Daily Archives: April 1, 2007

The Imagined Lives of Real People

Imagination is critical when it comes to considering the past. The best historical writers, it seems to me, are those who can cull together the facts, think hard about them, and then managed to present them to us in an engaging, thought-provoking, and honest way.

When it comes to writing and learning about the past, biography is one way to go. But it is fraught with problems too. Biographer Nigel Hamilton, in his article “Life Studies,” argues that biography has been sadly overlooked in the academy.

Is it really right, then, that we should still refuse to teach the history, theory, and practice of biography, in all its media, at our colleges, given that real-life depiction has become so central to our Western way of life? By studying the nature, art, craft, agendas, genres, rules, ethics, research methods, and the different media approaches to biography, we can improve our appreciation of a significant aspect of our civilization — and encourage better, more honest, more insightful, and more learned biographical works.

I would go further — I mean, why limit this to higher education? Kids are as eager to learn about real people as adults and they need to examine this form of history-telling as they do other forms. Telling other people’s stories, as fiction or not, is something we are doing and seeing all the time. We read them and view them on television and in film; examining more closely how biographies are researched and created seems a worthy educational endeavor at all ages.

Such studies with younger children would, I think, help them when they encounter fictionalized accounts of real people and events. My 4th graders still grapple with this topic. Even now, despite frequent examination of the issue, my students still struggle to figure out what is real and what is made up in the books they read. For example, I will soon be reading to them some of Katherine Lasky’s Dear America title, A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple in order to show them how the author used the same primary sources they are using to write it. Invariably, a few weeks later there will be children who will want to use the book not only as a model for their own stories, but as source material as well. I mean, they can tell me the book is fiction, but evidently deep down they still view it as a reliable source about the past; I suspect that some, no matter what I say, will continue to think of Patience as real as Governor Bradford. (For more on such confusions see my 2005 Educational Leadership article “The Pilgrim Maid and the Indian Chief.” )

In fact, I think the study of biography is critical just as I think deep and close study of historiography is critical. Being always just a tad skeptical, a tad suspicious is important. We shouldn’t just accept without thought the information in those Biography Channel shows, in docudramas, in books. Anything that helps kids and adults consider critically what they are taking in is all to the good in my opinion.


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Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Teaching, Writing