The Art of the Partial Biography

While TBC couldn’t attend every panel at the Compleat Biographer Conference, with assistance from New York correspondent Dona Munker, we offer capsule reviews of seven, including this one.

Moderator Nigel Hamilton introduced this session by noting it would be more scholarly and less anecdotal than other panels. The panel had a decided European and academic flavor, but its discussion of such things as turning points in a subject’s life, and the way microhistory helps biography explore the relationship between the part and whole, were useful from a craft level.

Hans Renders talked about “turning points as benchmarks for partial lives.” They can be either in a subject’s personal or public life, and one in the former may influence the latter. At times, the biographers has to assess if the turning points a subject identifies as important truly have the meaning the subject imparted to them.

Matti Peltonen talked about microhistory, challenging the traditional notion that it only deals with marginal or obscure persons. Microhistory can also be used to focus on part of the biography of a famous person. The micro and macro of history can meet in the life of one person, and Peltonen gave the example of The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, which began with a classic source of microhistory—a court case—to explore one facet of the writer’s life and in doing so connect the great artist’s life to his community.

Binne de Haan talked about, among other things, the need for good biography to look at the relationship between subjects’ lives and their relationship to the society in which they live. De Haan also talked about looking for clues in the sources that can get the biographer into the subject’s worldview. He cited Carlo Ginzburg’s work for The Cheese and the Worm, in which court transcripts revealed books that his subject had read. Tracking down those sources gave Ginzburg more insight into his subject.

In the Q&A, panelists, moderator, and attendees talked about the need for a strong story and interpretation in a biography, rather than a mere listing of facts, and most answered Hamilton’s question, Are biographers historians too? with a resounding yes.