Looking the Devil in the Face

Astolphe de Custine
Astolphe de Custine; drawing by David Levine

Does biography count as history? The question seems impertinent, for no one has the authority to keep a count, ruling some genres in and others out as legitimate forms of scholarship. Serious historians often write excellent biographies, and biographers often win acclaim for their contributions to history. Yet biography occupies an uneasy place in the no man’s land between academic scholarship and the general readership; it straddles a fault line in contemporary culture, and it warrants attention by anyone who worries about the role of academic learning in the life of the republic, both the American republic and the republic of letters.

There seemed to be no problem fifty years ago. At that time, history was being revitalized by the historians associated with the journal Annales: économies, sociétés, civilisations, and by the efforts of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre to shift the focus of historical study from political events to the development of entire societies. Febvre himself used the examination of individual lives to open up broad problems of sociocultural history in works such as The Problem of Unbelief in the Age of the Reformation: The Religion of Rabelais and Philippe II et la Franche-Comté. His example contributed to the flowering of biography in his field, “Ren and Ref”—Renaissance and Reformation—in the United States. From Felix Gilbert’s Machiavelli and Gucciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence (1965) to William Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (1988) and Anthony Grafton’s Joseph Scaliger:A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship (1983), the vein of biography continued to produce pure gold.

But it ran dry in France. The next two generations of Annales historians concentrated on statistical indices of economic and demographic changes, social structures, collective mentalities, climate, ethnography, and material culture. By extending notions developed by Febvre and Bloch, they opened up important new territory; but they usually failed to people it with individuals. As it became more scientific, history became less human, or at least less concerned to pick up the scent of vanished humanity in the manner recommended by Marc Bloch: “The historian is like the ogre of fairy tales:where he smells human flesh, there he finds his quarry.”

This peculiar sense of smell remained strong among British historians. They, too, developed a broad-based social and cultural history, but they left room in it for idiosyncrasy and individual agency. A vivid biographical strain runs through the work of Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, Richard Cobb, and Lawrence Stone. It has its place in Past and Present, the British counterpart to the Annales, and the Times Literary Supplement, which devotes a special rubric to biography.

In America, however, academic historians found themselves increasingly drawn into the orbit of the social sciences, and their efforts to be scientific fell increasingly under the influence of economics. The publication of Fogel and Engelson’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery in 1974…

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