This blog has been quiet for quite a while – for the most part because my writing time has been focused on my new book, Bavinck: A Critical Biography. This book has been many years in the making, and is now due for release this September with Baker Academic. (The cover art is an original portrait by the multitalented Oliver Crisp.)
In recent times, I have been asked by a few people, ‘What’s a critical biography?’ Here’s my attempt at an answer. A biography, of course, is the story of someone’s life. Why would you try to recount a life story? A biographer might do so for commemorative reasons: to tell the world about a great human spirit, to bolster a community or a tradition by telling them noble tales of their particular hero, and so on. That kind of biographical writing tends to present its human subject in the most flattering light: think of old school hagiography, or the more recent sort of glossy ‘authorised’ biography. Commemorative biography is essentially a written exercise in reputation management, and usually handles its subject with velveteen gloves.
Another biographer might tell a life story for a different set of reasons: to understand the relationship of someone’s context to their intellectual or personal development, to explore how someone’s public and private personae were related, or to produce a book that guides the reader through the complexities of the subject’s interwoven life and work. That kind of biographical writing is necessarily critical, rather than commemorative, in nature. It asks a different set of questions, and takes into account the subject’s failures and successes. As a writing task, it is more complicated than commemorative biography because the outcome has not been decided from the beginning: a critical biographer needs to pursue deep immersion in a lifetime of sources (diaries, letters, newspapers, manuscripts, published materials) without knowing from the outset what he or she will find or have to report on.
In describing the difference between commemorative and critical biography, Hans Renders has written that,
The nature of the research that is conducted beforehand marks the real difference between the commemorative and critical biography. The author of a commemorative biography cannot derive any benefit from sources that dispute the good reputation of his hero, and therefore will not work exhaustively to unearth those sources. These two research traditions result in two types of biographies, the ‘low’ and ‘high’ biography… in biographical research, ‘low’ refers to the kind of research that has been conducted… High biography is almost by definition critical biography, while low biography may include the old-fashioned commemorative biography.
– Hans Renders, ‘Roots of Biography: From Journalism to Pulp to Scholarly Based Non-Fiction,’ in Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, eds., Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 29.
My biography of Bavinck is critical in that sense (or in Renders’ definition, it is a high biography). Its intention is not simply to reinforce for those who already like Bavinck just how great he was – although he certainly was a remarkable polymath and public figure in his day. Rather, the book was driven by research on his published and unpublished writings, historical period, significant friendships, ambitions frustrated as well as realised, and the lives and writings of his contemporaries. I have tried to offer an interpretation of his life and thought on micro and macro levels. As a critical biographer, my goal was to guide the reader through the complexities of Bavinck’s (fascinating) life and work, and hopefully to leave them with a clear understanding of it.