«A novelists, kings DVENTURERS, ARTISTS, CERTAIN INTELLECTUALS, and queens, as well as politicians and revolutionaries of all kinds seem to be natural ...»
Historicizing the Historian:
Writing the life of
María Jesús González
A novelists, kings
DVENTURERS, ARTISTS, CERTAIN INTELLECTUALS,
and queens, as well as politicians and revolutionaries of all
kinds seem to be natural subjects for biography. When I decided to
write the biography of the historian Sir Raymond Carr (b. 1919), I
thought, quite naively, that it was a slightly eccentric thing to do. 1 I soon realized that I had entered a walled garden in which there grew a number of similar plants that fed on memory: historians’ autobiographies, égo-histoires, interviews, 2 the customary potted biography one finds in Festschriften,3 as well as biographies of historians written by other historians. There has been a steadily increasing output of the latter since 2000. In 2010, the year the Spanish edition of my biography of Carr was published, five other historians were the subjects of monograph-length biographies in the English language alone.4 Not all historians are comfortable with the genre, and one of the doubters was E.H. Carr (no relative of Raymond). Despite his dictum “before the history study the historian” and despite being a biographer himself, E.H. Carr (1892-1982) was ambivalent towards biography, and wondered “whether good biography made bad history.” Unsurprisingly, he has also been the subject of a biography.5 María Jesús González, “Historicizing the Historian: Writing the life of Raymond Carr,” Journal of Historical Biography 16 (Autumn 2014): 33www.ufv.ca/jhb. © Journal of Historical Biography 2014. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 License.
WRITING THE LIFE OF RAYMOND CARR 34The trend towards auto/biographical analyses of historians by historians seems here to stay. It is fuelled in part by the more recent practice of self-exposure or “self-revelation,” in contrast with the previous tradition of “self-effacement.”6 But it has come to the fore in recent years, above all among historians of the contemporary world. The intellectual autobiography of the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) has somehow encouraged other members of the profession to follow his example, even when, as apostles of structuralism, they were previously hostile to such biographical or autobiographical approaches.7 The autobiographies of Michael Howard (b. 1922), Asa Briggs (b. 1921), Tony Judt (1948-2010) and J.H. Elliott (b. 1930) are, from their differing perspectives (personal, intellectual, political), other recent examples. 8 Students of the past are becoming increasingly visible as protagonists in their own right. Some historians use autobiographical narratives “to contextualize, explain and define not only their field of expertise, but also the process of historical inscription.” 9 But apart from the simple exercise of historiographical reflection, it would seem that we are witnessing a breakdown in the anonymous, scientific objectivity that historians once affected. In its place, we now have not only a quest for the “unseen hand behind the work,” but also a sort of celebration and, somehow, historicization or selfhistoricization of the historian as “memory person,” either as an active protagonist or simply as a window on the historical landscape. 10 His or her presence as expert-narrator-protagonist of a time is, it would seem, more appealing to the general public than is “dry-asdust” history.
This new fashion is particularly evident when it comes to England, the paradise of biography and narrative history, where some charismatic historians and so-called “telly-dons” have even become media stars. But it clearly goes further and has now become an international historiographical trend, one that has to do with many factors, such as the post-modern emphasis on individuality and subjectivity, the return of narrative, the re-evaluation of the historical profession, and, of course, the revival of biography as performed and written by
35 JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHYsome of its most “respectable” professionals. 11 However, the new historiographical landscape that is emerging keeps old inequalities and disproportions alive. As it happens, this new tendency has been born with a touch of “original sin”: the number of women historians among the selected subjects is very low. Indirectly women biographers, like myself, are contributing to this state of affairs by choosing male subjects—although some of us are sensitive to and concerned about the matter and openly discuss it. The reasons for our choices are various (among them filial, intellectual affinity or random, as in my case) but in part they reflect the demographic and power imbalance within the discipline that was so marked for so long, and to some degree still persists. So if a biographer selects a subject who exerted a strong historiographical influence, the statistical chances are that this person will be male. The fact remains, however, that three-quarters of biographies of historians written by women concern male subjects, and the trend is accelerating rather than decreasing.
But I wonder if the alternative, a conscious and militant writing of the biographies of women historians by women, would be another type of “historiographical ghettoization.”12 There is also a profusion of recent literature (some of it unashamedly theoretical) that focuses on auto/biographies. A term coined some time ago—“cliography”—has recently been invoked to describe the “discrete genre” of biography of historians by historians.
So I suddenly find myself dubbed a “cliographer,” an impressivesounding title. Not only that, but I also find myself described as fitting a particular mould:
Cliographers… are nearly always formally trained historians holding academic positions and who work in the same or adjacent field as their subject.… Cliographers have nearly always written other histories first, although there are exceptions. They are generally middle-aged or beyond, apparently in keeping with the dictum that the young are insufficiently endowed with worldly experience to write about another person’s life and that biography is a poor career choice for a budding academic. 13
WRITING THE LIFE OF RAYMOND CARR 36Choosing a subject There are, then, precedents for writing biographies of historians, and there seems to be a virtual craze for doing so. There has also been plenty of theorizing. Of all this I was blissfully unaware when I chose my subject. So the first question to be answered has to do with the choice itself: why the biography of Raymond Carr? How did the project come about?
