A biography, or simply bio, is a detailed description of a person's life. It involves more than just the basic facts like education, work, relationships, and death; it portrays a person's experience of these life events. Unlike a profile or curriculum vitae (résumé), a biography presents a subject's life story, highlighting various aspects of their life, including intimate details of experience, and may include an analysis of the subject's personality.
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. 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 Cornelius Nepos, who published his work Excellentium Imperatorum Vitae ("Lives of outstanding generals") in 44 BC. Longer and more extensive biographies were written in Greek by Plutarch, in his Parallel Lives , published about 80 A.D. In this work famous Greeks are paired with famous Romans, for example the orators Demosthenes and Cicero, or the generals Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; some fifty biographies from the work survive. Another well-known collection of ancient biographies is De vita Caesarum ("On the Lives of the Caesars") by Suetonius, written about AD 121 in the time of the emperor Hadrian.
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.
In Medieval Western India, there was a Sanskrit Jain literary genre of writing semi-historical biographical narratives about the lives of famous persons called Prabandhas. Prabandhas were written primarily by Jain scholars from 13th century onwards and were written in colloquial Sanskrit (as opposed to Classical Sanskrit).The earliest collection explicitly titled Prabandha- is Jinabhadra's Prabandhavali (1234 CE).
In Medieval Islamic Civilization (c. AD 750 to 1258), similar traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad and other important figures in the early history of Islam began to be written, beginning the Prophetic biography tradition. Early biographical dictionaries were published as compendia of famous Islamic personalities from the 9th century onwards. They contained more social data for a large segment of the population than other works of that period. The earliest biographical dictionaries initially focused on the lives of the prophets of Islam and their companions, with one of these early examples being The Book of The Major Classes by Ibn Sa'd al-Baghdadi. And then began the documentation of the lives of many other historical figures (from rulers to scholars) who lived in the medieval Islamic world.
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.
A notable early collection of biographies of eminent men and women in the United Kingdom was Biographia Britannica (1747-1766) edited by William Oldys.
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.
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. [ unreliable source? ]
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, its robust and attractive narrative, and its honest depiction of all aspects of Johnson's 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 – John Henry 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. ... 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, whom he regarded as no better than a "set of mouth bungled hypocrites". The book achieved worldwide fame due to its irreverent and witty style, its concise and factually accurate nature, and its artistic prose.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
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."
In recent years, multimedia biography has become more popular than traditional literary forms. Along with documentary biographical films, Hollywood produced numerous commercial films based on the lives of famous people. The popularity of these forms of biography have led to the proliferation of TV channels dedicated to biography, including A&E, The Biography Channel, and The History Channel.
CD-ROM and online biographies have also appeared. Unlike books and films, they often do not tell a chronological narrative: instead they are archives of many discrete media elements related to an individual person, including video clips, photographs, and text articles. Biography-Portraits were created in 2001, by the German artist Ralph Ueltzhoeffer. Media scholar Lev Manovich says that such archives exemplify the database form, allowing users to navigate the materials in many ways.General "life writing" techniques are a subject of scholarly study.
In recent years, debates have arisen as to whether all biographies are fiction, especially when authors are writing about figures from the past. President of Wolfson College at Oxford University, Hermione Lee argues that all history is seen through a perspective that is the product of one's contemporary society and as a result, biographical truths are constantly shifting. So, the history biographers write about will not be the way that it happened; it will be the way they remembered it.Debates have also arisen concerning the importance of space in life-writing.
Daniel R. Meister in 2017 argued that:
Biographical research is defined by Miller as a research method that collects and analyses a person's whole life, or portion of a life, through the in-depth and unstructured interview, or sometimes reinforced by semi-structured interview or personal documents.It is a way of viewing social life in procedural terms, rather than static terms. The information can come from "oral history, personal narrative, biography and autobiography” or "diaries, letters, memoranda and other materials". The central aim of biographical research is to produce rich descriptions of persons or "conceptualise structural types of actions", which means to "understand the action logics or how persons and structures are interlinked". This method can be used to understand an individual's life within its social context or understand the cultural phenomena.
