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Biography as a Form of History

Biography and History (Second Edition) by Barbara Caine

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Figure 1. Forrest (Tom Hanks) shares his life story with a nurse (Rebecca Williams) in "Forrest Gump." Phillip Caruso/ Paramount Pictures.

In my March Book Club selection—Trauma, Primitivism and the First World War: The Making of Frank Prewett—I made brief mention of April’s Book Club pick, Barbara Caine’s Biography and History (Second Edition, 2019). At only 151 pages this slim volume was so thought provoking that I transcribed many paragraphs which, in addition to my annotations, culminated in twenty-five typed A4 pages.

Taking a different approach to Hermione Lee’s Biography: A Very Short Introduction

and Nigel Hamilton’s Biography: A Brief History, both of which recount a historical-chronological account of the evolution of the form, Caine [Professor of History at the University of Sydney] adopts an academic and thematic approach with chapters titled Collective Biography and Changing Biographical Practices, and sections such as Contemporary Dictionaries of Biography, The Biographer’s Craft, Women and Collective Biography, and The Professionalisation of History.

For the purposes of this post, and to achieve some brevity, here I offer select quotes followed by my personal response. With hindsight, I see I have selected quotes that are concerned with determining what biography is and isn’t, as well as for the questions I have on what biography does and doesn’t share with the concept of History, where, it is fair to say, it has numerous and consistent overlaps.

It’s pleasurably unclear at times, while reading Biography and History, from which vantage point within the two disciplines, the book is written. The and in the title, rather than an or, suggests an equal billing. At times, however, it seems that biography, the partner with first billing, leads the pas de deux, until history leaps forth into the spotlight.

Although, at the outset, Caine states that there is no uniform concept of biography or history, her book relies on the traditional, academic and literary manifestations of both (Caine: viii). So, for instance, there is no discussion of differing forms of biography such as podcasts, films, exhibitions, theatre etc. and how these might further complicate and interact with different forms of history, particularly public history; here I’m thinking re-enactments, festivals, parades, museums and etc. That said, focusing on the traditional forms of both disciplines allows Caine to examine deeply, questions around authorship, perspective, narrative and voice, which both disciplines, in their written/academic/ literary forms, share.


I select this first quote because it is indicative of the blurred boundary between the disciplines which frequently resurfaces throughout the book. And too, because that small word “narrative” jumped out at me.

Biography has long been seen as part of history and as a way to enliven it by rendering the past ‘more human, more vivid, more intimate, more accessible, more connected to ourselves’. But its narrative form and its concern with individuals have often resulted in its relegation to the margins of historical study while political institutions or social and economic structures occupy the centre (Caine:1).

It is unquestionable that biography is indeed, and traditionally, narrative. But does that mean that a biography cannot also be argumentative, critical, thematic, ideological, instructive etc. Likewise, can biography (or biography studies) be discursive, in the same way that History (with a capital H) is accepted as a discourse?

Also present in this quote is the recurring competition between the individual or private sphere (biography) and that of the collective of public (history); and the use of one to explain the other, or the latter to explain the former. Caine writes,

The lives of individuals within this framework become significant because of what they show about the worlds in which they lived and their capacity to reveal facets of that world which are not available in other ways. (Caine: 2)

This approach to writing biography—that it can or should reveal something about history (the micro meets the macro) seems to be an argument that biographers have used since the form first existed. What strikes me about it is, its inherently apologetic and subservient, and begs the question: should a life, to be worthy of portrayal, necessarily illuminate pre-existing themes or concerns in a historical canon, especially when said canon—in the West [which is the only viewpoint Ican write from]—is arguably imperialist, patriarchal, classist, racist etc. This conundrum came to me a number of times throughout the book.

At another moment I wrote: “Is there a difference between understanding history through a person or understanding a person through history?” [And how else could you understand them?]. The answer is probably yes, and no. It is conceivable to think of a Forrest Gump-like character, or everyman/woman and to place them in scenarios that illustrate something of a historical moment while also contributing to character development. It is also possible to think of a single life that is changed by historical events (where the events themselves remain unknowable, but where the character becomes imminently more knowable). Forrest Gump, which I have not watched in years, from memory, is in the former camp. In many ways Gump is a character that changes small (the people around him) and big (military) history, but remains unchanged by it. Gump is as magnanimous at the beginning of the movie as he is at its end, his good nature prevails despite his circumstances, and in many ways the arc of change in that movie is the change of the times, rather than the changes within the character. [Of course, Forrest Gump is fictional, so there’s more to unpack here about that; particularly the cross-influences between biography and fictional biography in the Victorian era].


