The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Biography: A written account of the life of a particular person from birth to death that attempts not only to elucidate the facts about that person’s life and actions but also to draw a coherent picture of a self, personality, or character. Biographies should be distinguished from autobiographies (in which individuals depict their own lives) and memoirs (in which individuals render an account of things, people, and events they have experienced without focusing as directly on themselves).

As a genre, biography has changed over the centuries. Ancient Greek and Roman biographers, with some exceptions, were more interested in depicting an individual’s character than in chronicling the facts of his life. Greek historian Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (c. A.D. 100), which pairs accounts of notable Greeks and Romans, reflects this bias: “It is not histories I am writing, but lives; … a small thing, like a phrase or a jest, often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die.” Writers of medieval biography, which was mainly hagiography (the recounting of saints’ lives), often relied on legend and were less concerned with detailing the events of a life or even depicting an actual person than with presenting an exemplary model of human piety. Notable exceptions include the Welsh bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred (893) and the English historian and theologian Eadmer’s Vita Anselmi (Life of Anselm) (c. 1124), which incorporated anecdotes that provided insight into the saint’s personality. With the Renaissance came a new focus on the individual, and it became far less common for biographers to turn their subjects into illustrations, theses, examples, or exaggerated human types. Secular portrayals also gained ground, as exemplified by Florentine painter and architect Giorgio Vasari’s popular Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (Lives of the Artists) (1550, 1568), Englishman William Roper’s Life of Sir Thomas More (written c. 1558; published 1626), and English writer Izaak Walton’s five Lives (1640—78). Subsequently, the term biography was itself introduced into English, defined as “the history of particular men’s lives” in English neoclassical poet and critic John Dryden’s 1683 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

The complexity and popularity of biography as a genre in England increased most markedly during the eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson wrote fifty-two biographical studies, including lives of Dryden and two other poets, John Milton and Alexander Pope. James Boswell made Johnson, also a poet, critic, and lexicographer, the subject of his 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson, still thought by many to be the greatest biography of all time. By using concrete details and examples to flesh out Johnson’s character and ways of thinking and feeling, Boswell helped establish not only the authenticity of biography but also the essential freedom of the biographer to explore anything that might facilitate or deepen the reader’s understanding of the subject. This freedom was temporarily curtailed during the Victorian Period, when the notion that biography should not shake the public’s faith in its great figures resulted in the production of authorized “life and letters” biographies catering more to appearances than truth.

Biography regained its standing as a revealing and critical endeavor in the twentieth century while also developing in new directions. For instance, English writer Lytton Strachey, who asserted that “Discretion is not the better part of biography,” revolutionized the genre with a brief, selective, witty approach in works such as Eminent Victorians (1918). Other biographers sought to psychoanalyze their subjects, speculating on their inner thoughts and unconscious motivations. Today, most serious modern biographies are dispassionate works, grounded in extensive research and based on the proposition that presenting an accurate view of an individual’s life and character requires examining the facts with a critical and neutral eye.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Yankee from Olympus (1944), detailing the life of the renowned Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), a biography of Michelangelo; Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History (1974); Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind (1998; adapted to film 2001), on the schizophrenic mathematician and Nobel Laureate John Forbes Nash; Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (2011; adapted to film 2015), written at the Apple, Inc., co-founder’s own request; Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India (2013), the first of a planned two-part biography of the Indian civil rights leader and advocate for independence; Richard Lazenby’s Michael Jordan: The Life (2015), about the man considered the greatest basketball player of all time; and Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2015), by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, on the second woman to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Noted literary biographies include Walter Jackson Bate’s John Keats (1979); Shari Benstock’s No Gifts from Chance (1994), on Edith Wharton; Carlos Baker’s Emerson Among the Eccentrics (1996); Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (2013), on the path-breaking feminist, journalist, literary critic, and editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial; and Adam Begley’s Updike (2014). Noted contemporary film biographies include Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005), which chronicle the lives of pianist and soul-music pioneer Ray Charles and country music singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, respectively, and Hacksaw Ridge (2016), about Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who served as a medic in World War II and became the first conscientious objector to get the Medal of Honor.