Biography and Autobiography
Study Guides on General Topics
Biographical narratives typically have been constructed according to a standard format, a chronicle from cradle to grave. In contrast, autobiographical narratives have been less formulaic or more experimental, taking multiple forms. The earliest biographies were intended to glorify the lives of so-called great men and to chronicle the ebb and flow of history in the manner of Plutarch’s Lives. “All history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons,” Ralph Waldo Emerson declared in “Self-Reliance” (1841), and he illustrated the point by sketching the lives of six movers and shakers in his book Representative Men (1850), among them Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Napoleon.
Biographies published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, were more often designed to instruct readers on how to live or to encourage them to pattern their behavior after exemplary lives. As a result, biographies of the Founding Fathers became popular. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, though completed in 1788 and published in French translation in 1791, was not published in the United States until 1867. At least fifteen booklength Franklin biographies appeared between 1876 and 1910, however, and his life acquired an unprecedented cachet during the period. Thomas Mellon, the founder of the Mellon family fortune, reminisced in his 1885 autobiography that he regarded “the reading of Franklin’s Autobiography as the turning point of my life,” and T. L. Haines in his success manual Worth and Wealth (1883) repeatedly cited Franklin and quoted from his autobiography. William Dean Howells proclaimed Franklin’s memoirs “one of the greatest autobiographies in literature,” one that “towers over other autobiographies as Franklin towered over other men,” in 1905. Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, published Franklin’s memoirs in the first volume of his multivolume Harvard Classics, the so-called “Harvard Five-foot Shelf,” in 1909. That is, Franklin’s autobiography became an American culture text that resonated with readers whatever their social class. Brothers Paul Leicester Ford and Worthington Chauncey Ford, the grandsons of Noah Webster, published biographies of George Washington in 1896 and 1900, respectively. Owen Wister wrote a biography of Ulysses S. Grant in 1900 before his best-selling Western, The Virginian (1902), and afterward he wrote the biography The Seven Ages of Washington (1907). Abraham Lincoln’s life was also memorialized in numerous biographies after his assassination in 1865. A prime example of this trend is the monumental ten-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890) by the sixteenth president’s secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay. During this time, campaign biography was also an important branch of the genre. Campaign biographies were written during a political campaign, often by a hired author, to extol a political candidate and increase his popularity among the voters. Among the most important examples of the period were Sketch of the Life and Character of Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), by Howells, and Life of Gen. Ben Harrison (1888), by Lew Wallace. Juvenile biographies of some of the great politicians of the age were in vogue, epitomized perhaps by three works by Horatio Alger Jr.: From Canal Boy to President, or, The Boyhood and Manhood of James A. Garfield (1881), From Farm Boy to Senator; Being the Boyhood and Manhood of
Daniel Webster (1882), and Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy; or, How a Young Rail-Splitter Became President (1883).
In contrast, autobiography as a genre is a more experimental form. While autobiography is most clearly defined by its content—the representation of an individual life—it is also distinct as a genre intended for public consumption. Also, unlike journals and diaries that describe current life events over a period of time, autobiographies generally reflect on the author’s life from a single point in time. Autobiographical authors often use a combination of memory, historical knowledge, and literary devices to construct themselves as meaningful, unified individuals. What is often most interesting about autobiography is not the truth or falsity of the representation but the way an author chooses to construct his or her persona. In American literature especially, autobiography has often been viewed as a democratic genre in which each individual can shape identity as he or she chooses.
The examples of experimental autobiography are myriad. The Education of Henry Adams (1907) recounts the life of the author in standard prose, but it is narrated in third-person and in an ironic tone. In it, Henry Brooks Adams laments his poor education despite his upbringing in a distinguished American family. Several authors glided smoothly among the genres of fiction, biography, and autobiography. The novelist Henry James, for example, wrote the life of an American expatriate sculptor in William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903) and contributed a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1879), whom James viewed as his predecessor, to the English Men of Letters series published by Macmillan. Later, he wrote a series of autobiographies titled A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and the unfinished The Middle Years (1917). Similarly, the novelist and editor Howells pioneered a new form of literary auto/biography in Literary Friends and Acquaintance: A Personal Retrospect of American Authorship (1900) and My Mark Twain (1910). Like James and Howells, Mark Twain also moved flawlessly among genres, with such fictionalized autobiographical travel books as The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Following the Equator (1897) interspersed with novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Twain dictated his autobiography late in life in nonchronological order, publishing some of this material serially in the North American Review as “Chapters from My Autobiography” (1906-1907). These multiple types of autobiography reflect not only the author’s self-construction but also various editors’ ideas about narrative form.
