Frederick Liers. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
One of the oldest genres of literature, biography is a written account of a person’s life. It is also known as “life writing,” a broader term that encompasses autobiography and other narrative forms such as letters, memoirs, journals, and diaries. The term biography derives from the Greek bios (life) and graphein (to write). Latin and Greek terms for biography were used in antiquity. Before the adoption of the word biography into English in the seventeenth century, common terms for biography were life and the Latin biographia.
Many of the earliest “histories” were biographical accounts of the lives of important historical figures. Biography often has been associated with the field of history (and at times has been considered a branch of it), but distinctions between them were drawn beginning in ancient times. Whereas the writers of histories always have purported to present the truth accurately, biographers more obviously have praised their subjects or have presented them as exemplars for moral or didactic (educational) purposes.
Although formal definitions of biography vary, biographical literature includes such forms as character sketches, single biography, serial biography, literary biography, ethical (or didactic) biography, critical biography, and hagiography (sacred biography). In addition, biography shares many features with other literary genres, including travel writing and epistolary literature (that is, literature based on letters), and certain novelistic forms, such as the biographical novel and the bildungsroman that follows the development of a young character. The mixture of fiction with fact in biography means that it has much in common with imaginative literature. For example, the emergence of the novel as a genre paralleled developments in biography. Many early novels adopted a biographical form. In contemporary literature, a novelized biography may be nearly indistinguishable from a biographical novel.
Some commentators have indicated that biography, as an independent form, has been predominantly a product of Western civilization. In particular, they have pointed to the comparatively greater focus on the individual personality in Western biographical literature. If one follows a narrowly construed definition of biography, and adopts Western forms as standards, then this conclusion may seem plausible. Yet while the development of biography in the West has followed a unique trajectory, the production of biographical literature (and likely the biographical impulse witnessed in oral cultures) appears to be universal. Nevertheless, some differences between Western and non-Western traditions must be considered. In China, for example, biographical literature has been largely contained within a historiographic tradition and has been primarily related to the literature of the art of government. In India, biographical writings (such as fragments regarding the Buddha) have been contained within a larger body of spiritual literature.
Just as it is difficult to find an unbiased historical narrative (and many histories have been written for political purposes), biography long has been written for political, moral, or didactic purposes. The origins of biography in epideictic rhetoric (panegyric, or elaborate praise) means that biographers (whether of kings or revolutionaries) have been more interested in praising their subjects’ actions or characters than in presenting historically accurate accounts. For this reason, the genre has lent itself to politicized narratives (including political histories or political romances) and narratives that define personal identity. Although biography traditionally has centered on rulers, philosophers, or literati, modern biographers have taken a wide variety of persons for their subjects, including women and individuals from underrepresented or persecuted groups.
Biographies have evolved from short narratives that commemorate the deeds of illustrious figures to more complex forms that present the life of an individual in considerable detail. The earliest biographical records include the hieroglyphic inscriptions on Egyptian monuments (c. 1300 B.C.E.) and cuneiform inscriptions found in Assyria (c. 720 B.C.E.) and Persia (c. 520 B.C.E.). These quasi-biographical works commemorated the deeds of kings. Similarly, the oldest biographical writings in England were runic inscriptions that related the lives of heroes. Apart from Western quasi-biographical works, the earliest biographies appeared in the second century B.C.E. in China. The Shih-chih (Historical records) by Sima Qian (formerly transliterated as Ssu-ma Ch’ien, c. 145-c. 85 B.C.E.) included short character sketches, anecdotes, and dialogue between archetypal subjects. The historian Ban Gu (formerly transliterated as Pan Ku, 31-92 C.E.) continued this tradition in the Han shu (History of the former Han dynasty).
While biographical literature existed in the West as early as the fifth century B.C.E., a more defined notion of biography did not appear there until the Hellenistic age. Ion of Chios (c. 490-c. 421 B.C.E.) wrote quasi-biographical character sketches of eminent figures such as Pericles and Sophocles. Xenophon (c. 431-c. 352 B.C.E.) wrote a life of Cyrus (c. 365B.C.E.) that praised the king. He also commemorated Socrates in the Memorabilia. Other quasi-biographical works include Plato’s dialogues on Socrates, the Apology and the Phaedo.
