This morning, I stumbled upon an article in the Chronicle
of Higher Education entitled, When One Biographer 'Borrows' From Another, the Dispute Gets
Philosophical. The article describes an academic storm that has been
slowly growing in the biography genre; in particular, with regards to the citation to
In 2010, Julian Young published a biography on Friedrich
Nietzsche entitled, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Mark
Anderson, at the time a professor at Belmont University, stumbled upon several
un-cited or questionably cited similarities between Young's book and the late Curtis
Cate's 2005 biography, Friedrich Nietzsche. What followed was an interesting
(and somewhat escalating) rumble between academics, with a focus on biography
as art and the gray area between writing fiction and reporting history. What
makes the melee even more interesting is that the players' thoughts and
responses have been published in the Journal
of Nietzsche Studies.
History vs. Fiction
In Telling the Same Story of Nietzsche's Life, Anderson
makes his initial case against Young's lack of citation to Cate, pointing
to parallels in phrasing and narrative structure. Among the many examples, Anderson underscores the following similarities between Cate and Young:
For the next six weeks, despite the
consoling presence of his sister, he suffered acute eye-aches and headaches,
and convulsive stomach upsets, some of them so protracted that blood came up
with the vomit... Nietzsche's friend, Professor Immermann, seemed to be at his
wits' end as to how to deal with this new crisis... (Cate)
For the next six weeks, despite the
consoling presence of Elizabeth, he suffered acute eye-aches, headaches and
terrible stomach convulsions, some of them so violent that blood came up with
the vomit. His friend and doctor, Professor Immermann, at his wits' end... (Young)
While much of the article is devoted to biographical parallelisms
and citation problems, Anderson offers some interesting views of the biographer in
general and how he or she functions as a writer. His views touch upon the fine
line between reporting history and authoring history, the latter being creative
and susceptible to unintentional borrowing or intentional plagiarism. Anderson says
that compilation and collation aside, a biographer must also be an artist, not
in the chronological ordering of events, but in selecting facts, interpreting these
facts in the narrative and using prose to characterize biographical subjects.
A Unique Biographical Voice
Young provides a brief reply in which he notes the un-cited incorporations of
Cate but marks them as unintentional. He mentions the lodging of phrases in his
mind and illustrates the movement of material over the years from "notes to
notes and drafts to drafts," with contact being lost between him and the
sources. However, in his second reply, Young downplays the un-cited incorporation as
minimal ("the total number of words involved is less than 300."). But he does
acknowledge that biographical/historical facts, like ideas, are subject to
acknowledgement, having assumed wrongly that "the manner of reporting humdrum
historical facts no more counts as intellectual property than the manner of
reporting a bus timetable."
More interesting is Young's defense of his narrative:
In addition to highlighting the
recycling of phrases from Cate, Professor Anderson also makes the more nebulous
claim that elements of Cate's "narrative structure" appear in my
biography. Now even where the order in which one narrates events or the
selection of quotations from original sources is suggested by someone else's
work, I do not believe that one is required to acknowledge this fact.
I believe that during the course of
writing the biography I developed a unique kind of sympathetic intimacy with
Nietzsche that enabled me to present him, for all his strangeness, as a rounded
human individual-one who was at times, of course, like all of us,
To this, Anderson responds unfavorably, noting that Young's qualifications
dilute his acknowledgements and that the "less than 300" words assertion does
not reflect a thorough and careful inspection of Young's text.
Biography as Art and Scholarship
In the thick of it all is Daniel Blue, a scholar who is
working on his own Nietzsche biography. Blue has two irons in the fire: his response to Anderson and his reply to Young. In
his response to Anderson, Blue flushes out the relationship between scholarship
and biography's artistry. He notes that:
the word, "story," can refer either
to the events of Nietzsche's life, the story to be covered, as it were, or to a
narrative account of those events, the story that is told. The former in theory
is as fixed as the myths Greek dramatists used when fashioning their plays. The
"story" on the other hand ... is likely to vary significantly from one writer to
another depending on sensibility, thematics, and presentational skills.
Similarly, in his reply to Young, Blue underscores biography as more
than just an "aesthetic artifact." He also labels biography "scholarship," making it subject to the constraints of researched and codified knowledge. He
It is evident then that biography
is a work perpetually in progress, a creation of accumulated scholarship, and
many facts in a personage's life are no more established once and for all than
are certain astronomic measurements-the size of the solar system, for
example-which are recalibrated and made ever more precise over time. The
serious biographer will know and be grateful to those researchers who
discovered and proved something new. The latter will also be cited in
footnotes, not just as an act of transparency, but as a tribute to those who
contributed to the advancement of knowledge.
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