Years ago I wrote the political biography of Antonio Maura (1853-1925), a controversial conservative politician and one of the most important Spanish statesmen of the early twentieth century.14 I spent many years immersing myself in the politics of Restoration Spain, and the Spanish political “old boys’ network.” My next project, I decided, would be one that both embraced social history and explored the world of a woman revolutionary. The figure of Sylvia Pankhurst seemed to fit the bill and I began work on her. Yet, in the end, I have written about a male historian, the prestigious and charismatic British Hispanist Raymond Carr.
“The provenance of a cliography,” it has been written, “is often a grand gesture of solidarity towards a person or a type of history.”15 But my own project was born not out of any particular attraction or “kinship” I felt with the subject—although I had a good, if brief, previous professional and personal relationship with Raymond (and his wife Sara) and held his work in the greatest regard. The trigger was in fact pure accident, the result of an unexpected request. In the spring of 2003, I was approached by the Fundación José Ortega y Gasset to write a biography of Raymond Carr. They were ready to finance the project and to publish the resulting book. Of course, in order for all this to happen, my agreement was necessary. But so, too, was Carr’s. The plan was for an authorized biography and the emphasis was to be for the most part intellectual.
The idea was an exciting one; it sounded like a true challenge.
But I was not at all sure that I wanted to do it. And Raymond Carr blew hot and cold about it all. After discussing it at some length, we resolved to meet that challenge, though it was never in any respect
37 JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHYgoing to be an easy task. For a start, the projected funding was cancelled after only a few months, though, by then, I was sufficiently involved in the project to decide to continue with it on my own initiative. As is often the case with biographies, there was already an element of obsessive commitment that remained undimmed to the end, some seven years later. Carr’s life and work had become a jigsaw puzzle that I simply had to solve. I most probably became his nightmare.
Some methodological problems: sources “The smell of burning primary sources,” suggests Midge Gillies, “lingers over the story of many literary biographies.” 16 The same was true of my biography. Raymond Carr had, some time previously (I never found out when or why), destroyed almost all his personal papers. That meant that I would have to rely on interviews and would have to learn to identify, record, and negotiate my way around deliberate silences and personal or professional secrets, the tricks played by memory,17 and the way we rework the past into something compatible with our self-image. It also meant I would have to learn how to protect myself against being lured into taking a particular line.
Yet, the extensive use of interviews meant, too, that some measure of “autobiography” would inevitably colour—in every sense—the end product. Carr’s autobiographical reminiscences were vital to the biography, but they also worked against it: “frente a ella y contra ella,” (confronting it, and against it) in Anna Caballé’s words.18 As a result, my biography sometimes weaves together my own perspective of history, or “what happens, seen from outside,” with Carr’s perception and memories, or “what happens seen from within.”19 Such interaction between biographer and subject was inevitable, and sometimes led to lively debate between us. Although I listened carefully and respectfully, I did my best to “filter” or edit his voice, imposing mine upon it in the text. I was determined not be dictated to either in the tone I wanted to establish or the conclusions I reached.
WRITING THE LIFE OF RAYMOND CARR 38There was also the tactical problem of how best to interview an expert historian who would easily identify the purpose of one’s questions and the possible uses to which his replies might be put. It was an exercise that the old Chinese proverb would describe as “interesting.” We both also knew only too well the potential pitfalls involved in the interpretation of sources and the problems that inevitably arise when reconstructing the past. I questioned him, but he also questioned me. Often he did so in order to get a handle on my vision of his world—a world that I had to make my own, intellectually at least.
Our work began at Burch, the Carrs’ beautiful farm deep in the English countryside. I would stay with them for a few days every now and then; during those occasions I taped interviews with them both. Then I would go back to my campaign headquarters in London to continue with my reading and research. Those stays in England took place during university vacations, whenever I was not involved in teaching. I recorded a huge number of such interviews, always trying to limit the sessions to under two hours. Yet, time and again, after we had broken for lunch or tea, our conversations would wander on, as conversations do. Inevitably, they also became, for me, “research stuff.” It was an intense time. And I had, of course to learn on the job just how to be effective as an interviewer, something of which I had no previous experience.
“I am not in the least introspective,” Carr repeatedly said when talking of himself. He even confessed to me that he never thought about himself till I made him do it with my questions. So there would also be a little bit of “psychohistory” in the biography. I also had to get to know the person behind the social and academic masks and to learn to separate that person from Carr’s public persona. I do not know to what extent I have plumbed the depths of his “I,” but I think I have got quite close to his “ME,” the construction of his social self—as defined by sociologist George Herbert Mead—and that was far more important for the purposes of biography. 20 In addition to the tapes of conversations with Raymond and Sara, I conducted almost one hundred interviews in London, Oxford,