Category Archives: History writing

The Seymour Biography Lecture: Ray Monk

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“How Can I be a Logician before I’m a Human Being?” The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals, Seymour Biography Lecture, 22 September 2014

“I don’t even know who this guy is….” I thought while RSVPing for the Seymour Biography lecture in Melbourne, held last night.  When I looked the books he’s written, I understand why.  While I’ve read many historical and literary biographies, I must confess to not being overly attracted to biographies of philosophers and scientists.  However, in my own work on Judge Willis, I share the problem of working on a man who has a body of work in the intellectual realm (in my own case, an accumulation of addresses to a jury and written judgements) which, while abstract and de-personalized (in a way that, perhaps, a fiction oeuvre for a writer is not), is also integral to his own identity.

Ray Monk is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, coming from a background in the philosophy of mathematics. Although his four works are based on philosophers and, more recently, a scientist, he does not believe that biography necessarily contributes to an understanding of all philosophers and moreover, that you can’t evaluate the philosophy in terms of the life of its proponent.   However, he was attracted to write about Wittgenstein after reading two very different appraisals of Wittgenstein’s work and concluding that, if these writers had understood Wittgenstein as a man, they would not have developed particular misunderstands in their analysis.

In a very academic-y way, he investigated the methodology of biography writing before embarking on his biography of Wittgenstein.   In effect, he followed Biography 101, commencing with classical biographies,  Samuel Johnson and Boswell, Virginia Woolf, and ending up with Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde and Andrew Hodge’s Turing: The Enigma as exemplars for his own work.

In his presentation, he focussed on Johnson’s own reflections on biography that he expressed through two articles ‘Biography’ in The Rambler in 1750 and ‘On Biography’ in The Idler 1759.  He addressed five questions from Johnson:

1. What is the relation between biography of other genres, most particularly history and fiction?  His answer- there’s an overlap.

2. Who deserves a biography? Many philosophers don’t live sufficiently interesting lives to warrant a biography, he said.

3. What details to include? He mentioned that there were facts that he had omitted from his two-volume work on Russell – a publication that he seemed oddly apologetic about.  He explained that had he included them, they would have completely skewed the response to the book, and so he omitted them.

4. What are the moral responsibilities of the biographer? He identified three- to the subject; to the public and to the truth. Although he nominated the ultimate responsibility to the truth, he noted that surviving relatives often have a stake as well.

5. Can one know the inner life?  Johnson believed that this was not possible: “By conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments”. Monk disputed this very 18th century view, giving examples in his books where he had looked to action as a window on the inner life.

There is a particular challenge, I think, in writing biographies of intellectuals, as opposed to biographies of politicians or literary figures.  There is the content of their philosophy, as well as their own life as part of a familial, historical and intellectual milieu.  Monk noted the tendency of academic biographers, in particular, to give a quote from the philosopher’s work then in the following paragraph to proceed to paraphrase and explain it. Just leave the quote alone, he advised.

He noted that a biography is not just a collection of facts: that the facts need to be shaped, and that the biographer has a point of view. He finished with a very Wittgensteinian idea that is particularly applicable to biography-writing “The understanding that exists in seeing connections”.

There’s a very good review from the Guardian (10/11/12) of his Oppenheimer book which also discusses Monk as a biographer. You’ll get a good taste of the lecture from this article.

More:

I’ve been frustrated in the past that the Seymour Biography Lecture has been delivered in Canberra and, as far as I’m aware, not in Melbourne as well. But I’ve just found podcasts or transcripts of recent lectures on the NLA site. Ah, isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?

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‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

Well, now I can tell you what happens at a masterclass!  There were about eighteen or so participants, drawn from universities across Australia, but the majority were from the University of Tasmania. The masterclass was hosted by Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania,  and several Uni of Tasmania academics attended including Anna Johnston (who wrote The Paper Wars which I reviewed here), Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Kristyn Harman, whose book Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles recently won the Kay Daniels award.

But the major drawcard, for me at least, was the presence of  Dr. Zoe Laidlaw, Reader in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Continue reading

Oooh goody!

I’m really looking forward to the Masterclass on “Networks of Empire & Transnational History’ that is being conducted down at the University of Tasmania tomorrow.  It’s being conducted by Zoe Laidlaw, one of my capital letter Historians I Admire Very Much.  It was her book ‘Colonial Connections’, along with Kirsten McKenzie’s ‘Scandal in the Colonies’ that spurred me to write about ‘my’ judge in the way I’m doing.   So I’m down in Hobart, one of my very favourite cities, having had an indulgent day off looking through the newly renovated Museum of Tasmania  and Narryna, a historic home in Battery Point.  The Jetstar God actually smiled on me and the plane left on time, and I was upgraded in my accommodation fromthe rather poky cheapest room to something rather more salubrious.  But I’m using my tablet and only just managed to get the bluetooth keyboard to work, and I’ve discovered that I have absolutely no idea how to make a new paragraph.  I probably sound very very excited, but it’s just my technological ignorance!

 

 

Terrific article about Clare Wright’s ‘Forgotten Rebels’

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There’s an excellent article by Zora Simic on The Conversation website that locates Clare Wright’s much acclaimed book Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (see my review here) within other feminist Australian histories over the past forty years.  She refers specifically to three other books that sit here on the shelf beside me.

