Biography, history, agency: where have all the ‘great men’ gone?
From the 19th century, the biography has stood at the heart of the Western historical enterprise. The ‘great men’ of history have been valorised as the sources of change in the world. Yet, biography has equally been decried as ahistorical and elitist, leading to its widespread abandonment, by the second half of the 20th century, as a means of understanding and relating historical change. In the 1970s and 1980s approaches to biography attempted to restore its sense of political purpose and its academic reputation - with mixed results. However, in the past ten years theoretical attempts to reintroduce the notion of individual agency to history, and the emergence of works that successfully navigate the boundary between history and biography, have demonstrated the latter genre’s validity as a means of historical analysis. This paper argues that these recent developments, when complemented by the historicisation of the Western biographical genre attempted here, show that the biography can make a valid contribution to the history, though not for the reasons given by both its traditional champions and its radical critics.