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 his or her 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 himself or herself, 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 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 our 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 argues 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:
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.
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.
Abū Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn Aʿtham al-Kūfī al-Kindī was a 9th-century Arab Muslim historian, poet and preacher (qāṣṣ) active in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. He was a Shīʿī of the akhbārī school, a son of a student of the sixth imam, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, who died in 765.
William Strachey was an English writer whose works are among the primary sources for the early history of the English colonisation of North America. He is best remembered today as the eye-witness reporter of the 1609 shipwreck on the uninhabited island of Bermuda of the colonial ship Sea Venture, which was caught in a hurricane while sailing to Virginia. The survivors eventually reached Virginia after building two small ships during the ten months they spent on the island. His account of the incident and of the Virginia colony is thought by most Shakespearean scholars to have been a source for Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
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.
Pamphile or Pamphila of Epidaurus was a historian of Egyptian descent who lived in Greece during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero and wrote in the Greek language. She is best known for her lost work Historical Commentaries, a collection of miscellaneous historical anecdotes in thirty-three books. Although this collection has been lost, it is frequently cited by the Roman writer Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights and by the Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. She is also described in the tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, and by the Byzantine writer Photios. According to the Suda, she also wrote a large number of epitomes of the works of other historians as well as treatises on disputes and sex. She may be the author of the anonymous surviving Greek treatise Tractatus De Mulieribus Claris In Bello, which gives brief biographical accounts of the lives of famous women.
Arthur Conan Doyle KStJ, DL (1859–1930) was a Scottish writer and physician. In addition to the series of stories chronicling the activities of Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr John Watson for which he is well-known, Doyle wrote on a wide range of topics, both fictional and non-fictional. In 1876 Doyle entered the University of Edinburgh Medical School, where he became a pupil of Joseph Bell, whose deductive processes impressed his pupil so much that the teacher became the chief model for Holmes. Doyle began writing while still a student, and in October 1879 he had his first work—"The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley"—published in Chambers's Journal. He continued writing short works—both fictional and non-fictional—throughout his career, and had over 200 stories and articles published.
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. Additionally, two genres of fiction rely heavily on the incorporation of biographical elements into their content, biographical fiction and autobiographical fiction.
Old High German literature refers to literature written in Old High German, from the earliest texts in the 8th century to the middle of the 11th century.
Anselmo Suárez y Romero was a renowned Cuban writer and novelist, better known for the first novel in Spanish about slavery in the Americas: Francisco.
The historiography of Japan is the study of methods and hypotheses formulated in the study and literature of the history of Japan.
The Traveller; or, a Prospect of Society (1764) is a philosophical poem by Oliver Goldsmith. In heroic verse of an Augustan style it discusses the causes of happiness and unhappiness in nations. It was the work which first made Goldsmith's name, and is still considered a classic of mid-18th-century poetry.
Josephine Butler (1828–1906) was an English feminist and social reformer in the Victorian era. She was especially concerned with the welfare of prostitutes although she campaigned on a broad range of women's rights. In 1864 her daughter Eva fell 40 feet (12 m) from the top-floor bannister onto the stone floor of the hallway in her home; she died three hours later. The death led Butler to begin a career of campaigning that ran until the end of her life; she later wrote that after the death she "became possessed with an irresistible urge to go forth and find some pain keener than my own, to meet with people more unhappy than myself. ... It was not difficult to find misery in Liverpool." Her targets included obtaining the vote, the right to better education and the end of coverture in British law, although she achieved her greatest success in leading the movement to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation that attempted to control the spread of venereal diseases, particularly in the British Army and Royal Navy. She was also opposed to the forced medical examination of prostitutes—a process she described as "surgical" or "steel rape". Her campaigning led to the suspension of the practice in April 1883, and the Acts were formally repealed in three years later.
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.
Betty Bentley Beaumont was a 19th-century British author, merchant, cotton factor and hotel owner. After immigrating to the United States, she became a successful merchant of Woodville, Mississippi. Beaumont was the author of the autobiography, Twelve Years of My Life, and A Business Woman's Journal, which documented part of her career. After her return to England, she died there in 1892.
The Beatles: The Authorised Biography is a book written by British author Hunter Davies and published by Heinemann in the UK in September 1968. It was written with the full cooperation of the Beatles and chronicles the band's career up until early 1968, two years before their break-up. It was the only authorised biography of the Beatles written during their career. Davies published revised editions of the book in 1978, 1982, 1985, 2002 and 2009.
Julia A. A. Wood was an American author. She was an indefatigable worker, and produced an astonishing amount of poems, stories, sketches and novels. She began writing very early in life, but did not publish in book form until she was in her forties. Myrrha Lake; or, Into the Light of Catholicity ; Hubert's Wife: a Story for You ; The Brown House at Duffield: a Story of Life without and within the Fold ; and The Story of Annette and her Five Dolls: Told to dear little Catholic Children were her published works.
Boswell's Enlightenment is a 2015 study of the Scottish biographer and diarist James Boswell by Robert Zaretsky. In the book, Zaretsky examines Boswell's attempts to grapple with "the great questions dealing with the sense and ends of life, brought into being by the Enlightenment."
Boswell: Citizen of the World, Man of Letters is a 1995 anthology of scholarly essays on the Scottish biographer and diarist James Boswell, edited by Irma S. Lustig.
Rose Thurgood was an English religious writer, known as the author of one of the earliest English conversion narratives, "A Lecture of Repentance" (1637/8).