Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


Intellectual Biography Guidelines

Finding Your Subject

• It is great if you already have a subject in mind (or a list of potential subjects) to write about. If you do, I may be able to point you in the direction of relevant secondary literature. If you do not, don’t panic. Let me know what questions, topics, and time periods are especially interesting to you, and I’ll make suggestions about possible subjects.

• There is no requirement that the subject be a famous intellectual or conform to conventional definitions of who intellectuals were and are (although it is fine if your subject does this). Be creative. Intellectual history can accommodate obscure and non-conventional people, thinkers who had bad ideas as well as good ones, and failed creative projects as well as ones we all know about because they succeeded.

• There is no requirement that the subject be someone you admire or whose ideas you share. Examining ideas that were discarded as useless or stigmatized as controversial can be as or more illuminating than examining ideas that were so historically successful they later became self-evident. Writing about intellectuals whose ideas seem either distasteful or bizarre to you can be challenging but worthwhile.

• There is no requirement that the subject be someone closely connected to the particular fields and topics we will be examining in this course, although you may find it convenient and efficient to choose someone in a related field.

• There is no requirement that your subject be a feminist or a person who was interested in questions of sex and gender.

• There is no requirement that your subject be a U.S. citizen, but you should aim to choose someone who made a discernible mark on American intellectual culture during the 20th century.

Conducting Your Research

• Begin with the work of your subject herself. For many subjects, that means published writing, but it may mean photographs, films, visual art, etc. If you have chosen to focus on someone who was very prolific and wrote much more than you can hope to read in a few weeks, decide what dimension of that person’s work interests you most. Focus on that.

• Locate the secondary literature about your subject if such a literature exists. Be sure to look for biographical sketches and journal articles as well as book-length treatments and biographies.

• Consider secondary literature about the general field in which your subject worked and about other women in that field. For example, if you are writing about Mamie Clark, consult histories of developmental psychology as well as scholarship on African-Americans and women who worked in that field from the 1930s through the 1960s. If you are writing about Barbara McClintock, look up scholarship on the history of genetics as well as on women in biology and the life sciences.

What is an intellectual biography and how should I think about writing one?

• Intellectual biographies offer insights into 1) the person’s life; 2) the intellectual and creative work of the person; 3) the relationship between life and work; and 4) the significance of the life and work historically. Ask yourself the following questions: Why am I interested in this subject? Why does this subject matter?

• Identify the larger context that makes your subject and her work meaningful, whatever it is. Was she a pioneer in a particular field? Was she part of an intellectual school or cultural movement? Was her work important because it represents something bigger, because it was utterly unique, because she made a contribution at a crucial moment in time, or for some other reason?

• In addition to profiling your subject, placing her in context, and assessing her intellectual legacy, your reader also wants to know what your specific questions and conclusions about the subject are. In this sense, an intellectual biography is just like any other historical essay or exercise in critical analysis. You should formulate an argument and present evidence to support it.

Practical Suggestions

• One useful thing to do is to read a few short intellectual biographies or sketches to get an idea of how scholars approach this task. Consider sketches in A Companion to American Thought, Notable American Women, or American National Biography.

• Remember that formulating original questions you may not be able to answer completely can be as informative as making sweeping judgements or bold claims.

• Keep an open mind. You may already think you know what is most important about your subject, and you may be right. But pay attention to what you don’t know. At its best, the research process can be surprising as well as educational. Things you learn about your subject may be either delightful or upsetting, and sometimes both.