Art and craft of biography



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ART AND CRAFT OF BIOGRAPHY

Hist 771
Professor Miller Fall 2008

Herter 704 TBA

545-4256 Mondays, 1-3

mmiller@history.umass.edu


"The charm of biography consists of minor truths neglected by graver history." John Fanning Watson
Description

A 1942 article in the William & Mary Quarterly opened with the observation that, "[a]s a pleasant and harmless form of antiquarianism, the study of family history, biography, and the tracing of genealogy are tolerantly humored but certainly not seriously honored by historians and scientists." Yet one glance at the best-seller list or bookstore shelves shows how avidly the public today consumes biographies. This course will explore the career of biography as a form of writing, and consider its strengths and challenges both as scholarship and as popular history. Topics will include the history of biography as a genre, microhistory, memoir, biography for children, and other manifestations of life writing. We will consider the unique challenges of writing about people who left tremendous amounts of documentation, and others who compel biographers (to quote a guest speaker for the course) to “make something out of nothing.” A key component of the course will be a series of Workshop meetings where we will talk with local biographers about new and/or recent work.


Readings (at the Jeffrey Amherst Bookstore):

Newell G. Bringhurst, Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life (Univ of Oklahoma, 1999)


Bliss Broyard, One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets (Little, Brown and

Company, 2007)


Judith Bloom Fradin, and Dennis Brindell Fradin. Jane Addams: Champion of Democracy (Clarion, 2006)

Nigel Hamilton, Biography: A Brief History (Harvard University Press, 2007)

John Matteson, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (Norton, 2007)

Albert Marrin, The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America (Penguin Group, 2007)

Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life (Free Press, 2005)

Charles J. Shields, I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee (Holt, 2008)

Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (Knopf, 2004)
Assignments:

This course is on the books as a 700-level research seminar, which means that over the course of the semester you should plan to be at work on an article-length essay of original historical research that is biographical in nature. However, if you wish to enroll as an independent study at the 600 level, that will be permissible as well; in that case, you should plan to write a substantial (20-30 page) essay on a relevant historiographical topic, e.g. comparing multiple biographies of a single figure, or exploring how some event (like the framing of the Constitution, or development of nuclear weapons) emerges across multiple biographies of participants. For students wishing to link this course with History 691W in the Writing track, a final product appropriate for a magazine or other comparable outlet will be the preferred assignment.


There will also be 2 short writing assignments: see below.
Academic Honesty:

The Department takes academic honesty very seriously; the normal penalty for plagiarism or other forms of cheating is, at the minimum, failing the course. Usually the instructor will seek suspension or expulsion from the program, because cheating in graduate school violates the fundamental element of trust that is at the heart of the student- teacher relationship.

Schedule

Tues Sept 2:

1. Introduction: Biography and History

Reading:


Allan Nevins, 'The Biographer and the Historian.' The Humanities for Our Time. Intro. L.R. Lind.

Lawrence, KS: 1949.

Kenneth Silverman, “Biography and Pseudobiography,” in Common-place (Jan 2003)

http://www.common-place.org/vol-03/no-02/silverman/index.shtml

Virginia Woolf, 'The Art of Biography.' The Atlantic Monthly 163 (1939): 506-10.

[you can find this at ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chap24.html -]

Dumas Malone, 'Biography and History.' The Interpretation of History. Ed. J.R. Strayer. Princeton: 1943.

121-148. 

Bradford Smith, 'Biographers' Creed.' William & Mary Quarterly 3rd series, no. 10 (1953): 180-85.

Shirley A. Leckie, “Biography Matters: Why Historians Need Well-Crafted Biographies More than

Ever,” in Lloyd E. Ambrosius, ed., Writing Biography: Historians and Their Craft (Nebraska,

2004) RESERVE

Barbara W Tuchman, “Biography as a Prism of History,” in Practicing History (Knopf, 1981)



Tues Sept 9:

2. The Genre Begins: Biography and Biographical Dictionaries in American Culture

Reading:


Nigel Hamilton, Biography: A Brief History (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Dana K. Merrill, “The First American Biography,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar.,

1938), pp. 152-154, and browse John Norton, Abel being dead yet speaketh [this can be found on Google books]

Mark C. Carnes, “In Memoriam: John A. Garraty,



http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2008/0805/0805mem3.cfm

John Eliot, Biographical Dictionary Containing a Brief Account of the First Settlers, and Other



Prominent Characters Among the Magistrates, Ministers, Literary and Worthy Men, in New-

England (1809) on Early American Imprints/Shaw & Shoemaker

BROWSE: American National Biography Online [http://www.anb.org/aboutanb.html]


Tues Sept 16:

3. The Biographer’s Subject:

Reading:

Newell G. Bringhurst, Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life (Univ of Oklahoma, 1999)

James Atlas, “Choosing a Life,” NY Times Book Review, 13 Jan 1991, 1, 22-23.

Jill Lepore, “Historians who Love Too Much,” J-Stor

Phyllis Rose, “Confessions of a Burned-out Biographer,” The Seductions of Biography, 113-136

Newell G. Bringhurst, “My Affair with Fawn McKay Brodie: Motives, Pain, and Pleasure,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2002 35(3): 200-211


FORM WRITING PARTNERSHIPS
Tues Sept 23:

4. Well-Trod Paths: How do you make the old new again?

Reading:


Powers, Mark Twain: A Life (Free Press, 2005)

Ron Powers, “Making Him Fresh Again: On Writing Yet Another Mark Twain Biography,” Missouri Historical Review 2007 101(2): 67-77 11p.


ASSIGNMENT: Come to class with a 5-page historiographical essay discussing the literature on any

historical figure who has been the subject of multiple biographies. John Adams, George Washington

and Abraham Lincoln come to mind, but the field is open.