The first, Damned Whores and God’s Police by Anne Summers was published in 1975 (while she was still a doctoral student!) with the subtitle “The Colonization of  Women in Australia”.  This subtitle was dropped from the 1994 and 2002 revised editions.  Its republication decades apart is significant.  The 1994 version included a new introduction and a controversial epilogue “Letter to the Next Generation”.  The 2002 edition included all the material from the first and second editions and a timeline of achievements by Australian women 1788-2001.

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1976 edition

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1999 edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second is Miriam Dixson’s The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia 1788-1975.  It, too, has gone through several editions.  It was published in 1976, revised in 1984 with a third edition in 1994 and a fourth in 1999. By the 1999 edition it had grown by two chapters, along with a new introduction.  When Ann Curthoys wrote a twenty-year retrospective review of four foundational feminist Australian histories for Australian Historical Review (Vol 27, No 106 pp 1-13) she noted that the the book had an open engagement with international theoriests, with a heavy emphasis on the early colonial period.  However, she was struck, twenty years after its publication, by the emphasis on women’s passivity.

Curthoy’s review also examined Damned Whores and God’s Police,  Beverley Kingston’s My Wife, My Daughter and Poor Mary Ann which examined the unrecognized work of women in the home, and a book I had not heard of- Gentle Invaders which focussed on the regulation of women’s wages.  Curthoy’s article is a good one, and worth looking up if you have access to it (bring out your State Library of Victoria card, people, and read it online).  Zora Simic’s article here is not unlike it yet another twenty years further on.

1994 edition

1994 edition

2006 edition

2006 edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Simic locates Clare Wright’s book alongside the 1994 book Creating a Nation, co-written by Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly and republished in a second edition with an additional chapter in 2006..   In Ann Curthoy’s survey article she had been particularly surprised by the absence of discussion of race in the four texts she reviewed, and this book directly challenges this by the integration of Aboriginal experience into their analysis, with three chapters devoted to this often-dismissed aspect.  It certainly starts dramatically, with an Aboriginal woman going into labour on the beach in 1791. This  imagery is carried throughout the book, giving a new meaning to “the birth of a nation”.

 was prompted by Simic’s review to read Curthoy’s article  just after reading that the gender pay gap in Australia has soared to 18%, the highest in 30 years and since data was collected.  I noted with interest that Curthoy’s survey article made much of the context that the four books she examined were written i.e. in the early 1970s, during the Whitlam government and at a time of rapid increase in female enrolment at universities.  She wrote of the limitations of Gentle Invaders, written by two authors who had met in the heady days of the Womens Electoral Lobby, preparing the case for a minimum wage for women in the 1974 National Wage Case.  On a day when I also read about the threat to the Renewable Energy Target and the further relaxation of 457 visas, all that seems such a very long time ago.

References:

Zora Simic ” Noted Works: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka” http://theconversation.com/noted-works-the-forgotten-rebels-of-eureka-26584

Ann Curthoys  “Visions, Nightmares, Dreams: Women’s History 1975” Australian Historical Studies  Vol 27, Issue 106  pp 1-13.

Ben Wilson ‘The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain 1789-1837’

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2007, 389 p & notes

One of the basic questions in writing history is how to define the period under examination.  Sometimes historians use seminal events- particularly military ones- as markers.  Others use famous people: “the age of Beethoven” or “Austen’s world”.  Centuries can be used as markers, stretched out to form “the long 18th century” or “the long 19th century”. A recent approach, reflecting no doubt the effect of sociology on history, has been to look at generations.

My own research takes an individual life as its starting point: that of John Walpole Willis, born in 1793.  I’ve been interested in some time in the mental furniture with which his mind would have been stocked, having grown to adulthood in pre-Victorian times, yet living most of his professional life under Victoria’s reign.  As a judge, his pronouncements from the bench seem steeped in Victorian rectitude, but he was himself born in Georgian times.  Using the British royal family as periodization (Georgian, Victorian) is convenient, but it doesn’t explain how any qualitative change from one era to another occurred. How did the rambunctious disorder and ribaldry of Georgian times turn into the moralistic earnestness of Victorian times? How did this affect the way that people thought? Continue reading

‘What’s Wrong with Anzac?’ Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.

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2010, 167 p.
I doubt that this book will be reissued in the next two years. I’m sure that the publishers have had an asterisk against 2014 and 2015 as bumper years for military history, with the centenary of WW I in 2014 and the Gallipoli centenary in 2015. This book, originally published in 2010, is not likely to sit comfortably on the shelves with big books with big blokey authors that would have been scheduled specially to take advantage of all this interest. But many of the sentiments expressed by the historians who have contributed to it will continue to bubble along underneath all the ceremony, emotion and hyperbole.  You can find it manifested in the Honest History website.

In 2009 historian Marilyn Lake was invited by the History Teachers Association of Victoria and the University of Melbourne to give a lecture on ‘The Myth of Anzac’ in a series on mythologies. A condensed version of the address was published in The Age soon afterwards.

In it, she argued that in the 21st century Australia should reclaim the values of equality and justice which in an earlier era was thought to define a distinctive ‘Australian’ ethos. She suggested that it was inappropriate for “a modern democratic nation to adopt an Imperial, masculinist, militarist event as the focus of our national self-definition in the twenty-first century.” (p.3)

A furore erupted online- a “mixture of hostility and support, personal abuse and thoughtful reflection”. In her introduction to this book, she briefly mentions the abuse but outlines in more detail some of the more reflective responses posted onto the Comments section of the Age website.

This book is a compilation, then, of chapters written by a number of authors (both male and female) in response to the questions raised by Lake’s article and the commentary that surrounded it. Continue reading

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