An autobiography (from the Greek, αὐτός-autos self + βίος-bios life + γράφειν-graphein to write; also informally called an autobio) is a self-written account of the life of oneself. The word "autobiography" was first used deprecatingly by William Taylor in 1797 in the English periodical The Monthly Review , when he suggested the word as a hybrid, but condemned it as "pedantic". However, its next recorded use was in its present sense, by Robert Southey in 1809. Despite only being named early in the nineteenth century, first-person autobiographical writing originates in antiquity. Roy Pascal differentiates autobiography from the periodic self-reflective mode of journal or diary writing by noting that "[autobiography] is a review of a life from a particular moment in time, while the diary, however reflective it may be, moves through a series of moments in time". Autobiography thus takes stock of the autobiographer's life from the moment of composition. While biographers generally rely on a wide variety of documents and viewpoints, autobiography may be based entirely on the writer's memory. The memoir form is closely associated with autobiography but it tends, as Pascal claims, to focus less on the self and more on others during the autobiographer's review of his or her life.
Autobiographical works are by nature subjective. The inability—or unwillingness—of the author to accurately recall memories has in certain cases resulted in misleading or incorrect information. Some sociologists and psychologists have noted that autobiography offers the author the ability to recreate history.
Spiritual autobiography is an account of an author's struggle or journey towards God, followed by conversion a religious conversion, often interrupted by moments of regression. The author re-frames his or her life as a demonstration of divine intention through encounters with the Divine. The earliest example of a spiritual autobiography is Augustine's Confessions though the tradition has expanded to include other religious traditions in works such as Zahid Rohari's An Autobiography and Black Elk Speaks . The spiritual autobiography works as an endorsement of his or her religion.
A memoir is slightly different in character from an autobiography. While an autobiography typically focuses on the "life and times" of the writer, a memoir has a narrower, more intimate focus on his or her own memories, feelings and emotions. Memoirs have often been written by politicians or military leaders as a way to record and publish an account of their public exploits. One early example is that of Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico , also known as Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. In the work, Caesar describes the battles that took place during the nine years that he spent fighting local armies in the Gallic Wars. His second memoir, Commentarii de Bello Civili (or Commentaries on the Civil War) is an account of the events that took place between 49 and 48 BC in the civil war against Gnaeus Pompeius and the Senate.
Leonor López de Córdoba (1362–1420) wrote what is supposed to be the first autobiography in Spanish. The English Civil War (1642–1651) provoked a number of examples of this genre, including works by Sir Edmund Ludlow and Sir John Reresby. French examples from the same period include the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz (1614–1679) and the Duc de Saint-Simon.
The term "fictional autobiography" signifies novels about a fictional character written as though the character were writing their own autobiography, meaning that the character is the first-person narrator and that the novel addresses both internal and external experiences of the character. Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders is an early example. Charles Dickens' David Copperfield is another such classic, and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is a well-known modern example of fictional autobiography. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is yet another example of fictional autobiography, as noted on the front page of the original version. The term may also apply to works of fiction purporting to be autobiographies of real characters, e.g., Robert Nye's Memoirs of Lord Byron .
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In antiquity such works were typically entitled apologia, purporting to be self-justification rather than self-documentation. John Henry Newman's Christian confessional work (first published in 1864) is entitled Apologia Pro Vita Sua in reference to this tradition.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus introduces his autobiography (Josephi Vita, c. 99) with self-praise, which is followed by a justification of his actions as a Jewish rebel commander of Galilee.
The pagan rhetor Libanius (c. 314–394) framed his life memoir (Oration I begun in 374) as one of his orations, not of a public kind, but of a literary kind that could not be aloud in privacy.
Augustine (354–430) applied the title Confessions to his autobiographical work, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the same title in the 18th century, initiating the chain of confessional and sometimes racy and highly self-critical, autobiographies of the Romantic era and beyond. Augustine's was arguably the first Western autobiography ever written, and became an influential model for Christian writers throughout the Middle Ages. It tells of the hedonistic lifestyle Augustine lived for a time within his youth, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits; his following and leaving of the anti-sex and anti-marriage Manichaeism in attempts to seek sexual morality; and his subsequent return to Christianity due to his embracement of Skepticism and the New Academy movement (developing the view that sex is good, and that virginity is better, comparing the former to silver and the latter to gold; Augustine's views subsequently strongly influenced Western theology). Confessions will always rank among the great masterpieces of western literature.
In the spirit of Augustine's Confessions is the 12th-century Historia Calamitatum of Peter Abelard, outstanding as an autobiographical document of its period.
