Biography from the Greeks to VH1

History 103U.002

Spring 2007
Instructor (text): 
2303 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
Mon 2-4

Certain kinds of historians, or historians trying to do certain kinds of things, seem to have an affinity for biography, as if no other genre of history will do. It has been this way as far back as Plato's composing the character we call Socrates. One can almost say that biography is the genre for polemical public history. It is also the genre of history with the most problematic relationship to fiction. Not only do biographers purposely and proudly use storytelling techniques; they also (purposely but not so proudly) tell fictions. In this seminar we will study the distinctive characteristics of biography and ask why biography has these particular characteristics and why they have endured so long. We will also probe the grey area between history and fiction where biographies seem to be written. Most of all, we'll read a lot of biographies, among them: Plutarch's life of Alexander the Great; Athanasius' Life of Anthony; Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson; Stephen Greenblatt's recent biography of Shakespeare; excerpts from Edmund Morris' Dutch (a biography of Ronald Reagan as told by a fictional narrator who relies on fictional informants); Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Oppenheimer; and top it all off with Jack Miles' God: A Biography. We'll also read a little theory and watch some VH1 or A&E.

Note: For students planning to do a History 101, we will also try to use the course to learn how to generate and hone research topics.