Biography, Reclaimed: Looking Back at the Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution

So men the great contribution for peoples.

Age of Revolutions

By Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

The history of the world is but the biography of great men.

–Thomas Carlyle (1841)

The biographies of the great men of the past… are generally useless. They are idle and incredible panegyrics, with the features drawn without shadows, false, conventional and worthless.

–James Anthony Froude (1882)[1]

I never planned to become a biographer, particularly of the abbé Henri Grégoire. Although biography has long been popular among general readers, the genre had fallen under suspicion in academic history by the time I entered graduate school in the early 1990s. Where nineteenth-century writers like Froude had occasionally challengedhow biographies were written, the genre suffered a more profound attack in the early twentieth century when scholars of theAnnalesschool argued that historical change occurred because of structural forces, not individuals’ actions. Biography was further hampered by the rise of “history from below,” which regarded studies of…

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