Tag Archives: Biography

A historian’s nightmare


390p , 1979

On my shelf there are two books that I have borrowed about William Lyon Mackenzie.  I pick up the first one, The Firebrand and check out the publication date- 1956.  I pick up the second one William Lyon Mackenzie: A Reinterpretation, thinking from the title that it would probably be the more recent book.  Ah, but I’d be wrong.  Although it was published in 1979 for the first time, the text itself was written seventy-one years earlier.  And in this case, the story about this book and its troubled publication history is probably even more interesting for a 21st historian on the other side of the world, than the book itself.

A household name in one country can be greeted with a quizzical “Who??” in another.   William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) is such a person.  Newspaper editor, entrepreneur, and controversial politician, he was one of the leaders of the rather disorganized and immediately suppressed Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837  (although he escaped fairly lightly compared with the rebels he led, many of whom were transported to Australia as Tony Moore’s recent book- review here-  explains).  Particularly for Canadian schoolchildren, in a historiography  that can seem (like Australia’s)  rather, well, bland, the rebellion and William Lyon Mackenzie stand out as flashpoints, rather like Peter Lalor and the Eureka Stockade might stand out in Australia’s similarly ‘colourless’ schoolroom historiography.

The first book about William Lyon Mackenzie was a two-volume ‘official’ biography written by his son-in-law Charles Lindsey and published within a year of Mackenzie’s death. As might be expected, it was a highly laudatory appraisal and set the scene for Mackenzie to be embraced as the Father of the Upper Canada Rebellion and Founding Figure of Canadian Democracy.

When, in the early 1900s,  Toronto publisher George Morang embarked on his multivolume biographical work ‘Makers of Canada Series’ to celebrate the makers of Canada’s national and independent  history (with none of that servile backward-looking Colonial stuff) Mackenzie was a shoo-in.  But William Dawson LeSueur was not originally approached to write the Mackenzie volume.  Instead, as a  recently-retired prolific essayist and historian, he was asked to review the Mackenzie biography that was originally commissioned for the Makers of Canada series.   On LeSueur’s advice, the manuscript was rejected.  Publisher George Morang asked LeSueur to take up the challenge, but he refused.  It was only when the replacement biography fell through that LeSueur was contracted for the job, commencing in 1905 .

LeSueur contacted Mackenzie’s son-in-law, Charles Lindsey (who had written the very first biography) and arranged to have access to the Mackenzie Papers in the Lindsey home- in fact, he was invited to stay at the house to work on them.  LeSueur told Lindsey that he was writing the biography for the Makers of Canada series, but did not mention that he had been responsible for the rejection of the first manuscript.  Some family members were concerned that LeSueur was rumoured to be ‘a Tory’ and were concerned that the new biography would tarnish the reputation of their much-lauded forebear.  Most concerned of all was Mackenzie’s grandson and up-and-coming politician Dr William Lyon Mackenzie King who was at the time the Minister for Labour and would just happen to end up Prime Minister. Given the family’s misgivings,  LeSueur offered to withdraw, but Morang encouraged him to keep writing.

But having handed over the single longhand manuscript, Morang rejected it.  LeSueur was keen to recover his manuscript and offered to return the $500 cash advance he had received during the two years it took him to write it.  Morang refused his offer and insisted on keeping the manuscript.  Charles Lindsey had died by this time, but his son asked LeSueur to return all the Mackenzie papers he had in his possession, which LeSueur did, but he refused to hand over his own notes.

And so the matter headed into the courts.  The first case involved LeSueur’s attempt to recover his manuscript from Morang.  Morang’s lawyers argued that because he had purchased the manuscript, property had passed to him and he could use it or not as he pleased.  The case finally ended up in the Supreme Court which found for LeSueur on the grounds that where the inducement to write a book was both pecuniary and reputational (because it was based on the prospect of publication), the mere payment of the money without publication could not convey a title to the possession of the work.  An appeal was unsuccessful. So, after three and half years, LeSueur regained his manuscript.

But then the Lindsey family sought an injunction to stop LeSueur using any of the family materials that they had made available to him, arguing that he had breached their confidence when they gave him access to the papers. There was much argument over the distinction between an ‘agreement’ and a ‘contract’ to write a fair and balanced biography.  LeSueur was ordered to hand over any papers and any extracts or copies that he had made in his own notes.  He was prevented from publishing or making public any information he had gleaned from those papers.  That’s an interesting thought for a historian. How, having read something, do you then separate out one particular idea from the whole general picture that you’ve developed?

In 1915 LeSueur rewrote the book, citing other readily available sources to support the same argument that he had mounted in the original book.  He wrote a lengthy preface, putting his side of the controversy.  This revised book and its preface, however, were never published- and remained unpublished until A. B. McKillop published Willian Lyon Mackenzie: A Re-interpretation in 1979 with his own foreword, LeSueur’s preface to the 1915 expurgated text and the original 1907 manuscript.

As for the book itself?  Yes, it certainly does challenge the Mackenzie-as-Hero characterization, and argues that the Canadian Rebellion would have occurred without him- and that, in fact, his actions cruelled it. I find it quite amazing that a family could have stopped publication of what, to me now, reads as a historical argument rather than a warts-and-all biography.

I must confess that while I’m aware of the ‘fair dealing’ approach for research and study purposes here in Australia, I haven’t really thought (or been encouraged to think) about the legal ramifications of dealing with primary documents.  Interesting, too, given that with the current push to have universities place theses online blurs the line between ‘research’ and ‘publication’ even more.

If you have a look at the articles I’ve listed below, it’s quite sobering what a law court in America could do to the writing of history/biography if a published biography ended up there.  The distinction between fact and expression, a narrow definition of ‘fair use’ for unpublished materials, privacy issues– is there any scope for primary source, critical biography at all? I have read Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman and been aware of biographer/family tensions over recently deceased biographical subjects, but reading these articles is rather chilling.  If you have a library registration that allows access to academic databases, you can find out more in these very legalistic, American-law articles:

Harvey, Cameron, and Linda Vincent. “MacKenzie and LeSueur: Historians’ Rights.” Manitoba. Law Journal  10 (1979): 281.

Bilder, Mary Sarah. “The Shrinking Back: The Law of Biography.” Stanford Law Review (1991): 299-360.

The Seymour Biography Lecture: Ray Monk


“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.


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?