Category Archives: Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #19


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

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #17

I’ve been thinking recently about being a reader of history, as distinct from a writer.  I like the ideas in the quote below, but I must admit to wishing that I could rewrite it with different use of punctuation. But I suspect that I am being a picky historical reader, instead of a critical one.

It goes without saying that creative historical writing requires creative historical writers, historians willing and able to take their writing seriously as writing, to see the form of their work as the product of a series of choices, a creative problem they have to solve, a problem at least as open-ended as the problem of coming up with a good subject, the right questions, suitable sources, satisfying answers, interpretations, conclusions and new questions.

Less talked about is another requirement: at every step along the way, creative historical writers will need creative historical readers, readers able and willing to read their history and criticize it as writing.  Those readers will not stop trying to figure out if the author has asked a good question, reckoned with all the appropriate literature, identified sources that will actually allow them to answer their questions, and all the rest.  It simply means that they will also try to determine whether the author has chosen the form, the structure, the voice or voices, the point(s) of view, the language, the length, the controlling metaphors and so much more- that do the subject, the questions, the interpretation or story the   most justice.     James Goodman ‘Editorial’

Rethinking History, Vol 16, No 1 March 2012 p. 1-2.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #16

To live over other people’s lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth , the change, the varying intensity of the same – since it was by these things they themselves lived.

Henry James, William Wetmore Story and his Friends 1903

Leon Edel used this quote as an epigraph to the first volume of his Life of Henry James.  To be honest, I can’t actually find it in the online versions of William Wetmore Story.  Still, interesting quote…..

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #15

Go on reading until you can hear people talking

G. M. Taylor (cited in many places including Today and Yesterday p. 112; and Last Essays p. 9 but I must admit that I haven’t actually seen it).

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #14: Keith Sinclair

Pardon the gendered language- it was written 35 years ago.

In biography, in other respects probably the most difficult form of historical writing, there is at least in principle a clear guide to what is relevant.  Biography is about a man, and the ideal data is that which seems to take us deepest into his or her personality, like Florence Nightingale’s Notes from God, or Alfred Deakin’s prayers.  Since he knows what is central, the author should know what  is peripheral.

Keith Sinclair ‘On Writing Shist’ Historical Studies Vol 13, No 51, 1968 pp. 426-432

Easy, huh?

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #13: Geraldine Brooks

From her Boyer lecture (available for download here)

Writing may aspire to art, but it begins as craft.  Words are stones, and the book is a wall. You choose each stone with consideration, you place it with effort.  Sometimes, you find just the right stone- the right shape and heft- for that difficult niche, and the effect is beautiful and satisfying. Your wall has gone up straight and true.

Other days, you pick up one stone and then another, and none of them is right. You try it, it will not fit.  Frustrated, you jam it in anyhow.  The effect is unsightly, the balance precarious.  You come back the next day and you cannot bear to look at it.  You bring in the backhoe and knock it over.  The important thing is the effort.  There can be no day without lifting stones.

And after enough days, if you have sweated enough, scraped enough skin off your hands, been patient and diligent with your craft, unsparing in use of the backhoe, you will, in the end, have a wall. And it may even be a beautiful wall that will last for a hundred years.

(Reported in The Age, 10 December 2011)

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #12: Hazel Rowley

I was saddened to read that Hazel Rowley died in March this year. It’s timely that I should write this post aware that the French department of the University of Adelaide is hosting a day-long tribute to her this coming Saturday 19th November. One of the  conundrums of the internet is the status of a website of a person who has died. Should it be left as it was? Does updating it somehow detract from its integrity, or does it honour the person’s ongoing relevance? Hazel Rowley’s website has been taken down this route by her sister.

I enjoyed reading Rowley’s 2007 LaTrobe University/Australian Book Review lecture “The Ups The Downs: My Life as a Biographer”, which is available on the ABR archives page (you’ll need to scroll down almost to the bottom of the page).  Once again, I haven’t actually read any of the biographies she has written, but this comment about the art of writing biography struck a chord with me:

Biographers carry a big responsibility.  They have someone’s life in their hands.  What’s unjust is that, if you read a dull biography, you come away thinking that person’s life was dull.  In reality it’s almost never the life that’s the problem; it’s the narration.  No wonder people are wary of biographers.  It’s hard enough to die; we don’t want some dullard turning our lives into insipid gruel.