By Keith Thomas
The booklet of the Oxford Dictionary of nationwide Biography in September 2004 used to be an occasion of significant literary and scholarly significance. In his Leslie Stephen Lecture, commemorating the founding father of the unique Dictionary of nationwide Biography, the prestigious historian Keith Thomas surveys the various previous makes an attempt at collective biography, considers the connection of the Oxford DNB to them, and provides a initial evaluation of it. the writer, who has been chairman of the Supervisory Committee of the Oxford DNB seeing that its inception, writes with intimate wisdom of the undertaking.
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46 One effect of this doctrine, as Dr Johnson pointed out, was to make the life of almost any individual worth studying. 47 At the end of his Biographical History, Granger paused : ‘I have, 45 46 47 A. G. Matthews, Calamy Revised (Oxford, 1934), p. xviii. Biographia Britannica (2nd edn), vol. i, p. xxi. The Rambler, 60 (13 Oct. 1750); The Idler, 84 (24 Nov. 1759). Thomas Sprat had expressed the same view in 1668; ‘The Life of Abraham Cowley’, Preface to The Poetical Works of Abraham Cowley (Edinburgh, 1777), vol.
77 As with the old DNB, the implication is that these heterogeneous individuals are all somehow part of a single inheritance, a culture which we all share. Even so, there must be embarrassment about the fact that 2000 is too early a closing date for the Dictionary to reflect the changes in British society brought about by post-1945 immigration. Has Dr Johnson’s servant the ex-slave, Francis Barber, been included because he was historically influential or because it was thought important to provide some 77 Alex May, ‘Nationality in the DNB ; the Modern End’, Oxford DNB Newsletter, 6 June 2001.
42 which gives Handel 12½ pages, Britten 12, Elgar 8½, Walton 6½, and Purcell 6¼; or, coming near home, 1 to George Kitson Clark, 1½ to David Knowles, 3 to Herbert Butterfield, 4½ each to Lord Acton and G. M. 85 Yet the gap between top and bottom is narrower than it used to be. There is none of that mixture of obsequiousness and commercial acumen which led Lee to give 50,000 words to Edward VII and 93,000 to Queen Victoria, so that the articles could be spun off as freestanding biographies. 86 Moreover, ours is supposedly an anti-heroic age.
Changing Conceptions of National Biography: The Oxford DNB in Historical Perspective by Keith Thomas