The most commercially successful autobiography of the period was arguably Personal memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885-1886), completed as the Civil War commander and former president was dying. Twain’s publishing house Webster & Co. paid his widow several hundred thousand dollars in royalties. The success of Grant’s memoirs led to the publication of similar projects, such as the Memoirs of Gen. W. T. Sherman (1891) and Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (1913). For the record, the biographies of politicians and war heroes easily outsold biographies of religious heroes. During the Gilded Age, few “spiritual autobiographies” akin to Jonathan Edwards’s “Personal Narrative” (c. 1740) or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) appeared, and none of any significance. Twain believed that a biography of the reigning pope would rival the popularity of Grant’s autobiography, given its potential worldwide audience but Bernard O’Reilly’s Life of Leo XIII, from an Authentic Memoir Furnished by His Order (1887), also published by Webster & Co., was a commercial failure.
Biography and autobiography also became important modes of expression for minority voices in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Charles W. Chesnutt and W. E. B. Du Bois wrote biographies of Frederick Douglass (1899) and John Brown (1909). Sarah Winnemucca’s Life among the Piutes (1883) detailed her experiences in a Native American tribe that repeatedly aided the U.S. military but was then deemed hostile and removed to a reservation in the northwest United States. Douglass, whose most famous work was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), continued to revise and add to it until he published the final version as The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892). Among other significant autobiographies by minority writers were Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), Sui Sin Far’s “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” (1909), and Zitkala-Sa’s “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” (1900), “The School Days of an Indian Girl” (1900), “An Indian Teacher among Indians” (1900), and “Why I am a Pagan” (1902). In addition, at least two immigrant autobiographies merit mention here: the Danish journalist Jacob Riis’s The Making of an American (1901), which describes the horrific living and working conditions of poor New York immigrants; and Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (1912), the account of a Polish Jew’s assimilation.
During this period biographies were increasingly written by scholars and literary authors. One of the most famous biographers of this time was George Edward Woodberry, professor at Columbia University, scholar, and poet, who wrote numerous biographies of both British and American authors, including Edgar Allan Poe (1885), Hawthorne (1902), A. C. Swinburne (1905), and Emerson (1907).
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. In examining autobiography, what persona is the author presenting of him or herself, and why has the author chosen this representation? What themes has the author found in her/his life, and how does the author use these themes to make sense of her/his identity?
- 2. Ask if a biography you are examining is scholarly or popular. If it is a popular biography, what about the subject makes him or her an appropriate figure of popular interest, and how does the author play on this popular interest to draw readers? What might be classified as “sensational” in the popular biography, and how does that represent the social mores of the period?
- 3. How might the form of biography or autobiography be influenced by either slave narrative or captivity narrative? What kind of transformation does the subject of a slave or captivity narrative undergo, and how is that transformation presented by the author?
- 4. Closely examine the form of the biography or autobiography. Is it written in first person? How does the chronology of the narrative compare to the historical chronology of the subject’s life? Does the narrative emphasize factual historical information, or does it utilize literary and artistic devices to emphasize metaphorical meaning and aesthetic coherence? How does this narrative form affect the content of the biography or autobiography, and how does it affect your response to the text?
G. Thomas Couser, American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979).
Closely examines more than twenty American autobiographies, from colonial to contemporary, in order to explore the genre thoroughly. Couser sees autobiography as a response to communal crisis, which transforms into an obsessive desire to understand what it means to be an American.
James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Critical and Theoretical (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).
A collection of sixteen essays that explores autobiography and its construction of self-identity from a variety of perspectives. It covers autobiographies from diverse national origins and time periods in order to question the form and purpose of autobiography.
Albert E. Stone, Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts: Versions of American Identity from Henry Adams to Nate Shaw (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).
A central text for students of American autobiography that focuses on modern (late-nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century) autobiographies. Especially helpful for exploring and understanding autobiographies of marginalized individuals, such as Black Elk.
Stanley Weintraub, ed., Biography and Truth (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967).
A collection of essays in which biographers discuss their predicaments in interpreting the truth for their biographies and then crafting that truth into a compelling narrative. Each author’s reflections on writing are accompanied by a sample of his or her biographical work.
PEOPLE OF INTEREST
Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918)
Grandson and great-grandson of presidents and a journalist, editor, novelist, and academic.
Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-1899)
Graduate of Harvard College and the Divinity School, the author of more than a hundred juvenile novels between 1864 and his death.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Former slave and civil-rights activist best known for his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). As one of the most famous slave narratives, Douglass’s autobiography is a foundational text for scholars of autobiography and African American literature.
Jacob Riis (1849-1914)
Muckraking journalist best known for his photo-essay How the Other Half Lives (1890).
Lew Wallace (1827-1905)
Best known as the author of the historical romance Ben-Hur (1880), he was governor of the New Mexico Territory (1878-1881).
Booker T. Washington (1856?-1915)
Founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the leader of middle-class African Americans across the country during the last quarter-century of his life.