Comments on: Gender, history and biography http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/ History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Sat, 30 Aug 2014 17:55:24 +0000 hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 By: Angela O'Brien http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-536058 Thu, 21 Jan 2010 00:01:49 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-536058 I would very much like to read your biography as an old Ursuline interested in the history of the order
Best wishes
Australian Ursuline

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By: Historiann http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-201850 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 22:20:55 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-201850 And, yes–Indyanna. The technology of historical research has shifted dramatically from when I completed my first book research (2002) and when I began in earnest the research for my second book (2006-07). And it seems to be changing every day. I can’t believe how much 18th C history I can find on the web. It’s certainly going to make my senior research seminar a heck of a lot easier for my students.

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By: Historiann http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-201846 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 22:18:38 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-201846 Who is the future subject of your bio, John S.? It sounds great.

Empathy is important–we only choose our subjects because of empathy, because of the conviction that someone’s life was important. (Personally, I don’t have a lot of empathy for John Adams, but YMMV.) Demos was a little too empathetic with John and Stephen Williams, in my judgment. That book has very modern assumptions about how 18th C Anglo-American families operated. It’s a great book–but it’s so not about the unredeemed captive, and all about the two men listed above.

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By: Indyanna http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-201842 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 22:11:42 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-201842 Chuckle. Good one, that last sentence…

I’m being astonished lately how much the electronic availability of source materials of all sorts is changing the boundaries of what you can think about and imagine, much what less you can do, in uncovering the lives of the traditionally obscure. Google Books is the obvious but almost the least of it, with electronic catalogues, occasional troves of actual scanned documents, etc. The cross-referencing capabilities are really dense and exciting. It requires a certain tenacity, and willingness to be more intuitive and perhaps less categorical about what you’re “lookinf for.” This is not specifically limited to biographical subjects, but it certainly pertains to them.

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By: John S. http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-201743 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 20:11:11 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-201743 Ahhh, Historiann–the last question is the jackpot. My second book is going to be a biography of sorts–telling the life story of an enslaved man looking “through” the sources of the plantation he lived on. The project has inherent limits on it and will require me to make some interpretive leaps. But I have been frustrated when presenting this material that there are always members of the audience who are willing to throw their hands up and declare that since enslaved men and women didn’t leave the records that Jefferson, Washington, Landon Carter, or John Tayloe did then we can’t try to write their life stories. The abundance of papers does seem to lead to a false sense of(historians’) security. This makes no sense to me. Were we waiting for that magic bullet letter from TJ talking about his affair with Sally Hemings? Did we really think that since he didn’t write about it directly–that we know of–it didn’t happen?

I think the question of empathy here is crucial. I don’t mean to suggest that historians are unfeeling, but rather than they feel more comfortable trying to make interpretive leaps along certain lines; John Demos admitted as much in his _Unredeemed Captive_ book. This is true even for some women’s bios: _A Midwife’s Tale_ would not look as it does if Laurel Ulrich didn’t identify strongly with Martha Ballard. I think this is somewhat inevitable, but I also think that we shouldn’t let this tendency discourage us from narrating a wider range of life stories.

Ultimately, I see the issue in democratic (small d) terms: the number of non-founding fathers vastly outnumbered the number of founding fathers in early America. As one of my professors told me when he found out I wanted to write a biography of an enslaved man: “Good. The slave owners have had enough damn books written about them!” (Historiann: I will let you guess which professor it was who made such gruff, Puritanical pronouncements on such matters.)

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By: Historiann http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-201706 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 19:08:33 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-201706 Thanks, Prof. Zero and Robert for your comments. Little Midwestern College’s comment encapsulates my thoughts exactly. When researching the life of a “non-traditional” biographical subject–i.e. someone who doesn’t leave boxes of letters or shelves of papers behind–the task of biography is more complex and raises questions about the art of biography that better-documented subjects don’t raise. The complexity is, I think, infinitely more interesting.

My favorite biographies are not obvious subjects of biography, where the author had to go and dig up a lot of stuff that wasn’t obviously connected in order to fashion a life. Nell Painter’s bio of Sojourner Truth is wonderful. I like Camilla Townsend’s book on Malintzin, too, and there was a great book on Tituba by Elaine Breslaw. None of these women read or wrote–and yet, through ingenuity and hard work, these authors made their lives recoverable in some fashion.

I think women’s biography, and the biography of non-traditional subjects in general, should raise questions about the knowability of any biographical subject. Do authors of traditional biographical subjects–statesmen, explorers, religious leaders, generals, etc.–have a false sense of knowability because of the bounty of their subjects’ papers and letters? Maybe so.

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By: Professor Zero http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-201698 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 18:52:41 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-201698 I’m quite sure it is theoretical enough and cool enough, and I am sure the material is strong enough on its own not to need to be iced with or informed by Zizek et al.

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By: bob coley jr http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-200779 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 03:44:45 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-200779 Biography is such a powerful genre. The revelations of the subject’s life, it’s context in time and enviornment, the subject’s effect (or lack of) on the things contemparary to them and after. Of course, much is revealed about the author (especiialy in autobiography). One can also read between the lines and learn much about the author and what was in their minds by the way they relate facts, the language, words, inclusions and exclusions, etc.. The biography of women should, and will be, as extensive as can be. As an undereducated male, I look forward to knowing the WHOLE story of our history, not just the spin. Great post and THANKS for your illuminating snappiness!

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By: Little Midwestern College http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-200734 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 02:33:40 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-200734 Thanks for this post! Good historical biography is inherently theoretically sophisticated because good biography must skillfully engage and deploy a number of intersecting interdisciplinary approaches. For example, the biography I’m writing requires me to move between social and cultural history of the C19, the history of woman suffrage, the history of the trans-Mississippi west, women’s journalism history & literary studies, Native American studies, etc.–and all this requires me to be able to move between these intersecting fields while also keeping in mind the theoretical issues raised by my subject’s status as a woman, as well as her shifting subject positions in terms of class and other statuses throughout her life. And then the challenge is to come up with a narrative that lassoes all of this to tell an important story in an interesting and engaging way. Some days when I’m sitting at my computer surrounded by piles of notes and photocopies from archives I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into!

As a result, biography as a form of historical recovery work (especially on women) is totally subversive–it gets us back to basics and back into the archives to take a fresh look at larger historical events through the unexplored lived experiences of real lives–and at the same time, forces us to grapple with the always messy loose ends of those real lives who don’t always fit neatly into our established theoretical categories. And in doing so, we learn more about ourselves and how we got to where we are. Exploring how women do or don’t or might partially fit in one or more categories is both the beauty and the challenge of biography–and that’s what makes it subversive in its power to get us to take a second look at those categories that have become too rigid. And this is good historical work.

But then this discussion also makes me think that the folks who pooh-pooh biography–especially women’s biography–are really afraid of the complex, difficult project that it is–and also afraid of how it might ultimately force them to take a second look at some of their long-held assumptions . . . and, God forbid, maybe change them.

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By: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » “Gender, history and biography” http://www.historiann.com/2009/01/26/gender-history-and-biography/comment-page-1/#comment-200675 Wed, 28 Jan 2009 01:43:55 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=3211#comment-200675 [...] Cool post from an even cooler blogger: Historiann! [...]

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