From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The regions of absolute vice are foul and odious. The savour of them, till custom has hardened the palate and the nose, is disgusting. In these [the novelist] will hardly tread. But there are outskirts on these regions on which sweet-smelling flowers seem to grow, and grass to be green. It is in these border-lands the danger lies." -- on literary realism in An Autobiography (1883) by Anthony Trollope
"Once, while Diogenes was sitting in the sun in the Craneum, Alexander was standing by, and said to him, "Ask any favour you choose of me." And he replied, "Cease to shade me from the sun.""--Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius
"The earliest specimens of northern French literature are metrical Lives of the Saints. These are supposed to have been translated from Latin compositions about the middle of the eleventh century."--History of Fiction (1814) by John Colin Dunlop
"As the monster confessed it, it was from reading Suetonius and the descriptions of the orgies of Tiberius, Caracalla, etc., that the idea was joined of locking children in his castles, torturing them, and then killing them."--Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) by Richard von Krafft-Ebing
Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee, which before his time had no celebrity. All his life he was designated by the name of "the Nazarene," and it is only by a rather embarrassed and round-about way, that, in the legends respecting him, he is made to be born at Bethlehem. We shall see later the motive for this supposition, and how it was the necessary consequence of the Messianic character attributed to Jesus. The precise date of his birth is unknown. It took place under the reign of Augustus, about the Roman year 750, probably some years before the year 1 of that era which all civilized people date from the day on which he was born."--The Life of Jesus (1863) by Ernest Renan
"The science of history leaves us uncertain as to individuals, revealing only those points by which individuals have been attached to generalities. History tells us that Napoleon was ill on the day of Waterloo; that we must attribute Newton’s excessive intellectuality to the absolute consistency of his temperament; that Alexander was drunk when he killed Klitos; and that the fistula of Louis XIV was perhaps the cause of certain of his resolutions. Pascal speculates on the length of Cleopatra's nose . . . the possible consequences had it been a trifle shorter; and on the grain of sand in Cromwell’s urethra. All these facts are valued only when they modify events or alter a series of events. They are causes, established or possible. We must leave them to savants."--Imaginary Lives (1896) by Marcel Schwob
A biography or simply bio is a detailed description or account of a person's life. It entails more than basic facts like education, work, relationships, and death—a biography also portrays a subject's experience of these events. Unlike a profile or curriculum vitae, a biography presents a subject's life story, highlighting various aspects of his or her life, including intimate details of experience, and may include an analysis of the subject's personality.
Biographical works are usually nonfiction, but fiction can also be used to portray a person's life. One in-depth form of biographical coverage is called legacy writing. Works in diverse media—from literature to film—form the genre known as biography.
An authorized biography is written with the permission, cooperation, and at times, participation of a subject or a subject's heirs. An autobiography is written by the person themselves, sometimes with the assistance of a collaborator or ghostwriter.
At first, biographical writings were regarded merely as a subsection of history with a focus on a particular individual of historical importance. The independent genre of biography as distinct from general history writing, began to emerge in the 18th century and reached its contemporary form at the turn of the 20th century.
One of the earliest biographers was Plutarch, and his Parallel Lives, published about 80 A.D., covers prominent figures in the classical world. In 44 B.C. Cornelius Nepos published a biographical work, his Vitae Imperatorum (“Lives of Commanders”). Suetonius (c.69-after 130) described the deeds and characters of ancient personalities, stressing their human side. Tacitus (c.56–c.117) denounces Roman immorality by praising German virtues.
In the early Middle Ages (AD 400 to 1450) there was a decline in awareness of the classical culture in Europe. During this time, the only repositories of knowledge and records of the early history in Europe were those of the Roman Catholic Church. Hermits, monks, and priests used this historic period to write biographies. Their subjects were usually restricted to the church fathers, martyrs, popes, and saints. Their works were meant to be inspirational to the people and vehicles for conversion to Christianity (see Hagiography). One significant secular example of a biography from this period is the life of Charlemagne by his courtier Einhard.
By the late Middle Ages, biographies became less church-oriented in Europe as biographies of kings, knights, and tyrants began to appear. The most famous of such biographies was Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. The book was an account of the life of the fabled King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Following Malory, the new emphasis on humanism during the Renaissance promoted a focus on secular subjects, such as artists and poets, and encouraged writing in the vernacular.
Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550) was the landmark biography focusing on secular lives. Vasari made celebrities of his subjects, as the Lives became an early "bestseller". Two other developments are noteworthy: the development of the printing press in the 15th century and the gradual increase in literacy.
Biographies in the English language began appearing during the reign of Henry VIII. John Foxe's Actes and Monuments (1563), better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, was essentially the first dictionary of the biography in Europe, followed by Thomas Fuller's The History of the Worthies of England (1662), with a distinct focus on public life.