History wasn’t always (and isn't) a science, it often had (and has) an instructive agenda in the way that many Victorian biographies did or a hagiography does. When Caine covers the history of university history, she notes that in the 1880s, J. R. Seeley, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, regarded the discipline as “the school of public feeling and patriotism” (Caine: 15). Indeed, at the same university in 1852, History was introduced by Sir James Stephen into the ‘moral sciences tripos in order to cater for those young men who were incapable of reaching high standards in classics or mathematics, but who were still “men of whom it is unjust to despond and who might thus be rescued from the temptations and the penalties of a misspent youth “' (Caine: 15).

This short history of History in Cambridge, seems to me important as a reminder that the subject is, as Hilary Mantel would argue in her 2017 Reith Lectures, a humanity—for better or worse. What is also interesting here is history’s use or function in behaviour-regulation and nation-building. The fascination here is really that history and biography are both concerned with identity; both in how it is constructed and also represented (two sides to the one coin, for sure). In the same way that a National Dictionary of Biography, or a National Portrait Gallery are all forms of nation-building, as well as forms of education whereby a country can institutionalise, memorialise, commemorate, justify, acknowledge, appreciate and collectively agree on people or objects of merit, Caine puts forward a tension in her book (and ergo in the histories of biography and, well, history) between the individual (private history) and the institution (public history) and which was deemed more important than the other at different times.

First Caine cites English Historical Review, which in 1886 argued that ‘the acts of nations have usually been more important than the acts of private citizens’ (Caine: 16) and then she cites Marx:

“Men do make their own history, but they do not do it just as they please; they do not make it under the circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly given and transmitted in the past” (Caine: 17).

Elsewhere Caine points to the differences between the disciplines and how authors must, in a way, choose to assemble either biography or history. Paraphrasing American historian Jill Lepore, Caine writes

The emphasis within microhistory on using a life to illustrate a particular historical pattern or development differs from the biographer’s belief in the uniqueness of his or her subject. This sense of addressing wider historical concerns within microhistory, she suggests, also tends to distance the historian from the subject and to lessen the intense involvement of author and subject which is integral to so much biography (Caine: 110).

Biography and history converge and diverge in different ways at different times; the people who write them share resources, frameworks, methodologies, sources, and similar outputs (books, films, etc.); both require imagination, interpretation, and a literary skillset, and both often reveal as much about the time they appear in, as in the times they cover. We can ask: are biography and history forms of knowledge or forms of interpretation? Can they be both at the same time? And is this a paradox or a contradiction?

Millions of things are happening in every second, and in doing so are simultaneously becoming the past, history, and memory. History, as the study of the past and its representation in the present, is a way of investigating the past and shaping it for the present. It’s about convergences, divergences, and the parallel. It ultimately remains incomplete and unknowable in the same way that the present is incomplete and unknowable and the discipline implies that the distance between the past and the present enables a form of clarity by virtue of a disinterestedness or panoramic view. This view is counterintuitive because it posits that we can know more of something by being further away from it. Simultaneously, by being produced and screened by the present, history bears the print of now, more so than then, in a way that suggests the discipline could, in the wrong hands be, at worst a contradiction, and at best, the aforementioned paradox.

Closing comment:

Today, in 2021, writers, be they historians or biographers, work in forms that are innovative compared to their 'womb to tomb' predecessors. At another point in time I will turn to these new forms, as well as the 'new' subjects of these works: women, indigenous populations, children etc. anybody who is not a literate, educated, white, subject of the Empire, Democracy or Republic. Indeed, these forms of biography and these subjects are the ones I identify with, get excited about, and want to write about and on. If there is a prevailing incertitude within the parameters of the disciplines of biography and history, then these can only be further complicated when one brings into the equation other forms that biography can take (such as film, theatre, dance etc.).

A 700-page book recently arrived in the post on one of my favourite artists, and it is clear from the outset that this book seeks to be definitive, extensive, scholarly, etc. I am looking forward to reading it, but at the same time, I wonder if the model is outdated, even elitist. Is the author's clear bid for totality a chimera, and possibly, a deeply problematic one; depending on the ideology or aims the author depends upon?

An artist knows that that there are many ways to represent a life or the spark of a person, that is not dependent on accuracy or the values so treasured in traditional biography or history forms. But yet, publishers and historians do not trade in 'sparks' and a spark is not a biography or history in and of itself. The word micro-history too, which is, a rendering of part of a life, might not also be appropriate, but the adjective, biographical, is.

Meanwhile, I'm currently trying to finish reading a book, which is a mixture of a dual-biography and the biography of the founding of an institution. Or maybe it's a history. I'll have to wait to get to the end to find out.


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