Historians and autobiography

A previous post on this blog referred to Richard Evans’ claim that historians’ lives are typically too mundane to make for interesting autobiographies. A quick bibliographical search makes clear, however, that there are plenty of them out there who disagree (or who don’t care whether they bore their readers or not), as just among historians of Britain and Ireland there are 30-odd autobiographical books and articles (see below).

Evans highlights the most notable exceptions to his rule of tedium, arguing that the life outside academia is what makes for a good autobiography. One of his examples is Eric Hobsbawm, whose autobiography encompasses many of the major events of the 20th century, and certainly fits Evans’ criteria. Yet Hobsbawm is also interesting in terms of another aspect of autobiography – namely its relation with the ‘academic’ work that the historian also produces. Fascinatingly, for a Marxist his work (epitomised by Age of Extremes: The Short 20thCentury, 1914-1991) is deeply autobiographical, and he himself stressed the impossibility of separating the historian from his history.

A variant of this phenomenon emerged with the cultural turn in historical writing, and involved historians consciously using their own autobiographies as source material. Examples of this are Sheila Rowbotham’s Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties, and Patrick Joyce’s ‘More secondary modern than postmodern’ article, and it is no coincidence that this approach tends to come from feminist and working-class historians whose ‘lifestor[ies] appear so tightly woven into [their] intellectual and political times that neither can be understood without the other’. It still helps, of course, that these times and lives encompassed more than just marking essays…

List of autobiographies from the Bibliography of British and Irish History

Briggs, Asa Special Relationships: People and Places

Buckley, Ken (Kenneth Donald). 2008. Buckley’s!: Ken Buckley; Historian, Author and Civil Libertarian – an Autobiography. [Leichhardt, N.S.W.]: A&A.

Burke, Peter , ‘Invitation to historians : An intellectual self-portrait, or the history of a historian’, Rethinking History, 13, 3 (2009), 269-81.

Clark, Kenneth Mackenzie. 1974. Another Part of the Wood: a Self-portrait. London: John Murray.

———. 1986. The Other Half: a Self-portrait. London: Hamilton.

Collinson, Patrick. 2011. The History of a History Man: or, the Twentieth Century Viewed from a Safe Distance: the Memoirs of Patrick Collinson. Church of England Record Society. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Fisher, Herbert Albert Laurens. 1940. An Unfinished Autobiography. With a Foreword by Lettice Fisher. London: Oxford University Press.

Hancock, William Keith. 1954. Country and Calling.

Heyd, Michael, and Elliott Horowitz. 2005. ‘“A Feather in the Wind”: an Interview with Sir Keith Thomas’. Journal of Early Modern History 9 (1-2): 181–92.

Hobsbawm, Eric John. 2002a. Interesting Times: a Twentieth Century Life. London: Allen Lane.

———. 2002b. ‘A Life in History’. Past & Present 177: 3–16.

Howard, Michael Eliot. 2006. Captain Professor: the Memoirs of Sir Michael Howard. London: Continuum.

Jeater, Diana, ‘Stuff happens, and people make it happen: theory and tractice in the work of Terence Ranger’, Diana Jeater, History Workshop Journal, 73, 1 (Spring 2012).

Jopyce, Patrick, ‘More secondary modern than postmodern’, Rethinking History, 5, 3 (2001), 367–82

Leinster-Mackay, Donald. 1996. ‘My Life in the History of Education, VIII’. History of Education Society Bulletin 58: 25–33.

Louis, William Roger, and Roger Adelson. 2000. ‘Interview with William Roger Louis’. The Historian [London] 62 (3): 492–509.

MacDonagh, Oliver, and Tom Dunne. 2008. Looking Back: Living and Writing History; Oliver MacDonagh, 1924-2002. Dublin: Lilliput Press.

Marriott, John Arthur Ransome. 1946. Memories of Four Score Years: the Autobiography of the Late Sir John Marriott, Etc.

McDowell, R. B.  McDowell on McDowell: a Memoir

Mouton, F. A. ‘History, Historians and Autobiography’: A South African Case Study’, African Historical Review, 39, 1 (2007)

Ó Broin, Leon. 1986. Just Like Yesterday: an Autobiography. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

Oliver, Roland Anthony. 1997. In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History. London: Cass.

Popkin, Jeremy, ‘Ego‐histoire down under: Australian historian‐autobiographers’, Australian Historical Studies, 38:129, 106-123.

Ranger, Terence, ‘From Ireland to Africa: a personal memoir’, History Ireland, 14, 4 (July/August 2006).

Read, Donald. 2003. A Manchester Boyhood in the Thirties and Forties: Growing up in War and Peace. Lewiston (NY); Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press.

Robinson, John Martin. 2006. Grass Seed in June: the Making of an Architectural Historian. Wilby: Michael Russell.

Rowbotham, Sheila. 1999. Threads Through Time: Writings on History and Autobiography. London: Penguin.

———2000. Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties. London, Penguin.

Rye, Walter. 1916. An Autobiography of an Ancient Athlete & Antiquary.

Saville, John. 2003. Memoirs from the Left. London: Merlin.

Simon, Joan. 1994. ‘My Life in the History of Education’. History of Education Society Bulletin 54: 29–33.

Supple, Barry. 2008. Doors Open. Cambridge: Asher.

Taylor, Alan John Percivale. 1983. A Personal History. London: Hamilton.

Todd, James Eadie. 1959. ‘The Apprenticeship of a Professor of History, 1903-19’. History 44: 124–33.

Williams, Glanmor. 2002. Glanmor Williams: a Life. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Witherow, Thomas, Graham Mawhinney, and Eull Dunlop. 1990. The Autobiography of Thomas Witherow, 1824-1890. Draperstown: Ballinascreen Historical Society.

Woodward, Ernest Llewellyn. 1946. Short Journey. New York.

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