Influential in shaping popular conceptions of pirates, A General History of the Pyrates (1724), by Charles Johnson, is the prime source for the biographies of many well-known pirates.
The American biography followed the English model, incorporating Thomas Carlyle's view that biography was a part of history. Carlyle asserted that the lives of great human beings were essential to understanding society and its institutions. While the historical impulse would remain a strong element in early American biography, American writers carved out a distinct approach. What emerged was a rather didactic form of biography, which sought to shape the individual character of a reader in the process of defining national character.
Emergence of the genre
The first modern biography, and a work which exerted considerable influence on the evolution of the genre, was James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, a biography of lexicographer and man-of-letters Samuel Johnson published in 1791. While Boswell's personal acquaintance with his subject only began in 1763, when Johnson was 54 years old, Boswell covered the entirety of Johnson's life by means of additional research. Itself an important stage in the development of the modern genre of biography, it has been claimed to be the greatest biography written in the English language. Boswell's work was unique in its level of research, which involved archival study, eye-witness accounts and interviews, it's robust and attractive narrative, and it's honest depiction of all aspects of Johnson' life and character - a formula which serves as the basis of biographical literature to this day.
Biographical writing generally stagnated during the 19th century - in many cases there was a reversal to the more familiar hagiographical method of eulogizing the dead, similar to the biographies of saints produced in Medieval times. A distinction between mass biography and literary biography began to form by the middle of the century, reflecting a breach between high culture and middle-class culture. However, the number of biographies in print experienced a rapid growth, thanks to an expanding reading public. This revolution in publishing made books available to a larger audience of readers. In addition, affordable paperback editions of popular biographies were published for the first time. Periodicals began publishing a sequence of biographical sketches.
Autobiographies became more popular, as with the rise of education and cheap printing, modern concepts of fame and celebrity began to develop. Autobiographies were written by authors, such as Charles Dickens (who incorporated autobiographical elements in his novels) and Anthony Trollope, (his Autobiography appeared posthumously, quickly becoming a bestseller in London philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill, churchmen - Cardinal Newman - and entertainers - P. T. Barnum.
The sciences of psychology and sociology were ascendant at the turn of the 20th century, and would heavily influence the new century’s biographies. The demise of the "great man" theory of history was indicative of the emerging mindset. Human behavior would be explained through Darwinian theories. "Sociological" biographies conceived of their subjects' actions as the result of the environment, and tended to downplay individuality. The development of psychoanalysis led to a more penetrating and comprehensive understanding of the biographical subject, and induced biographers to give more emphasis to childhood and adolescence. Clearly these psychological ideas were changing the way biographies were written, as a culture of autobiography developed in which the telling of one's own story became a form of therapy. The conventional concept of heroes and narratives of success disappeared in the obsession with psychological explorations of personality.
British critic Lytton Strachey revolutionized the art of biographical writing with his 1918 work Eminent Victorians, consisting of biographies of four leading figures from the Victorian era, Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon. Strachey set out to breathe life into the Victorian era for future generations to read. Up until this point, as Strachey remarked in the preface, Victorian biographies had been "as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker", and wore the same air of "slow, funereal barbarism." Strachey defied the tradition of "two fat volumes....of undigested masses of material" and took aim at the four iconic figures. His narrative demolished the myths that had built up around these cherished national heroes, who he regarded as no better than a "set of mouth bungled hypocrites". The book achieved worldwide fame, due to its irreverent and witty style, it's concise and factually accurate nature and it's artistic prose.
In the 1920s and '30s, biographical writers sought to capitalize on Strachey's popularity by imitating his style. This new school featured iconoclasts, scientific analysts, and fictional biographers and included Gamaliel Bradford, André Maurois, and Emil Ludwig, among others. Robert Graves (I, Claudius, 1934) stood out among those following Strachey's model of "debunking biographies." The trend in literary biography was accompanied in popular biography by a sort of "celebrity voyeurism", in the early decades of the century. This latter form's appeal to readers was based on curiosity more than morality or patriotism. By World War I, cheap hard-cover reprints had become popular. The decades of the 1920s witnessed a biographical "boom."
The feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun observed that women's biographies and autobiographies began to change character during the second wave of feminist activism. She cited Nancy Milford's 1970 biography Zelda, as the "beginning of a new period of women's biography, because "[only] in 1970 were we ready to read not that Zelda had destroyed Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald her: he had usurped her narrative." Heilbrun named 1973 as the turning point in women's autobiography, with the publication of May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, for that was the first instance where a woman told her life story, not as finding "beauty even in pain" and transforming "rage into spiritual acceptance," but acknowledging what had previously been forbidden to women: their pain, their rage, and their "open admission of the desire for power and control over one's life."
- Biographical film
- Family history
- Historical document
- Historical novel
- List of biographers
- Lists of people
- Literary biography
- Love life
- Unauthorized biography
- Who's Who