There are many largely unacknowledged pitfalls to writing good biographies, and these largely concern the relation between firstly the individual and the context, and, secondly, the private and public. Paul James writes:
The problems with such conventional biographies are manifold. Biographies usually treat the public as a reflection of the private, with the private realm being assumed to be foundational. This is strange given that biographies are most often written about public people who project a persona. That is, for such subjects the dominant passages of the presentation of themselves in everyday life are already formed by what might be called a ‘self-biofication’ process.
Several countries offer an annual prize for writing a biography such as the:
An autobiography is a self-written account of one's life. 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 their own life.
Samuel Johnson, often called Dr Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions as a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. He was a devout Anglican, and a committed Tory. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls him "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history". James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson was selected by Walter Jackson Bate as "the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature".
James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck, was a Scottish biographer, diarist, and lawyer, born in Edinburgh. He is best known for his biography of his friend and older contemporary the English writer Samuel Johnson, which is commonly said to be the greatest biography written in the English language. A great mass of Boswell's diaries, letters and private papers were recovered from the 1920s to the 1950s, and their ongoing publication by Yale University has transformed his reputation.
A hagiography is a biography of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader, as well as, by extension, an adulatory and idealized biography of a founder, saint, monk, nun or icon in any of the world's religions. Early Christian hagiographies might consist of a biography or vita, a description of the saint's deeds or miracles, an account of the saint's martyrdom, or be a combination of these.
Life history is an interviewing method used to record autobiographical history from an ordinary person's perspective, often gathered from traditionally marginalized groups. It was begun by anthropologists studying Native American groups around the 1900s, and was taken up by sociologists and other scholars, though its popularity has waxed and waned since. One of the major strengths of the life history method is that it provides a kind of voice from a social milieu that is often overlooked or indeed invisible in intellectual discourse.
The Historia Augusta is a late Roman collection of biographies, written in Latin, of the Roman emperors, their junior colleagues, designated heirs and usurpers from 117 to 284. Supposedly modeled on the similar work of Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, it presents itself as a compilation of works by six different authors, written during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine I and addressed to those emperors or other important personages in Ancient Rome. The collection, as extant, comprises thirty biographies, most of which contain the life of a single emperor, but some include a group of two or more, grouped together merely because these emperors were either similar or contemporaneous.
Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), alternatively known by the shorter title Lives of the Poets, is a work by Samuel Johnson comprising short biographies and critical appraisals of 52 poets, most of whom lived during the eighteenth century. These were arranged, approximately, by date of death.
The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) by James Boswell is a biography of English writer Dr. Samuel Johnson. The work was from the beginning a critical and popular success, and represents a landmark in the development of the modern genre of biography. It is notable for its extensive reports of Johnson's conversation. Many have claimed it as the greatest biography written in English, but some modern critics object that the work cannot be considered a proper biography. Boswell's personal acquaintance with his subject began in 1763, when Johnson was 54 years old, and Boswell covered the entirety of Johnson's life by means of additional research. The biography takes many critical liberties with Johnson's life, as Boswell makes various changes to Johnson's quotations and even censors many comments. Nonetheless, the book is valued as both an important source of information on Johnson and his times, as well as an important work of literature.
Andrew Scott Berg is an American biographer.
Debby Applegate is an American historian and biographer. She is the author of Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age and The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.
The Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men comprised ten volumes of Dionysius Lardner's 133-volume Cabinet Cyclopaedia (1829–1846). Aimed at the self-educating middle class, this encyclopedia was written during the 19th-century literary revolution in Britain that encouraged more people to read.
