What is it with Polity and biographies lately? The British press has unleashed a slew of new biographies in the past few years. The have translated Joachim Radkau’s biography of Max Weber (all 700 pages of it) and now they are bringing Fournier’s biography of Durkheim to English. Along the way they’ve also published biographies of ‘theorists’ like Derrida, Adorno, Bobbio and Barthes.
I read the Weber biography when it was first released and I highly recommend it for anyone teaching or thinking about Weber. Most American academics understand that the version of Weber that had such a big impact in the post-war US was a highly distorted and tendentious reading of the thinker, and since then a whole industry of outraged and extremely persnickety Weber specialists have worked to show us in extreme detail what Weber actually said — thus we have two new translations of Protestant Ethic and the new translation of the methodological writings (which has gotten less press but is more important). Radkau’s biography is valuable because it provides a single, comprehensive overview of Weber’s life.
And what a life it is. Radkau’s all-embracing biography comes across a bit distanced and quirky in English (although it is well translated) but the detail — and the convenient small sections it is broken down into — make it worth reading. In the book Weber seems less a Faustian genius grappling with the deepest forces of modernity and more a broken man deeply damaged by his punishing Victorian upbringing. Up-to-date and also deeply immersed in historical research, it is the go-to source of Weber in English.
I haven’t yet read Fournier’s Durkheim bio, but given his monumental biography of Mauss I am sure it will also be a treat. The English language translation of the Mauss biography cut out, like, a hundred pages of stuff about Mauss’s involvement in socialist politics that was relevant to the French but not to us — and I was ok with that. The Durkheim bio looks like it is a complete translation, so we will see. Although there has been biographical work on Durkheim done in the past, frankly scholarship on Durkheim has improved a lot since then and we need a new scholarly biography. So I am looking forward to Fournier’s bio. One thing, however: Durkheim’s life was much much more boring than Mauss so I do fear I am going to plow through seventy-five pages chunks on the minutiae of academic politics at the University of Bourdeaux. But we’ll see. I think I’ll take a pass on the Derrida bio.