‘The bits that have floated to the surface’: a quote about historical evidence

Toward the end of her biography of Randolph Stow, Suzanne Falkiner offers a beautifully expressed quote from Louis Menand:

How much one can accurately convey of a life lived so much on the interior is debateable. As the American academic Louis Menand has observed, in the matter of historical research (and by extension biography), what has been written about takes on an importance that may be spurious:

A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are merely the bits that have floated to the surface. the historian clings to them while somewhere below the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

Suzanne Falkiner Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 2016) 726.

It’s more of a problem for a subject about whom little has survived – Shakespeare as an extreme example, the early Katharine Susannah Prichard as a less extreme example. Yet it subtly affects all biographies. Falkiner’s book would look very different if she her main source wasn’t Stow’s letters to his mother.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

9 responses to “‘The bits that have floated to the surface’: a quote about historical evidence

  • Lisa Hill

    Yes, this is so true. Today when we post all those happy-go-lucky stories on Facebook and sift out the stuff to be kept private, we are all very conscious that our social media selves are very different to our real selves, but it must have been the same in the past. What remains of the self after time has done its work is a very hit-and-miss affair.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan Hobby

      Good analogy with social media selves. We only ever know anyone through what they communicate. But it’s the randomness (or perhaps worse: deliberate distortion) of the sifting process this quote captures.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lisa Hill

        Yes, though that randomness is sometimes not so random, is it? Madeleine St John made her biographer’s job very difficult because she so assiduously manipulated what would be left behind after she died. If another century had elapsed without Helen Trinca interviewing people who actually knew her, there would be a very different biography, more like the one that St John wanted!

        Like

  • whisperinggums

    The important thing is for biographers to be aware and make clear they are aware so the reader can make their own assumptions about both the subject and the biographer!

    Austen is another good case. Yes, we do have a number of letters but we know her sister destroyed many. Also, as her sister was her main recipient, we have very few letters from the times when she and her sister were both at home together – and they did live all their lives at home with their mother when they weren’t visiting various family and friends. There’s so much we don’t know and different biographers, of whom there have been many, take different approaches to the gaps.

    Liked by 1 person

  • wadholloway

    Even if the biographer struggles with the author’s private life, a literary biography is able to provide context for the work – local history, other writings and hopefully some evidence of what the author has been reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  • MST

    “…the huge submerged wreck of the past.” What a beautiful metaphor. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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