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reconstruction in print or on film, of the lives of real men and women. Together with autobiography—an individual's interpretation of his own life—it shares a venerable tradition, meeting the demands of different audiences through the ages.

The Origins of Biography

Among the most ancient biographies are the narrative carvings and hieroglyphic inscriptions on Egyptian tombs and temples (c.1300 B.C.), and the cuneiform inscriptions on Assyrian palace walls (c.720 B.C.) or Persian rock faces (c.520 B.C.). All these records proclaimed the deeds of kings, although accuracy often gave way to glorification. Among the first biographies of ordinary men, the Dialogues of Plato (4th cent. B.C.) and the Gospels of the New Testament (1st and 2d cent. A.D.) reveal their respective subjects by letting each speak for himself. Even these early achievements of biography, however, lack critical balance.

Equilibrium was established by PlutarchPlutarch
, A.D. 46?–c.A.D. 120, Greek essayist and biographer, b. Chaeronea, Boeotia. He traveled in Egypt and Italy, visited Rome (where he lectured on philosophy) and Athens, and finally returned to his native Boeotia, where he became a priest of the temple of Delphi.
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 in The Parallel Lives (2d cent. A.D.). His method was comparative, e.g., Theseus is matched with Romulus; Demosthenes with Cicero. In his conclusions, he evaluates the connection between the moral standards and worldly achievements of each. St. AugustineAugustine, Saint
, Lat. Aurelius Augustinus, 354–430, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church and a Doctor of the Church, bishop of Hippo (near present-day Annaba, Algeria), b. Tagaste (c.40 mi/60 km S of Hippo). Life

Augustine's mother, St.
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 turned the same critical judgment on himself in his Confessions (4th cent.), comparing his character and conduct before and after his conversion to Christianity.

During the Middle Ages credibility continued to be sacrificed to credulity. In the hagiographies, or lives of the saints, human flaws and actual events were bypassed in favor of saintly traits and miracles. Yet the few secular biographies produced in that era, EinhardEinhard
or Eginhard
, c.770–840, Frankish historian. Educated in the monastery of Fulda, he continued his studies at Charlemagne's palace school in Aachen and rose to high favor with the emperor. Emperor Louis I made Einhard tutor or adviser to his son Lothair.
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's Life of Charlemagne (9th cent.), EadmerEadmer
or Edmer
, d. 1124?, English monk and historian. He was in the monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury, when Anselm became archbishop of Canterbury, and his biography of St. Anselm is the basic one.
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's Life of St. Anselm (12th cent.), Jean de JoinvilleJoinville, Jean, sire de
, 1224?–1317?, French chronicler, biographer of Louis IX of France (St. Louis). As seneschal (governor) of Champagne, Joinville was a close adviser to Louis, whom he accompanied (1248–54) on the Seventh Crusade.
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's Memoirs of St. Louis IX (13th cent.), and Jean FroissartFroissart, Jean
, c.1337–1410?, French chronicler, poet, and courtier, b. Valenciennes. Although ordained as a priest, he led a worldly life. He became a protégé of Queen Philippa of England, visited the court of David II of Scotland, and accompanied (1366)
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's Chroniques (15th cent.), redeem the genre with their lively depiction of personalities and events.

With the Renaissance came rekindled interest in worldly power and self-assertion. Benvenuto CelliniCellini, Benvenuto
, 1500–1571, Italian sculptor, metalsmith, and author. His remarkable autobiography (written 1558–62), which reads like a picaresque novel, is one of the most important documents of the 16th cent.
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's Autobiography (16th cent.), recounting his escapades and artistic achievements, is a monument to the ego. Saint-SimonSaint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, duc de
, 1675–1755, French writer of memoirs and courtier. He resigned (1702) from the army after his arrogance had involved him in a quarrel with Marshal Luxembourg.
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's Memoirs (late 17th cent.) describe Louis XIV and his court at Versailles and record the effect of the monarch's absolute power on the daily lives of others. In England, Samuel PepysPepys, Samuel
, 1633–1703, English public official, and celebrated diarist, b. London, grad. Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1653. In 1656 he entered the service of a relative, Sir Edward Montagu (later earl of Sandwich), whose secretary he became in 1660.
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's Diary, John EvelynEvelyn, John
, 1620–1706, English diarist and miscellaneous writer. Although of royalist sympathies, he took little active part in the civil war. After 1652 he lived as a wealthy country gentleman at Sayes Court, Deptford, where he cultivated his garden and wrote on
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's Diary, Izaak WaltonWalton, Izaak,
1593–1683, English writer. He wrote one of the most famous books in the English language, The Compleat Angler; or, the Contemplative Man's Recreation.
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's Lives and John AubreyAubrey, John
, 1626–97, English antiquary and miscellaneous writer, b. Kingston, Wiltshire, educated at Trinity College, Oxford. He knew most of the famous people of his day and left copious memorandums as well as letters.
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's Lives of Eminent Men (all mid-17th cent.) introduced informality and intimacy to their treatments. Each wrote about contemporaries who were their friends or acquaintances.

