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History, Historians, and Autobiography

Though history and autobiography both claim to tell true stories about the past, historians have traditionally rejected first-person accounts as subjective and therefore unreliable. What then, asks Jeremy D. Popkin in History, Historians, and Autobiography, are we to make of the ever-increasing number of professional historians who are publishing stories of their own lives? And how is this recent development changing the nature of history-writing, the historical profession, and the genre of autobiography?

Drawing on the theoretical work of contemporary critics of autobiography and the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, Popkin reads the autobiographical classics of Edward Gibbon and Henry Adams and the memoirs of contemporary historians such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Peter Gay, Jill Ker Conway, and many others, he reveals the contributions historians’ life stories make to our understanding of the human experience. Historians’ autobiographies, he shows, reveal how scholars arrive at their vocations, the difficulties of writing about modern professional life, and the ways in which personal stories can add to our understanding of historical events such as war, political movements, and the traumas of the Holocaust.

An engrossing overview of the way historians view themselves and their profession, this work will be of interest to readers concerned with the ways in which we understand the past, as well as anyone interested in the art of life-writing.

328 pages | 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2005

Biography and Letters

Culture Studies

History: American History, European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


"This is a wonderful study of autobiographies by historians. It is the first such book-length study, and it is composed with great analytic acuity and psychological insight. One of its many strengths is its sophisticated discussion of the recent theoretical literature on autobiography. Jeremy Popkin’s method throughout is comparative, and his comparisons are ingenious."

Paul Robinson | Paul Robinson

"Jeremy Popkin is like a physicist who, in order to study two phenomena, chooses to examine their point of intersection. Autobiographies of historians are a sort of experimental object in which one can observe how each of these two undertakings—the act of writing history, and writing the history of that act—reveals what is specific to the one when it is disturbed by the other, and how the two are similar. Perhaps ego-history, promoted by Pierre Nora, was not as new as Nora believed. What is new, on the other hand, is the analytical, perceptive, and sensitive treatment that Jeremy Popkin gives it here."

philippe LeJeune | Philippe LeJeune

"Scholars of life writing and historians alike will welcome this ground-breaking study of the historical dimensions of autobiography. Jeremy Popkin’s lively and engaging style and precise, nuanced analyses make a persuasive case for reading historians’ autobiographies as engagements with the past that shed light on the current stakes of life writing. Exploring an impressive range of twentieth-century narratives, as well as earlier prototypes, Popkin deftly interweaves theoretical frameworks from life narrative and history. The result is an illuminating study at the intersection of two often contentious disciplines that puts them in productive and insightful conversation."

Julia Watson | Julia Watson

Table of Contents

1. History and Autobiography
2. Narrative Theory, History, and Autobiography
3. Historians as Autobiographers
4. Two Classic Historians’ Autobiographies: Edward Gibbon and Henry Adams
5. Choosing History: The Issue of Vocation in Historians’ Autobiographies
6. Speaking of Careers: Historians on Their Professional Work
7. Historians’ Autobiographies and Historical Experience
8. Holocaust Memories, Historians’ Memoirs
9. Historians and the Redefinition of Personal Narrative

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