In the 15th century, Leonor López de Córdoba, a Spanish noblewoman, wrote her Memorias, which may be the first autobiography in Castillian.
Zāhir ud-Dīn Mohammad Bābur, who founded the Mughal dynasty of South Asia kept a journal Bāburnāma (Chagatai/Persian : بابر نامہ; literally: "Book of Babur" or "Letters of Babur") which was written between 1493 and 1529.
One of the first great autobiographies of the Renaissance is that of the sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), written between 1556 and 1558, and entitled by him simply Vita (Italian: Life). He declares at the start: "No matter what sort he is, everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write the story of his own life in his own hand; but no one should venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty."These criteria for autobiography generally persisted until recent times, and most serious autobiographies of the next three hundred years conformed to them.
Another autobiography of the period is De vita propria, by the Italian mathematician, physician and astrologer Gerolamo Cardano (1574).
The earliest known autobiography written in English is the Book of Margery Kempe, written in 1438.Following in the earlier tradition of a life story told as an act of Christian witness, the book describes Margery Kempe's pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Rome, her attempts to negotiate a celibate marriage with her husband, and most of all her religious experiences as a Christian mystic. Extracts from the book were published in the early sixteenth century but the whole text was published for the first time only in 1936.
Possibly the first publicly available autobiography written in English was Captain John Smith's autobiography published in 1630which was regarded by many as not much more than a collection of tall tales told by someone of doubtful veracity. This changed with the publication of Philip Barbour's definitive biography in 1964 which, amongst other things, established independent factual bases for many of Smith's "tall tales", many of which could not have been known by Smith at the time of writing unless he was actually present at the events recounted.
Other notable English autobiographies of the 17th century include those of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1643, published 1764) and John Bunyan ( Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners , 1666).
Jarena Lee (1783–1864) was the first African American woman to have a published biography in the United States.
Following the trend of Romanticism, which greatly emphasized the role and the nature of the individual, and in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions , a more intimate form of autobiography, exploring the subject's emotions, came into fashion. Stendhal's autobiographical writings of the 1830s, The Life of Henry Brulard and Memoirs of an Egotist , are both avowedly influenced by Rousseau.An English example is William Hazlitt's Liber Amoris (1823), a painful examination of the writer's love-life.
With the rise of education, cheap newspapers and cheap printing, modern concepts of fame and celebrity began to develop, and the beneficiaries of this were not slow to cash in on this by producing autobiographies. It became the expectation—rather than the exception—that those in the public eye should write about themselves—not only writers such as Charles Dickens (who also incorporated autobiographical elements in his novels) and Anthony Trollope, but also politicians (e.g. Henry Brooks Adams), philosophers (e.g. John Stuart Mill), churchmen such as Cardinal Newman, and entertainers such as P. T. Barnum. Increasingly, in accordance with romantic taste, these accounts also began to deal, amongst other topics, with aspects of childhood and upbringing—far removed from the principles of "Cellinian" autobiography.
From the 17th century onwards, "scandalous memoirs" by supposed libertines, serving a public taste for titillation, have been frequently published. Typically pseudonymous, they were (and are) largely works of fiction written by ghostwriters. So-called "autobiographies" of modern professional athletes and media celebrities—and to a lesser extent about politicians—generally written by a ghostwriter, are routinely published. Some celebrities, such as Naomi Campbell, admit to not having read their "autobiographies".[ citation needed ] Some sensationalist autobiographies such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces have been publicly exposed as having embellished or fictionalized significant details of the authors' lives.
Autobiography has become an increasingly popular and widely accessible form. A Fortunate Life by Albert Facey (1979) has become an Australian literary classic.With the critical and commercial success in the United States of such memoirs as Angela’s Ashes and The Color of Water , more and more people have been encouraged to try their hand at this genre. Maggie Nelson's book The Argonauts is one of the recent autobiographies. Maggie Nelson calls it "autotheory"—a combination of autobiography and critical theory.
A genre where the "claim for truth" overlaps with fictional elements though the work still purports to be autobiographical is autofiction.
The slave narrative is a type of literary genre involving the (written) autobiographical accounts of enslaved Africans in Great Britain and its colonies, including the later United States, Canada, and Caribbean nations. Some six thousand such narratives are estimated to exist; about 150 narratives were published as separate books or pamphlets. In the United States during the Great Depression (1930s), more than 2,300 additional oral histories on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Most of the 26 audio-recorded interviews are held by the Library of Congress.
