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Looking the Devil in the Face

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 marked a tendency to fill historical arguments with charts and graphs and to empty them of people.

Since then, the revival of cultural history and the so-called linguistic turn have moved scholarship in new directions, but academic history has continued to become more and more academic. Professors now write for one another rather than for the general public. They use esoteric language, burden their books with historiography, and try to score points in professional arguments instead of responding to the general public’s interest in the past. That interest exists. However bland and boring history may be in high schools, it continues to fascinate ordinary educated readers. They want to discover their origins, to find out how things came to be what they are, and to follow narratives composed of fact rather than fiction.

Biography provides a way to satisfy that demand. By focusing on one life, it eliminates the complications that weigh down accounts of entire societies, and it adheres to a narrative line that shows individuals in action. It restores agency to history, giving readers a sense of closeness to the men and women who shaped events. It deals with motivations and emotions. It even answers a voyeuristic desire to see through keyholes and into private lives. In short, it supplies everything lacking in academic history.

Of course, some academics have responded to this dilemma by embracing it. They become biographers and manage to satisfy both the general public and their professional peers. But those exceptions, noted often in these pages,1 only prove the rule: the pull of professionalization has drawn historians away from biography as a genre and left it largely in the hands of amateurs, that is, writers who have made a profession of biography, but are not trained, academic historians. As Crane Brinton once remarked, “books used to be written for the general reader. Now they are written by the general reader.”

Amateurs can write excellent history. Few of the greatest historians had Ph.D.s, and most Ph.D.s are vulnerable to the pressures of professionalism. But professional training inculcates an ethos of rigor in research and writing, which takes the form of an implicit contract between historians and their readers. In return for the reader’s attention, the historian accepts an obligation to adhere to facts. Of course, there are philosophical problems inherent in the notion of factuality, and no history can be written without resort to artifice, not merely in combining evidence but also in using words. Nonetheless, any historian who makes up evidence or presents fantasy as fact breaks the contract. He or she is guilty of bad faith.

I think bad faith lies at the bottom of the scandal caused by Edmund Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. By fabricating documents and inventing fictitious characters without warning his reader, Morris violated the ethos of professional history. But then he did not claim to be a professional. He had written a prize-winning life of Theodore Roosevelt, but he came to his biography of Reagan after a literary apprenticeship in genres like advertising and science fiction, just as Reagan came to the White House through Hollywood. Facts counted for little in the intersection of their worlds and in the confession of their version of authorized history.

But to dismiss Dutch as nothing more than another instance of bad faith attached to the Reagan presidency is to miss its larger significance. It exposes the shallow quality of historical consciousness in the United States today. While the academics go about their business, other citizens feed on a diet composed with fictitious additives. Biography, a genre where professional rigor can be allied most easily with general interests, turns out to be the most treacherous instrument in the historian’s bag of tricks.

If this diagnosis is correct, there is consolation to be had in serious biography written for the general reader by amateur historians. Anka Muhlstein’s life of Astolphe de Custine is just the thing for anyone in need of an antidote to Dutch. It supports its argument at every point with solid evidence, and it tells a good story. Admittedly, the two books do not lend themselves easily to comparison. Muhlstein recounts the life of an aristocrat in nineteenth-century France, drawing on correspondence, memoirs, and other sources long familiar to professional historians. She wrote her book in French; and although it has been translated beautifully by Teresa Waugh, it deals with a subject that would mean very little to most American readers. Morris took on a subject known to everyone. He followed his man around the White House and accumulated so much new material that he nearly drowned in it and saved himself only by falling back on his imagination. Nonetheless, to read Muhlstein in the wake of Morris is to see what popular biography ought to be.

Is there a formula? It used to be “the life and times”—that is, a strategy of relating the course of one person’s career to a broad array of social, cultural, and political phenomena. But those phenomena now lead off into the endless vistas opened up by the Annales historians. So the terms of the traditional formula have torn apart. The amateurs have seized on the lives, pulling in one direction, while the professionals have held fast to the times and tugged in the other.

Anka Muhlstein belongs to the amateurs. She makes no pretense to a professional command of all the complexities of European history during Custine’s life, which extended from 1790 to 1857, spanning three revolutions, two constitutional monarchies, two republics, and two empires. In her previous books, she treated a wide variety of subjects: the women of Louis XIV’s court, Queen Victoria, Baron James de Rothschild, and the explorer René Robert Cavelier de La Salle. She has no specialized field of research. She is a biographer and follows her instinct for interesting lives wherever it may lead.

In the acknowledgments to The Life of Astolphe de Custine, Muhlstein explains that she was looking for a new subject for a biography when a friend suggested Custine. A reading of Custine’s autobiographical novel, Aloys, aroused her interest, and he became more interesting as she got to know him better. In the end, as it appears in the biography, three aspects of his life stand out. First, his childhood: a famous grandfather, companion to Rochambeau in the American Revolution, general in the revolutionary army, executed at the height of the Terror; an extraordinary mother, heroic in the shadow of the guillotine, promiscuous in her love life, and tenacious in her hold on her son. Then his career in high society: a conventional marriage, inherited wealth, a minor role as a man of letters, an open existence as a homosexual protected from perse-cution by an aristocratic name, and scorn for social conventions. And lastly, a famous trip to Russia: introductions everywhere, confrontation with the police state of Nicholas I, access to the tsar, repulsion at the all-pervasive cruelty, and a passionate denunciation of despotism in the form of a best-selling travel book, Russia in 1839.

None of this is new. Previous historians, notably J.F. Tarn and Gaston Maugras, have published most of the documents concerning Custine’s writing and his relations with his family, particularly his mother, who seems to have been a more interesting and attractive character than Custine himself. His book on Russia did not outlive its notoriety long after its publication in 1843, although George Kennan gave it a second life by a book of his own, The Marquis de Custine and His Russia in 1839 (1971), which celebrated Custine’s account of Nicholas I’s tyranny as a prophetic parallel to the despotism of Stalin.

Anka Muhlstein therefore had little new ground to cover and, in the end, a rather small subject: Custine does not even rate a mention in the Petit Robert Dictionnaire universel des noms propres or an entry in The Oxford Companion to French Literature, and has only just made it into the recent Oxford Companion to Literature in French. The professionals had done their job; she had hers to do as an amateur. Her task was not to turn up new material through elaborate research but rather to bring a dead man back to life in a way that would speak to the general educated reader today. She succeeded admirably.

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    See for example the review of Henry Mayer’s All On Fire, by Eric McKittrick, The New York Review, October 21, 1999.

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