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