Guibert de Nogent was a Benedictine historian, theologian and author of autobiographical memoirs. Guibert was relatively unknown in his own time, going virtually unmentioned by his contemporaries. He has only recently caught the attention of scholars who have been more interested in his extensive autobiographical memoirs and personality which provide insight into medieval life.
A memoir is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the subject's/person’s life. The assertions made in the work are understood to be factual. While memoir has historically been defined as a subcategory of biography or autobiography since the late 20th century, the genre is differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus. A biography or autobiography tells the story "of a life", while a memoir often tells a story "from a life", such as touchstone events and turning points from the author's life. The author of a memoir may be referred to as a memoirist or a memorialist.
La Vita Nuova or Vita Nova is a text by Dante Alighieri published in 1294. It is an expression of the medieval genre of courtly love in a prosimetrum style, a combination of both prose and verse.
Margery Kempe was an English Christian mystic, known for writing through dictation The Book of Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language. Her book chronicles her domestic tribulations, her extensive pilgrimages to holy sites in Europe and the Holy Land, as well as her mystical conversations with God. She is honoured in the Anglican Communion, but was never made a Catholic saint.
Confessions is the name of an autobiographical work, consisting of 13 books, by Saint Augustine of Hippo, written in Latin between 397 and 400 AD. The work outlines Saint Augustine's sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. Modern English translations of it are sometimes published under the title The Confessions of Saint Augustine in order to distinguish the book from other books with similar titles. Its original title was Confessions in Thirteen Books, and it was composed to be read out loud with each book being a complete unit.
Autobiographical comics are autobiography in the form of comic books or comic strips. The form first became popular in the underground comics movement and has since become more widespread. It is currently most popular in Canadian, American and French comics; all artists listed below are from the US unless otherwise specified.
Anna Eliza Bray was an English historical novelist. She also wrote several non-fiction works.
In literature, confessional writing is a first-person style that is often presented as an ongoing diary or letters, distinguished by revelations of a person's deeper or darker motivations.
The Confessions is an autobiographical book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In modern times, it is often published with the title The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in order to distinguish it from Saint Augustine's Confessions. Covering the first fifty-three years of Rousseau's life, up to 1765, it was completed in 1769, but not published until 1782, four years after Rousseau's death, even though Rousseau did read excerpts of his manuscript publicly at various salons and other meeting places.
The Bāburnāma is the memoirs of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (1483–1530), founder of the Mughal Empire and a great-great-great-grandson of Timur. It is written in the Chagatai language, known to Babur as "Turki", the spoken language of the Andijan-Timurids. During Emperor Akbar's reign, the work was completely translated to Persian, the usual literary language of the Mughal court, by a Mughal courtier, Abdul Rahīm, in AH 998 (1589–90). Translations into many other languages followed, mostly from the 19th century onwards.
Speak, Memory is an autobiographical memoir by writer Vladimir Nabokov. The book includes individual short stories published between 1936 and 1951 to create the first edition in 1951. Nabokov's revised and extended edition appeared in 1966.
The Book of Margery Kempe is a medieval text attributed to Margery Kempe, an English Christian mystic and pilgrim who lived at the turn of the fifteenth century. It details Kempe's life, her travels, her alleged experiences of divine revelation, and her presence at key biblical events such as the Nativity and the Crucifixion.
The non-fiction novel is a literary genre which, broadly speaking, depicts real historical figures and actual events woven together with fictitious conversations and uses the storytelling techniques of fiction. The non-fiction novel is an otherwise loosely defined and flexible genre. The genre is sometimes referred to using the slang term "faction", a portmanteau of the words fact and fiction.
Autofiction is a term used in literary criticism to refer to a form of fictionalized autobiography.
Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) is a personal travel narrative by the eighteenth-century British feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. The twenty-five letters cover a wide range of topics, from sociological reflections on Scandinavia and its peoples to philosophical questions regarding identity. Published by Wollstonecraft's career-long publisher, Joseph Johnson, it was the last work issued during her lifetime.
Life writing is the recording of memories,and experiences, whether one's own or another's. This applies to many genres and practices, under which can be found autobiography, biography, memoir, diaries, letters, testimonies, personal essays and, more recently, digital forms such as blogs and email.
John Cowper Powys's (1872–1963) Autobiography, published in 1934, the year Powys returned to Britain from America, describes his first 60 years, and is considered one of his most important works.
Autobiografiction is a literary fiction genre that blends autobiography with fiction; it fictionalizes autobiographical experiences, often by altering them, attributing them to fictional characters or reinventing them into other experiences. The concept of autobiografiction was invented by Stephen Reynolds in 1906, and then researched and described in depth by Max Saunders in 2010.