Uncovering Lives (Magill Book Reviews)
Alan C. Elms writes in a reasonable and shrewd tone. He realizes that psychology has been used badly in biographies. Both biographers and psychologists have been reductionist—indeed simplistic—in forcing their subjects into the Freudian paradigm of the personality. For all its faults, however, do readers really want biographers to eschew psychobiography? Elms asks. How then can the biographer get at human motivation? Is it enough to tell the subject’s story from the outside? Most readers, Elms confidently supposes, would say no.
The point is to select a subject wisely and try out various psychological approaches. This is exactly what Elms has done. He freely admits to many errors, to having scrapped certain approaches and never freeing himself from becoming reductionist in certain instances. Yet he treats these problems as hazards of the discipline, not arguments for abolishing the use of psychology in biography. He strengthens his book enormously by providing many examples of his own psychobiographies so that readers have both his theoretical arguments and his practice to evaluate.
Biography, Elms argues, is needed to counteract the quantitative methods of contemporary psychology, which tends to explore simpler and simpler issues and narrows the range of personality study because it wants countable, verifiable results. The problem is that the results do not amount to much. They do not further understanding of the human personality. It is here that biography can make its contribution. He is right in supposing that psychobiography (and biography as a whole) is at the beginning of being studied as a form of knowledge in its own right.