On Biography

11/09/2010 11:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Nigel Hamilton Author, 'The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942' and 'American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush'

In the Arts section of the New York Times, Charles McGrath tells of the oncology doctor with the looks of a Bollywood star, Sid Mukherjee. His new book, The Emperor of All Maladies, is, he says, constructed as a biography -- a life-story of the once unmentionable affliction, cancer. "I began wondering, can one really write a biography of an illness," he explains. "But I found myself thinking of this cancer that has lived for 4,000 years, and I wanted to know what was its birth, what is its mind, its personality, its psyche?"

An interesting notion -- since the biographical imperative, too, is also more than 4,000 years old. How come, then, that we don't teach it?

That's another interesting question. Dr. Mukherjee, like others who gravitate towards the biographical model of investigation, has a college degree from Stanford, a Ph.D. from Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and doctorate from Harvard Medical School. But biography was never on the syllabus, in any department, whether humanities or science, or any of their subdivisions. Biography is, simply, the orphan of academia. Almost every self-respecting teacher wishes to write autobiographically or biographically at some stage of his or her life -- but with no knowledge of how to do so, beyond self-help books (such as my little How to Do Biography: A Primer, which Harvard University Press published in 2008).

This, to my mind, is a national, indeed an international disgrace -- and when Jamie Morris, the editor of a grass-roots website, suggested last year the creation of an organization to promote the practice of biography (rather than potential, but arid, academic theorizing of the art), I was an instant apostle. A wonderful biographical storyteller himself (his biography of Joseph Pulitzer, last year, was a tour de force -- a genuine page-turner that is also a wonderful window on nineteenth-century journalism in America), Jamie energetically pursued his vision, from New Mexico, where he lives. The result, this year, was the formal establishment of BIO; short for Biographers International Organization, it is a non-profit devoted to the practice (and practitioners) of biography, in all its many forms and media, from print to film. The first annual conference was held in Boston in May, 2010, and was an outstanding success, with ten different panels devoted to life depiction -- from research and dealing with the family, to marketing and getting an agent (we offered speed-dating with top agents). We gave a lifetime achievement award to the distinguished New York biographer Jean Strouse ("Alice James" and "Morgan: American Financier"), and vowed to promote more and more affiliated grass-roots Biography Groups across the nation -- support groups where would-be and practicing biographers can get together on a monthly basis and trade knowledge, concerns and a sense of solidarity in a world that revels in the stories that biographers compose, but does not believe in biography as a part of education.

I belong to the Boston Biographers Group -- and get my monthly "fix" from them. Where else can I sit down for two hours with people who understand the challenge I face, daily, as a life-chronicler? For almost fifty years it used to be the loneliest profession on earth; now, I emerge from our meetings with a profound sense of professional companionship and gratitude, as well as admiration for the dedication my colleagues to the business of reconstructing a human life. (Well, cell-life in Dr. Mukherjee's case.)

Some of our members have labored already for more than a decade on their chosen biographies -- as I did thirty years ago when writing my 3-volume life of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of World War II fame. Their devotion to their subjects -- ranging from controversial nineteenth-century college administrators to recent Supreme Court Justices -- is wonderful to behold. After a visit to London last spring, I grew depressed about the future of non-fiction publishing in Britain and America, given the imminent collapse of the publishing industry as we have known it for the past half century. But listening to the stories my colleagues are researching and grappling with -- in terms of access to documents, psychological understanding of their subjects, artful composition and determination to extrapolate from an individual's life lessons and insights that we can all learn from -- I am each time overwhelmed by joy. And proud to be: A Biographer.

Nigel Hamilton, winner of the Whitbread Prize for Biography and Templer Medal for Military History, was elected the first President of Biographers International Organization (BIO) in May 2010, succeeding interim President (and Pulitzer-prizewinning biographer) Debby Applegate ("the Most Famous Man in America - Henry Ward Beecher"). Next year's annual BIO conference will be held at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on May 21, 2011. Details on this and establishing your own Biographers Group, wherever you live, at