The Life of Samuel Johnson or Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D. was written by John Hawkins in 1787. It was the first full biography of Samuel Johnson—with Thomas Tyers's A Biographical Sketch of Dr Samuel Johnson being the first short postmortem biography. Hawkins was a friend of Johnson, but many in Johnson's circle did not like him. After Johnson's death, Hawkins was approached to produce a biography on Johnson and an edition of his works. His biography described Johnson's life, including previously unknown details about his writing career, but it was plagued by digressions into unrelated topics. Hawkins's Life of Samuel Johnson came under swift attack from critics, from friends of Johnson, and from his literary rival, James Boswell immediately after its publication. Many of the critics attacked Hawkins for his lack of strict focus on Johnson's life or for his unfavourable depiction of Johnson in various circumstances.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, the result of a collaboration between civil and human rights activist Malcolm X and journalist Alex Haley. Haley coauthored the autobiography based on a series of in-depth interviews he conducted between 1963 and Malcolm X's 1965 assassination. The Autobiography is a spiritual conversion narrative that outlines Malcolm X's philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism. After the leader was killed, Haley wrote the book's epilogue. He described their collaborative process and the events at the end of Malcolm X's life.
Samuel Johnson: A Life is a prize-winning biography of 18th-century English lexicographer Samuel Johnson by British literary critic David Nokes. It was published on October 27, 2009, shortly before the author's death. Building on earlier work by scholars Robert DeMaria, Walter Jackson Bate, Lawrence Lipking and Peter Martin, many critics lauded Samuel Johnson: A Life as a significant step forward in Johnsonian biography and criticism. In the biography, Nokes challenges James Boswell's significance in Dr. Johnson's life, writing that "Johnson wished to keep...his acknowledged biographer at a distance" and even second-guessed his "annointment" of Boswell as his official biographer.
Peter Martin is an English literature scholar, biographer, and an 18th century garden historian. He was educated and has taught in the United States. He lives in England and Spain.
Metabiography is the literary study of the relation of biographies to the temporal, geographical, institutional, intellectual or ideological locations of their writers. It is a hermeneutics of biography that sees the biographical subject as a collective construct of different memory cultures, proposing an essential instability of historical lives. In the words of Steven Shapin, metabiography stresses “that shifting biographical traditions make one person have many lives,” none of these necessarily more real than any other, because all are “configured and reconfigured according to the sensibilities and needs of the changing cultural settings.” In this sense, metabiography expresses a belief in the observer-dependence of historical knowledge.
When studying literature, biography and its relationship to literature is often a subject of literary criticism, and is treated in several different forms. Two scholarly approaches use biography or biographical approaches to the past as a tool for interpreting literature: literary biography and biographical criticism. Conversely, two genres of fiction rely heavily on the incorporation of biographical elements into their content: biographical fiction and autobiographical fiction.
Prabandha is a literary genre of medieval Indian Sanskrit literature. The prabandhas contain semi-historical anecdotes about the lives of famous persons. They were written primarily by Jain scholars of western India from 13th century onwards. The prabandhas feature colloquial Sanskrit with vernacular expressions, and contain elements of folklore.
Biographical research is a qualitative research approach aligned to the social interpretive paradigm of research. The biographical research is concerned with the reconstruction of life histories and the constitution of meaning based on biographical narratives and documents. The material for analysis consists of interview protocols (memorandums), video recordings, photographs, and a diversity of sources. These documents are evaluated and interpreted according to specific rules and criteria. The starting point for this approach is the understanding of an individual biography in terms of its social constitution. The biographical approach was influenced by the symbolic interactionism, the phenomenological sociology of knowledge, and ethnomethodology. Therefore, biography is understood in terms of a social construct and the reconstruction of biographies can give insight on social processes and figurations, thus helping to bridge the gap between micro-, meso-, and macro- levels of analysis. The biographical approach is particularly important in German sociology. This approach is used in the Social Sciences as well as in Pedagogy and other disciplines. The Research Committee 38 "Biography and Society" of the International Sociological Association (ISA) was created in 1984 and is dedicated "to help develop a better understanding of the relations between individual lives, the social structures and historical processes within which they take shape and which they contribute to shape, and the individual accounts of biographical experience ".