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By Keith Thomas

The e-book of the Oxford Dictionary of nationwide Biography in September 2004 used to be an occasion of serious literary and scholarly significance. In his Leslie Stephen Lecture, commemorating the founding father of the unique Dictionary of nationwide Biography, the distinguished historian Keith Thomas surveys the numerous past makes an attempt at collective biography, considers the connection of the Oxford DNB to them, and provides a initial evaluate 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 venture.

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21. Principles of Biography (Leslie Stephen Lecture, Cambridge, 1911), p. 10; The Perspective of Biography (English Association, 1918), p. 7. The difference between the two men is noted by Jane Marcus, Auto/Biographical Discourses : Theory, Custom, Practice (Manchester and New York, 1994), pp. 97–8. 67 The Supplements to the DNB, published by Oxford University Press at regular intervals through the twentieth century, were on a smaller scale than the original venture. As a result, their editors found that, after including the great and the good, there was no room left for anyone else, even if they had wanted anyone else, which is unlikely.

89 The Dictionary of Canadian Biography included ‘workers, craftsmen, farmers, fishermen’, on the grounds that ‘these humble people deserve their chronicles’, no less than politicians or artists ; and the American 87 88 89 Oxford DNB, vol. xlvi, p. 564. Oxford DNB, vol. xi, p. 684. The Dictionary of Welsh Biography down to 1940 (1959), p. xv. 90 In its inclusion of more women, the Oxford DNB also reflects the spirit of the age. 91 But in the old DNB, that so-called phallocentric monument,92 the subjects frequently had no mothers ; and wives, if mentioned, normally appeared only at the end of the article.

The Oxford DNB has also tried to modify the individualist assumptions implicit in any biographical dictionary. 78 It did not assert that Great Men made history, or even that history was the sum of innumerable biographies, but the reader could have been forgiven for thinking so. A century later, when few historians regard Great Men as the motor force of historical change,79 the Oxford DNB seeks to show the constraints to which individual achievement is subject and to reveal it as usually the result of collective activity, in which many others, now forgotten, were also involved.

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