Among the earliest surviving biographies are those contained in De viris illustribus (On illustrious men), by Cornelius Nepos (c. 100-c. 25 B.C.E.). This work became a model for subsequent serial biography, a form that consisted of the collected lives of one or more categories of illustrious persons. Plutarch (c. 46-after 119 C.E.) is perhaps the most famous ancient biographer. His Parallel Lives comprised forty-six biographies assembled in pairs. This work was an early example of a collection of single, autonomous lives. Plutarch showed a greater interest in revealing a subject’s moral character than in documenting historical details, a feature that is typical of panegyric literature. He also praised his subjects in many anecdotes and digressions.
Other early biographers included Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56-c. 120 C.E.) and Suetonius (c. 69-after 122 C.E.). Suetonius presented the life of Julius Caesar and the lives of the first eleven emperors in his De vita Caesarum (c. 110 C.E.; English trans. The Twelve Caesars, 2003). Following Plutarch, he emphasized the personal lives of the emperors rather than historical details in his collection of single lives. Suetonius also wrote De viris illustribus (c. 106-113; On illustrious men), a series of biographies of illustrious figures (philosophers, orators, and literati) that became a model for serial biography.
Diogenes Laertius (3rd century B.C.E.) wrote the Lives of Eminent Philosophers, a series of biographies of Greek philosophers. This work is the most complete surviving example of the ancient genre of philosophers’ lives (the revival of which in the fifteenth century had a major impact on early modern biography). Diogenes notably indicates in his accounts that the actions and behaviors of the philosophers serve to exemplify their teachings. Although he focused on the private lives of his subjects, he also was known for his meticulous documentation of sources. His serial Lives were instructive to later biographers because he arranged them by the relations of masters to disciples and by individuals’ contributions in their fields. St. Jerome (c. 347-419 or 420) wrote the exemplary serial biography in late antiquity. His De viris illustribus (c. 392; En lish trans. On Illustrious Men, 1999) was an elaboration on Suetonius’s notes on the lives of the philosophers. It was widely imitated for three centuries and revived as a model in the twelfth century. He also incorporated elements of classical biography in his lives of saints, which greatly influenced medieval biographers.
Medieval and Renaissance Biography
The works of Plutarch, Suetonius, and St. Jerome remained models for biographers in the medieval and Renaissance periods. The characteristic biographical form of the medieval period was the life of the saint (the sacred life or hagiography). Although many collections of saints’ lives or acts (martyrologies) were compiled, there was often little differentiation between the characteristics of individual saints. While medieval hagiographers heavily drew on classic biographies, they focused on praising the spiritual virtues of their subjects and offered evidence for their canonization. Hagiography consequently developed unique conventions, such as the preservation of miracles and the martyrdom of saints. Exemplary lives of this period include Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba (c. 690), Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert (c. 731), Eadmer’s Life of St. Anselm (c. 1124), and Jean de Joinville’s History of St. Louis (c. 1309). Other important biographical works include the Lives of the Fathers and the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours (538-594), Bede’sEcclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731), and later Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne (c. 829-836; based on Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars).
Humanist biographers in the Renaissance were influenced by classical lives and the lives of saints. Petrarch’s incomplete De viris illustribus (begun c. 1337; On illustrious men) is in the tradition of single biographies of eminent ancient figures (following Suetonius and Plutarch). Giovanni Boccaccio’s Trattatello in laude di Dante (1354-1355; English trans. Life of Dante, 1990) exemplifies the revival of the single life of a subject presented as an ideal. Influenced by Petrarch, Boccaccio assembled two collections of single lives concerning illustrious ancient figures, De casibus virorum illustrium(1355-1374; On the fall of illustrious men) and De claris mulieribus (1360-1374; On famous women), the first collection of women’s lives. Partly in response to Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus, Christine de Pisan (1364-c. 1430) wrote her vernacular Le livre de la cité des dames (1405; English trans. The Book of the City of Ladies, 1998), often considered the first work of feminist literature. Notably, the earliest modern English autobiography is The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1432-1436), by Margery Kempe (c. 1373-c. 1440), a work that largely follows the conventions of medieval sacred biography.
