- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

Who would imagine Nigel Hamilton’s compact, erudite book about the history and practice of biography — called Biography: A Brief History (Harvard, $21.95, 327 pages) — could be so wide-ranging and provocative?

From prehistoric cave drawings (the animals are fully drawn while the hunters are stick figures) to today’s films (the author himself won an award for a documentary based on his biography of Field Marshal Montgomery), Mr. Hamilton moves briskly through the centuries, highlighting how the depiction and recording of individual lives has changed from early oral sagas and cuneiform writing to Internet blogs. In essence, the author provides a short course on past societies viewed through their individuals, plus insights into the nature of individuality at certain periods in human history.

The author’s “freeze-frame” approach encompasses the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Bible (“the best-selling work of biography of all time”), the confessions of Saint Augustine and hagiography (the lives of the saints) in the Middle Ages. “Without Christianity and Christian biography, would illiterate Europe have succumbed after the sixth century to its rival, Islam — a religion that eschewed individual life depiction as insulting to the majesty of Allah?” asks the author.

The rise of the secular state in Europe, he says, revived interest in secular individuals and created “a ready market for Shakespeare’s dramatizations of nonreligious lives (he never did write about a saint).” However, Shakespeare’s contemporary, Sir Walter Raleigh, became biography’s first martyr for being “too sawcie in censuring princes.”

In the late 18th century, Mr. Hamilton notes, Samuel Johnson appealed for an end to hagiography because “[i]f nothing but the bright side of characters should be shewn, we should sit down in despondency and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing.” Boswell’s life of Johnson, says the author, “provided a classic example of the new warts-and-all biography: messy, vivid, and colorful as life itself.”

Autobiography became popular following the American and French revolutions, to be succeeded by a Victorian “demand for patriotic and exemplary, rather than honest, lives.” This “life-laundering,” of course, stimulated a backlash, led by Lytton Strachey’s sardonic “Eminent Victorians,” in which Strachey knocked four icons off their pedestals: “ambitious Cardinal Manning, dotty Florence Nightingale, the mad General Charles Gordon of Khartoum, and the sinister Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School for boys.”

Mr. Hamilton moves on to discuss the rise of film, particularly Leni Riefenstahl’s hagiography of Hitler as well as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” which was “designed and titled to bring a fictional ‘great man of history’ down to ordinary size.” The author also describes the post-World War II explosion of print biography and televised programs about real lives, and a new flowering in the 1960s, when Michael Holroyd sympathetically tackled the complicated sexual relationships of Lytton Strachey and the whole Bloomsbury set.

With respect to the role of biography at the end of the 20th century, Mr. Hamilton asks, “Was it the age-old ritual of commemoration? Deeper insight into personality, identity, and the self? Factual record? The raising of individuals and groups from obscurity? Entertainment? Artistic license, especially in autobiography?

“The short answer must be: all of the above.”

Mr. Hamilton, a distinguished and prolific writer who has taught biography on both sides of the Atlantic, has distilled enormous wisdom into his remarkable little book. Read it and enjoy.

Somehow the American Revolution has not generated the intense popular interest that the Civil War has. There are some obvious reasons for this discrepancy. First, thousands of photos and letters of Civil War soldiers exist to stimulate interest today, but there are no photos and few letters of Revolutionary veterans. The battles of the Revolution, often involving only a few thousand men, seem paltry compared with the great hosts and ghastly casualties of the Civil War.

If dedicated patriots had not persevered in the Revolution there might be no United States as we know it. Yet only George Washington is well remembered from this “greatest” generation. His able subordinates — men like Henry Knox, Daniel Morgan and Nathaniel Greene — have largely faded from memory.

Gen. Greene in particular deserves a better fate, for if Washington was the indispensable man, Greene was indispensable to Washington. Greene is the subject of Greene: Revolutionary General (Potomac Books, $13.95, 116 pages, illus.) by Ohio historian Steven E. Siry.

Born into a Quaker family in Rhode Island, Greene worked in his father’s iron foundry as a young man. When war came, Greene abandoned his religion’s pacifism and organized a local militia company. In May 1775 he was appointed brigadier general in the Colonial forces and participated in the siege of Boston. There he sufficiently impressed Washington that he was promoted to major general and placed in command of the defenses of New York City.

Greene’s record on Manhattan was mixed. On one hand he recognized that Washington’s outnumbered army was in a precarious situation, and urged that the army retreat to New Jersey after torching the Tory stronghold of New York City. At the same time, he recommended that Fort Washington on upper Manhattan be defended, an error that resulted in the fort’s speedy surrender.

Greene ably commanded Washington’s left wing at the Battle of Trenton, and at the Battle of Brandywine his skillful disposition permitted the army to withdraw in good order. So great was Washington’s confidence in Greene that the future president made Greene quartermaster general for two years to bring order to the army’s chaotic supply system. But by 1778 Greene was back in the field and helped drive the British out of Rhode Island.

In October 1780, after a serious American setback at Camden, South Carolina, Washington placed Greene in command of the entire Southern department. Greene completely reorganized the forces and went out of his way to secure the cooperation of local authorities. He combined regulars, militia and guerrillas into a force that used rapid movement to vex the enemy. He would withdraw so as to force the British to outrun their communications, and then would harass them on the retreat.

The British under Cornwallis gained costly victories at Guilford Court House and Hobkirk’s Hill, but were maneuvered out of Camden. Greene captured British posts in the South one by one, until by December 1881 only Charleston remained in enemy hands.

Mr. Siry believes that Greene’s great innovation was “coordinating the movements of regular and partisan troops in an extremely mobile type of warfare, which frequently exchanged space for time while waiting for an opportunity to engage in full-scale battle.” Greene was neither the first nor the last soldier to employ such tactics, but no matter. Mr. Siry has provided a first-rate biography of a first-rate soldier.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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