Tues Sept 30

5. Biography meets Memoir


Reading:

Bliss Broyard, One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets (Little, Brown and

Company, 2007)

Blais, “Zepp’s Last Stand,” in David Garlock, Pulitzer Prize feature stories: Americas best writing, 1979-2003 (find on Google Books)

Blais, Uphill Walkers, excerpt RESERVE



Guest: Madeleine Blais. As a reporter for the The Miami Herald, Blais earned the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1980 for "Zepp's Last Stand", a story about a self-declared pacifist and subsequently dishonorably discharged World War I veteran. Her books include Uphill Walkers: Portrait of a Family (2002), and In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle (1995), the story of the Amherst Lady Hurricanes girl's high school basketball team, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in nonfiction
Tues Oct 7:

6. Writing Hidden Lives

Reading:


Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (Knopf, 2004)


"Shelley's Heart and Pepys's Lobsters," in Lee, Virginia Woolf's Nose RESERVE

John D’Emilio, “Reading the Silences in a Gay Life: The Case of Bayard Rustin,” in Seductions of Biography, 59-68.
ASSIGNMENT: Identify a work of biography that tackles a subject who him/herself left no significant body of papers—Nell Painter’s biography of Sojourner Truth, Germaine Greer’s study of Anne Hathaway Shakespeare, and Patricia Cline Cohen’s Murder of Helen Jewett are all examples of this sort of work, and you’ll find more. Write a short (3-5 pp) essay on the methods the author employs to fill in the gaps, and evaluate their effectiveness.
Tues Oct 14 NO CLASS – Monday schedule.
Tues Oct 21

7. Biography Workshop I: Betsy Ross

Presenter: Professor Miller
Reading: In advance of class you’ll be given access to this work in progress; class will be spent discussing the manuscript
Tues Oct 28 Biography Workshop II: Mary Washington

8. Presenter: Martha Saxton. Professor Saxton has undertaken biographies of figures as diverse as 50s bombshell Jayne Mansfield and nineteenth-century author and reformer Louisa May Alcott. Her most recent publication is Being Good: Women's Moral Values in Early America (Hill and Wang, 2003). But she is presently returning to biography as she embarks on a new project entitled The Widow Washington, on the President’s mother.


Tues Nov 4.

9. Biography Workshop III: Molly Walsh

Presenter: Sandy Perot
Reading: In advance of class you’ll be given access to Sandy’s thesis, which examined the life of Molly Walsh, grandmother to Benjamin Banneker, with particular attention to the shifting characterization of Walsh’s face, variously construed as black and white.

Tues Nov 11: No class—Veteran’s Day. EXCHANGE ROUGH DRAFT WITH WRITING PARTNER
WED Nov 12:

  1. Biography Workshop IV: Telling Helen Keller’s Story on Film

Presenter: Laurie Block. The founder of DisabilityMuseum.org, a virtual museum, Laurie Block is also executive director of Straight Ahead Pictures, Inc., a small nonprofit company whose mission is to create innovative media projects and educational forums that use archival materials and oral history to foster community dialogue about contemporary social issues. Block coproduced, narrated, and wrote Beyond Affliction: The Disability History Project, a four-hour radio series broadcast on NPR, and winner of the Robert Kennedy Journalism Award, 1999. She also produced and directed the award winning feature documentary FIT: Episodes in the History of the Body, broadcast on PBS in 1994. She is currently working on a film biography of Helen Keller for American Experience.
Reading:

"Virginia Woolf's Nose", in Lee, Virginia Woolf's Nose

A Keller biography, TBA
Tues Nov 18:

11. Biography Workshop V: Clarence King


Guest: Martha Sandweiss. Martha A. Sandweiss began her career as a curator of photographs; now, as professor of American studies and history at Amherst College, she teaches classes in American studies, visual culture, public history, and the history of the American West. She has a deep interest in how historians can use visual images as primary sources to answer a broad range of questions about the past. In recent years, she has been exploring an entirely different topic: how one prominent American explorer, geologist, and writer lived a secret double life in late nineteenth-century New York. His story has led her to a larger exploration of race, class, and identity in America’s largest city. In class we will discuss her work, Passing Strange: The Secret Life of Clarence King, about a pioneering 19th-century American geologist and explorer.
Reading TBA (probably bound galleys of the book, which should be out right around this time)

Tues Nov 25


12. The Pulitzer Prize

John Matteson, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

Tues Dec 2: GUEST LECTURE: Les Standiford

Les Standiford of Florida International University has written popular biographies of Henry Flagler, Andrew Carnegie, and Washington Burning, about the burning of the White House in the War of 1812. Coming out in late November is a book called The Man Who Invented Christmas, about Charles Dickens.
This will be a joint class meeting with History 659, Intro to Public History. Readings TBA. We will meet together as a joint class at 2:30 in Herter 601. At 3:30, Mr. Standiford will give a joint lecture, an event in cooperation with the Journalism Program.
NOTE: FINAL PAPERS ARE DUE, BOTH HARD COPY AND ELECTRONICALLY. ALL STUDENTS SHOULD READ ALL PAPERS BEFORE OUR NEXT AND FINAL MEETING.
Tues Dec 9: 14.LAST CLASS


  1. Part I. Writing Biography for Young Readers

Albert Marrin, The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America (Penguin, 2007)

Judith Bloom Fradin, and Dennis Brindell Fradin. Jane Addams: Champion of Democracy (Clarion, 2006)



Charles J. Shields, I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee (Holt, 2008)
Part II: By way of wrap-up, we’ll spend the second half of this class period discussing one another’s papers. By way of an epilogue, see what Roy Rosenzeig says about Wiki bios in “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/d/42


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