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A biography (from the Greek words bios meaning "life", and graphos meaning "write") is an account of a person's life, usually published in the form of a book or essay, or in some other form, such as a film. An autobiography (auto, meaning "self", giving self-biography) is a biography by the same person it is about. A biography is more than a list of impersonal facts (like birth, education, work, relationships and death), it also portrays the subject's experience of those events. Unlike a profile or curriculum vitae, a biography presents the subject's story, highlighting various aspects of his or her life, including intimate details of experiences, and may include an analysis of the subject's personality.

A work is biographical if it covers all of a person's life. As such, biographical works are usually non-fiction, but fiction can also be used to portray a person's life. One in-depth form of biographical coverage is called legacy writing. Together, all biographical works form the genre known as biography, in literature, film, and other forms of media.

Early forms

The first known biographies were written by scribes commissioned by the various rulers of antiquity: ancient Assyria, ancient Babylonia, ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, among others. Such biographies tended to be chiseled into stone or clay tablets, a method called cuneiform.

Perhaps the drawings in caves can be considered the first biographies. Some of them appear to relate events such as a successful hunt. The artists (biographers?) and viewers would know (by clues that escape us in the drawings) who was being honored.

The Jewish holy scripture is an anthology of some of the earliest biographies in existence, detailing the lives of chiefs, kings, tribes, patriarchs and prophets. However, the dates of these written accounts are destroyed.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

The Early Middle Ages (AD 400 to 1450) saw a decline in awareness of classical culture. During this time, the only repositories of knowledge and records of early history was the Roman Catholic Church. Hermits, monks and priests used this historic period to write the first modern biographies. Their subjects were usually restricted to church fathers, martyrs, popes and saints. Their works were meant to be inspirational to people, vehicles for conversion to Christianity. See hagiography. One significant example of biography from this period which does not exactly fit into that mold is the life of Charlemagne as written by his courtier Einhard.

By the late Middle Ages, biographies became less church-oriented as biographies of kings, knights and tyrants began to appear. The most famous of these 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 a landmark biography focusing on secular lives. Vasari created celebrities of his subjects, as the Lives became an early "best seller." Two other developments are noteworthy: the development of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the gradual increase in literacy.

Biographies in the English language began appearing during the reign of Henry VIII. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563), better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, essentially was the first dictionary of biography, followed by Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England (1662), with a distinct focus on public life.

Modern biography

The "Golden Age" of English biography emerged in the late 1700s, the century in which the terms "biography" and "autobiography" entered the English lexicon. The classic works of the period were Samuel Johnson's Critical Lives of the Poets (1779-81) and James Boswell's massive Life of Johnson (1791). The Boswellian approach to biography emphasized uncovering material and letting the subject "speak for itself." While Boswell compiled, Samuel Johnson composed. Johnson did not follow a chronological narration of the subject's life but used anecdotes and incidents selectively. Johnson rejected the notion that facts revealed truth. He suggested that biographers should seek their subject in "domestic privacies", to find little known facts or anecdotes which revealed character. (Casper, 1999)

The romantic biographers disputed many of Johnson's judgments. Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1781-88) exploited the romantic point of view and the confessional mode. The tradition of testimony and confession was brought to the New World by Puritan and Quaker memoirists and journal-keepers where the form continued to be influential. Benjamin Franklin's autobiography (1791) would provide the archetype for the American success story. (Stone, 1982) Autobiography would remain an influential form of biographical writing.

Generally, American biography followed the English model, however, incorporating Thomas Carlyle's view that biography was a part of history. Carlyle asserted that the lives of great human beings to understanding society and its institutions. While the historical impulse would remain a strong element in early American biography, American writers carved out their own distinct approach. What emerged was a rather didactic form of biography which sought to shape individual character of the reader in the process of defining national character. (Casper, 1999)

The distinction between mass biography and literary biography which had formed by the middle of the nineteenth century reflected a breach between high culture and middle-class culture. This division would endure for the remainder of the century. Biography began to flower thanks to new publishing technologies and an expanding reading public. This revolution in publishing made books available to a larger audience of readers. Almost ten times as many American biographies appeared from 1840 to 1860 than had appeared in the first two decades of the century. In addition, affordable paperback editions of popular biographies were published for the first time. Also, American periodicals began publishing series of biographical sketches. (Casper, 1999) The topical emphasis shifted from republican heroes to self-made men and women.

Much of late 19th-century biography remained formulaic. Notably, few autobiographies had been written in the 19th century. The following century witnessed a renaissance of autobiography beginning with Booker T. Washington's, Up From Slavery (1901) and followed by Henry Adams' Education (1907), a chronicle of self-defined failure which ran counter to the predominant American success story. The publication of socially significant autobiographies by both men and women began to flourish. (Stone, 1982)

The authority of psychology and sociology was ascendant and would make its mark on the new century’s biographies. (Stone, 1982) The demise of the "great man" theory of history was indicative of the emerging mindset. Human behaviour 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, psychological ideas were changing the way Americans read and wrote biographies, as a culture of autobiography developed in which the telling of one's own story became a form of therapy. (Casper, 1999)

The conventional concept of national heroes and narratives of success disappeared in the obsession with psychological explorations of personality. The new school of biography featured iconoclasts, scientific analysts, and fictional biographers. This wave included Lytton Strachey, André Maurois, and Emil Ludwig among others. Strachey's biographies had an influence similar to that which Samuel Johnson had enjoyed earlier. In the 1920s and '30s, biographical writers sought to capitalize on Strachey's popularity and imitate his style. 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." In 1929, nearly 700 biographies were published in the United States, and the first dictionary of American biography appeared. In the decade that followed, numerous biographies continued to be published despite the economic depression. They reached a growing audience through inexpensive formats and via public libraries.

According to the scholar Caroyln Heilbrun, women's biographies were revolutionized during the second wave of feminist activism in the 1970s. At this time women began to be portrayed more accurately, even if it downplayed the achievements or integrity of a man (Heilbrun 12).

Book Awards

Annually, several countries offer their writers a specific prize for writing a biography such as the:

  • Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize – Canada
  • National Biography Award – Australia
  • Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography – United States
  • Whitbread Prize for Best Biography – United Kingdom
  • J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography – United Kingdom
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