Renaissance biographers borrowed extensively from the works of Diogenes Laertius and St. Jerome, especially in developing new serial lives assembled according to notions of cultural progress. In De origine civitatis Florentiae et de eiusdem famosis civibus (c. 1381-1382; On the origins of the Florentine state and her most famous citizens), Filippo Villani presented short sketches of a wide variety of Florentine citizens, including poets, musicians, and painters. Later, Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550, rev. ed. 1568), following progressive developments in art through a series of biographies that culminated in Michelangelo. In England, William Roper (1496-1578) wrote the Life of Sir Thomas More and George Cavendish (1500-1561?) wrote the Life of Cardinal Wolsey. Other biographical writings were the Lives of Famous Ladies and the Lives of Famous Men by Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme (c. 1540-1614) and Macarius’s Stepennaya Kniga (1563; Book of degrees) in Russia.
The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
The English term biography was first used by John Dryden in 1683. The seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century witnessed expanded production of many types of life writing, including diaries, letters, and memoirs. Biographies by women appeared in this period, such as Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson by Lucy Hutchinson (1620-after 1675) and The Life of William Cavendish (1667) by Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673). Some important biographical works were the five lives of eminent figures by Izaak Walton (1593-1683), the Lives of Eminent Men by John Aubrey (1626-1697), the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), and Roger North’s Lives of the Norths (1742-1744). The most influential English biography was James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Boswell adopted the methods of earlier biographers, but artfully combined letters, personal documents, conversation, anecdotes, and his own observations to present a vivid portrait of Johnson. His in-depth treatment had a major impact on biography throughout the world.
The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Early-nineteenth-century biography was influenced by Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson as well as by the writers within the Romantic movement. The primary biographical form in this period was the Victorian “life and letters” (or “life and times”). It was characterized by relatively great length, sobriety, and concern with social propriety. Some biographies of this period were Thomas Moore’s Life of Sheridan (1825) and his Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (1830), John Lockhart’s Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837-1838), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), G. O. Trevelyan’s Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (1876), and David Mason’s Life of John Milton: Narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of His Time (7 vols., London, 1859-1894). Popular literary genres of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that were influenced by biography included the realistic novel and the historical novel.
Biography in the twentieth century reflected the rise of modernism in the arts. There was a reaction against the Victorian style of biography that resulted in shorter, less studious lives. Works of modernist biography include Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921) and the numerous lives by André Maurois (1885-1967). Changes in style also were reflected in biographers’ adoption of a scientific outlook. The influence of psychology (especially Freudian and Jungian) eventually led to the development of psychobiography. Experimental forms and methods were explored in works as diverse as Virginia Woolf’s mock biography Orlando (1928), Lord David Cecil’s two-volume work on Lord Melbourne (1939 and 1954), and A. J. A. Symon’s The Quest for Corvo (1934). Postmodern forms of life writing emerged after World War II. Although more represented in autobiography than biography, postmodern lives have been characterized by further experimentation and the broad use of nontraditional methods. Postmodern biography in many ways reacts against modernist biography but is also an extension of it. It contains elements that are antiheroic, antihistorical, and absurd, or that consciously undermine conventional forms.
There were other major developments in the late twentieth century. One was the widespread appearance of biographies by and about women, and in particular, the establishment of feminist life writing as a literary form. Feminist biography had appeared in the fifteenth century, and feminists’ writings had flourished at times, especially in the late eighteenth century (for example, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792). The late twentieth century, however, saw the rise of feminism as a major cultural movement and a rapid increase in feminist life writings. Late-twentieth-century feminist biographies were numerous and included several lives of Woolf. Feminist biographers have drawn inspiration from the works of earlier feminists, including the writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) and Woolf’s essays A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). In addition to the establishment of feminist biography and the increase in biographies written by women (with women as subjects), lesbian and gay biography also became independent forms in the late twentieth century (such as Elizabeth Mavor’s The Ladies of Llangollen, 1971).
The late twentieth century witnessed the emergence of traditionally underrepresented groups in biography, both as subjects and as biographers. In the United States, for example, subjects were increasingly African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and Native American (or were members of other underrepresented or immigrant groups). Some of these biographies built on earlier traditions (for example, African-American lives range from pre-Civil War slave narratives to Alex Haley’s Roots, 1976). Biographers working in various postcolonial literatures also produced many lives of subjects from underrepresented groups.
Another major development has been the globalization of biography. As biographical forms have become diffused around the world, they have encompassed subjects from cultures in Africa, the Americas, East and Southeast Asia, Australia, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and other regions. It is notable that while biographical forms have spread worldwide, biographers have continued to draw on forms established in earlier times (both oral and written). In the early twenty-first century, as a result of these trends, biography is an increasingly global art, evidenced by the diversity in its subjects and forms.