Arts & Culture

Week of events at Radcliffe links history and biography

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By this afternoon (March 15), Nancy F. Cott’s desk will be piled high with applications from historians who have an interest in American biography and gender studies.

Cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University. It was her idea to hold a five-day series of lectures and workshops called “Writing Past Lives: Biography as History.” For the June 24-29 program, resident scholars will fill 36 places at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Participants will include established historians, advanced graduate students, and independent researchers.

“A lot of historians are using a biographical focus,” said Cott, describing the attraction to the traditional form as robust among those who write history. That vigor was the inspiration for the Schlesinger Library Summer Seminar on Gender History, a pilot program. “I’m hoping it can be held every year,” she said.

Cott is also the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, and the summer seminar is intended to raise the library’s research profile. “It’s in the forefront of new directions in gender history,” she said about the pre-eminent U.S. repository of manuscripts, books, periodicals, and visual arts for investigating women’s history.

The Schlesinger has more than 2,500 manuscript collections alone, composed of the letters, diaries, and other personal papers of many notable American women, including Amelia Earhart, Emma Goldman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

At the summer seminar, weekday mornings will be devoted to the public portion of the program. Cott will moderate plenary sessions that include two or three presentations by visiting American history scholars.

Once a day, summer seminar scholars in groups of 12 will meet privately for intensive workshops on researching and writing biography, and to share works-in-progress.

Group leaders for the workshops include Cott, who’s thinking of writing a “group biography” that tells the story of Americans who grew into adulthood between the world wars.

Twentieth century American historian Susan Ware will lead another workshop group. She’s an independent scholar who has written several biographies, including one of Earhart. At the Radcliffe Institute from 1997 to 2005, Ware was editor of volume five of the biographical dictionary “Notable American Women.”

Independent scholar Megan Marshall ’77, a Radcliffe Fellow this year, will lead the third workshop group. Her 2005 biography, “The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism” (Houghton Mifflin), won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Mark Lynton History Prize, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for biography.

“There’s nothing like this,” said Marshall of the coming summer seminar for biographers. “I worked 20 years on my book, and might have spent a few less if I had had something like this.”

Writing biography is very painstaking, she said, and has been a mainstay of historical writing going all the way back to Plutarch, whose “Parallel Lives” was written in the first century. Yet biography is rarely taught in writing programs, said Marshall. “This is an important genre to teach and support.”