Fear of Theory

Towards a New Theoretical Justification of Biography


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Recent academic historiography has seen a profusion of theoretical perspectives on biography, both analytical and descriptive. Yet many biographers still fear ‘theory’ as antithetical to accessible narration of real lives.

This volume presents eighteen essays by more than a dozen scholars and practitioners from Australia, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, and the United States who seek to banish such fear. Writing with candor, wide experience and familiarity with modern teaching, they examine the riches greeting the biographer willing to think more deeply about biography: its inner workings and rationale in a world still hungry for fact and truth.

Contributors are: Nigel Hamilton, Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, Emma McEwin, Melanie Nolan, Kerstin Maria Pahl, Eric Palmen, Hans Renders, Carl Rollyson, David T. Roth, István M. Szijártó, Jeffrey Tyssens, and David Veltman.

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Hans Renders is Professor in History and Theory of Biography at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). He has written two biographies and has published on biographical theory in various international journals. He is Editor-in-Chief of the series Biography Studies.

David Veltman has a PhD from the University of Groningen. His dissertation, a biography of the artist Felix de Boeck, was written at the Biography Institute. He has published before in Biography. An Interdisciplinary Quarterly.
"This exciting new volume provides reflections and debates about biographical theory and methods from some of the field’s leading practitioners and critics through a series of essays, case studies, and jousting among microhistorians. It raises some of the fundamental questions about the nature of biography, if not always answering them definitively. The debates will continue, and this volume will play an important role in stimulating and advancing them."
- Daniel R. Meister, University of New Brunswick

“[T]his book [...] proves to be an important attempt to find theoretical background for biographical research. [...] With the return to its academic roots, it is only logical that biography needs to find theoretical and epistemological ‘allies’ and even though it is not an easy task, I praise this book for initiating it.”
- Jana Wohlmuth Markupová, Charles University, Dejiny-Teorie-Kritika, February 2022.
Notes on Contributors

Foreword: Scaffolding a House: Biography and the Role of Chance in a Life
Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson

Section 1: Reflections on Theory and Biography

1 The Deep-Rooted Fear of Theory Among Biographers
Hans Renders

2 The Missing Key: Theorizing Modern Historical Biography
Nigel Hamilton

3 ‘Have They Caught the Cambridge Structuralist Yet?’ Biography Writing and the Fear of Theory
Jeffrey Tyssens

4 Biography and Emotional Practice
Kerstin Maria Pahl

5 The Great Individual in History: Historicising Historian’s Biographical Practice
Melanie Nolan

6 The Backside of the Biography: Microhistory as a Research Tool
Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon

Section 2: Case Studies

7 Beyond Verification and Falsification: Biography as Go-Between of Historical Truth
Eric Palmen

8 History That Addresses Biography: Ethics and the Vatican
Hans Renders

9 Brief Lives: A Microhistorical Approach
David T. Roth

10 ‘Une génération spontanée’: Kandinsky Seen Through the Eyes of Felix de Boeck (1898–1995)
David Veltman

11 Template for a Biography: What’s the Sense of Theory
Hans Renders

12 Building a Better Biography
Carl Rollyson

13 Capturing the Subject: Virginia Woolf ’s Battle with Biographical Boundaries
Emma McEwin

Section 3: Dossier on Microhistory

14 The Representativeness of a Reputation: A ‘Third Wave’ in Microhistory
Hans Renders and David Veltman

15 The Devil Is in the Detail: What Is a ‘Great Historical Question’?
Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon

16 Arguments for Microhistory 2.0
István M. Szijártó

17 Exceptions That Prove the Rule: Biography, Microhistory and Marginals
Hans Renders

Teachers of Biography Studies, University Libraries, (Graduate) students and anyone else working in the humanities who may have questions regarding the theoretical notions (or the lack thereof) in biography.
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