Writing Biography: For or Against Budge?

One of the odd questions I often got when writing about E. A. Wallis Budge was, "Are you for or against Budge?" This question always left me rather puzzled. For or against Budge? The notion never occurred to me. I have training in Islamic History and Modern European Intellectual History. I am drawn to topics that allow me to explore the history and culture of Europe and the Middle East--particularly where they intersect. The project of writing about Budge was one of cultural and social history through the life of one man, not a sort of "Battle of the Bands" in which Stones fans and Beatles fans argue about which band is better.


But biography, to me, is not about "liking" the person you're writing about or producing an "Apology for E. A. Wallis Budge." [Apology: "The word's earliest meaning in English was 'something said or written in defense or justification of what appears to others to be wrong or of what may be liable to disapprobation.'"] Correcting the blatant distortions of the historical record perpetrated by the Petrie Claque [ Claque: 1: a group hired to applaud at a performance 2: a group of sycophants] does not mean that one should distort the record in another way. All people are a mixed bag. A biography should show that.


Thus, no work has demonstrated more fully than my biography of Budge the means by which Budge smuggled artefacts out of Egypt and Iraq--as well as demonstrating that Budge had the full approval and support of his superiors and the Trustees of the British Museum for his smuggling and that the work of 19th and early 20th century Egyptologists and Assyriologists was part and parcel of European imperialism. Demonstrating this support by the Trustees and his bosses does not excuse Budge for either his smuggling or his Liberal Imperialism, but it certainly complicates the simplistic stories told about Budge in the standard histories of Egyptology, particularly those told by the Petrie Claque, which descend very quickly into farce as they seek to portray Flinders Petrie--a proto-fascist ideologue whose mad eugenic politics saturated both his history and his archaeology--as a "scientific" thinker and a kindly eccentric and natural genius.


No, writing about Budge was fascinating because his life was entwined with many of the most fascinating currents of Victorian and Edwardian history: the discovery of ancient Near Eastern history through the decipherment of the languages of Ancient Egypt and Iraq; the emergence of European museums as instruments in building a national culture; the struggles of Budge, born a poor and illegitimate child in rural Cornwall, through the complexities of Victorian class prejudice in a society that was changing very quickly through industrialization and socio-political reform; the profound interconnection of European imperialism and the emergence of Egyptology; the movement of spiritualism and the belief that ghosts may be scientifically demonstratable; the movement that sought to demonstrate a rational Christianity for the 20th century...The list could go on and on.


In short, the purpose of an historical biography is not to be for or against. The purpose is to produce a portrait of the life of one person, based on evidence and research, that is enlightening about their relation to the society of which they were a part. The biography should allow readers to understand the person's life in context, but also to understand that historical context better for having examined this one interesting and compelling actor in it. Historical biography is history. The critical and analytic tools of historical writing apply just as much to biography as they do to any other history.


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