Gary Gallagher on Robert E. Lee

I have often had a problem with the use of capsule biography in books. All to often it has very little to do with the main argument of the book or provide supporting evidence. It is just filler to extend the length of a book or article. This happens in many historical works but the practice is particularly egregious in Civil War literature that is often written by enthusiastic amateurs with little training or experience in historiography let alone writing.  It is not unusual for a short battle or campaign history of fewer than 150 pages to devote almost half that to biographical padding that only interrupts the narrative without providing insight or elucidation.

This is a problem with “life & works” generally-too frequently it becomes just a chronological list of facts without context. It provides a convenient format for filling space without having to formulate an argument or an approach. One can write a book without having to think about and understand the material—it can just be collected and arranged chronologically. “Here are a list of life events followed by a list of a writers publication history.” If you are writing a biography it needs a purpose, a point of view. It must explain or demonstrate something. There must be a reason to write it and a reason to read it. Everything else is laziness and a waste of time.

Fortunately there are some writers who do not fall to this temptation. Gary Gallagher is a perfect example. His books, articles and lectures often utilize biography but it is never space-filling biography. When we here about an event or anecdote it has a purpose. The parts are connected, they tell a story; it leaves you with a new understanding—even if you already knew about all the events and facts. He weaves them into a thesis that provides a better understanding of the person. You are left better able to: 1) when you find the person in a situation you did not know about and have enough understanding to make an informed speculation about what they might have done. 2) Judge the likely veracity of other anecdotes.


~ by severalfourmany on January 1, 2012.

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