"Writing Past Lives: Biography as History": Seminar on Gender History

James Friguglietti, November 2007

Why write biography? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using an individual's life as a vehicle to illuminate broader historical issues? Are there historical problems or questions best approached through writing an individual's life? Posed by Nancy F. Cott, director of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, these questions provided the theme of a five-day summer seminar on gender history, "Writing Past Lives: Biography as History," held at Radcliffe College June 25–29, 2007. With Cott serving as moderator, the conference featured 13 scholars who responded to her queries by discussing the lives of their chosen subjects as well as detailing the problems they faced in pursuing their research and writing.

In five daily plenary sessions the speakers explained in detail their choice of subject and their approach to biography. "Biography across Boundaries" featured Linda Colley, who recounted the life of the 18th-century English traveler, Elizabeth Marsh and Mae M. Ngai, who examined the rise of the Tape Family, a group of prosperous Chinese Americans living in San Francisco. "Twentieth-Century Independent Spirits" included Linda Gordon's work on photographer Dorothea Lange, Vicki L. Ruiz's investigation of the Guatemalan American labor organizer Luisa Moreno, and Alice Kessler-Harris's biography of controversial playwright Lillian Hellman. "Three Sisters, One Book" included a paper by Jacqueline Dowd Hall on the Lumpkin sisters of the early 20th-century South, focusing on writer Katherine Lumpkin, and Megan Marshall's collective biography of the Peabody sisters of Salem, Massachusetts. "Alliance and Authority in the Lives of Nineteenth-Century Activists" enabled Lori D. Ginzberg to discuss the life of well-known feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Nancy A. Hewitt to evaluate the career of abolitionist-feminist Amy Post, and Jean M. Humez to analyze 19th-century autobiographies of black women, notably Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. The final session, "Does Gender Matter?" featured Joyce E. Chaplin speaking on the role women played in the life of Benjamin Franklin and Jean Strouse on diarist Alice James and banker J. Pierpont Morgan. Susan Ware, editor of Notable American Women, offered reflections on the nature and purpose of biography as well as recommendations on writing one. She suggested that a biography served as a "window" onto a larger world as well as put a human face on broad historical trends. To produce a good biography, Ware insisted, was to do good history. She also advised her audience that lives of unfamiliar individuals would prove as valuable as those of more familiar ones. In concluding she urged her listeners, whatever their choice of subjects, to "just do it."

In addition to the five plenary sessions, which were attended by 114 academics and independent scholars, workshops for discussion of the individual research projects of smaller groups of scholars were held each afternoon. At the final luncheon held on Friday, June 29, Drew Gilpin Faust, the historian who had just then been designated president of Harvard, briefly addressed the participants and praised the conference for contributing to the understanding of the art of biography.

—James Friguglietti teaches history at Montana State University-Billings.