Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #19

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Roger K. Newman, ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’

To be honest, I had no idea who Justice Hugo Black is. My interest is not so much in him as in the advice given by his biographer, Roger K. Newman in a chapter called ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’ in a collection of essays with the rather utilitarian title The National Conference on Legal Information Issues: Selected Essays.  His chapter is about the process of writing a judicial biography, although his advice is applicable to any type of biography, judicial or not.  Indeed, much of it applies to any writing, biography or not.  And, I suspect, the chapter is more relevant to writing a book than a thesis.  Nonetheless-

The cardinal rule- call it Newman’s first law of biography- is to show the reader what happened, not just tell him.  Dramatize dialogue and set scenes- even the most flat-footed facts can be presented appealingly. Indulge in metaphor, vary sentence length and structure. Foreshorten perspective, summarize when necessary and recapitulate (some things are important enough to remind the reader). Pace the narrative- a biography is a story, not an argument.* Drop hints.  Planting my pistols early, I was able to use flashbacks.  I took to calling this “closing the circle”. (p.208-9)

*Me: A story, not an argument? Mmm. Not sure that I agree.  Especially in a thesis/biography.

Newman’s second law of biography is to omit almost anything that does not bear directly on the central protagonist… The point is that a biography should be shaped and molded. Condensation is indispensable.  Even in this egalitarian age, not everything is of equal importance.  Just because something happened, and we know about it, does not mean it should be immortalized.* (p. 210)

* Me: This is a real temptation when you have only a limited amount of source material of a particular type.  You’re so grateful for the scraps that you have that you feel that you want to make as much as you can of them.  But, to be honest, they don’t really advance the story (or is it the argument?) much.

Thus comes Newman’s third law of biography: Use spirited prose and humour… A biography is, after all, about people, and people want to read about other people  It is the most humanizing of all literary ventures, especially at a time when heroes have been taken off the pedestal and defrocked. (p. 210)

And so-

Portraying character in action lies at the heart of biography. A biographer must look for the telling incident, the revealing detail.  He is the unseen hand- the biographer as Adam Smith- shuffling, dealing, reassembling the deck, his active imagination dealing with malleable facts.  Like a director, he changes the scenes and brings supporting figures to the fore as needed, dressing them as needed and then sending them backstage.  He is present everywhere yet seen nowhere- only in his choice of materials and language.  I could have written almost every chapter in at least one other way. (p. 212)

Roger K. Newman, ‘Writing Hugo Black’s Biography’ In Timothy L. Coggins The National Conference on Legal Information Issues: Selected Essays. (American Association of Law Libraries) AALL Publications Series No. 51, Colorado,  Fred B.Rothmann & Co, 1996.pp. 201-214

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