The Development of Biography as a Literary Form

By the 18th cent. literary biography (works about poets and men of letters) had become an important extension of the genre. Dr. JohnsonJohnson, Samuel,
1709–84, English author, b. Lichfield. The leading literary scholar and critic of his time, Johnson helped to shape and define the Augustan Age. He was equally celebrated for his brilliant and witty conversation.
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's Lives of the Poets (1779–81) set the example for James BoswellBoswell, James,
1740–95, Scottish author, b. Edinburgh; son of a distinguished judge. At his father's insistence the young Boswell reluctantly studied law. Admitted to the bar in 1766, he practiced throughout his life, but his true interest was in a literary career and in
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's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), the first definitive biography. This monumental work was drawn not only from Boswell's exact recollections of conversations with Johnson, but from letters, memoirs, and interviews with others in Johnson's circle as well. Two equally celebrated autobiographies, Benjamin FranklinFranklin, Benjamin,
1706–90, American statesman, printer, scientist, and writer, b. Boston. The only American of the colonial period to earn a European reputation as a natural philosopher, he is best remembered in the United States as a patriot and diplomat.
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's, noted for its practicality, and Jean Jacques RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works

Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
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's, noted for its candor, also mark this age.

Among the avalanche of biographies and autobiographies published in the 19th cent. GoetheGoethe, Johann Wolfgang von
, 1749–1832, German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist, b. Frankfurt. One of the great masters of world literature, his genius embraced most fields of human endeavor; his art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust.
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's Dichtung und Wahrheit (1808–31), Thomas CarlyleCarlyle, Thomas,
1795–1881, English author, b. Scotland. Early Life and Works

Carlyle studied (1809–14) at the Univ. of Edinburgh, intending to enter the ministry, but left when his doubts became too strong.
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's Sartor Resartus (1833–34) and Frederick the Great (1858–65), and Ernest RenanRenan, Ernest
, 1823–92, French historian and critic. He began training for the priesthood but renounced it in 1845. His first trip to Italy (1849) influenced his interest in antiquity but did not change most of his basic ideas, formed by 1848 when he wrote
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's Life of Jesus (1863) are important. Also noteworthy was the publication of the Dictionary of National Biography (1882), edited by Leslie StephenStephen, Sir Leslie,
1832–1904, English author and critic. The first serious critic of the novel, he was also editor of the great Dictionary of National Biography from its beginning in 1882 until 1891. In 1859 he was ordained a minister.
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As a result of FreudFreud, Sigmund
, 1856–1939, Austrian psychiatrist, founder of psychoanalysis. Born in Moravia, he lived most of his life in Vienna, receiving his medical degree from the Univ. of Vienna in 1881.

His medical career began with an apprenticeship (1885–86) under J.
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's defining of the unconscious, the 20th cent. produced a new sort of biography—one that used the technique of psychoanalysis on the subject. Examples of such works are Freud's own Leonardo Da Vinci (1910) and Anaïs NinNin, Anaïs
, 1903–77, American writer, b. Paris. The daughter of the Spanish composer Joaquín Nin, she came to the United States as a child. She was a psychoanalytic patient of Otto Rank, and a deep concern with the subconscious is evidenced in her work.
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's Diaries (1931–44). As antidotes to the tradition of the official biography Lytton StracheyStrachey, Lytton
(Giles Lytton Strachey), 1880–1932, English biographer and critic, educated at Cambridge. He was one of the leading members of the Bloomsbury group. Strachey is credited with having revolutionized the art of writing biography.
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 wrote Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921), works that deflate and debunk.

Twentieth-century biographers often sought to make structure a reflection of theme. Henry AdamsAdams, Henry,
1838–1918, American writer and historian, b. Boston; son of Charles Francis Adams (1807–86). He was secretary (1861–68) to his father, then U.S. minister to Great Britain.
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's Education of Henry Adams (1918) explores the metaphor of the title; Thomas MertonMerton, Thomas,
1915–68, American religious writer and poet, b. France. He grew up in France, England, and the United States and studied at Cambridge and at Columbia (B.A., 1938; M.A., 1939).
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's Seven Story Mountain (1948) follows the analogue of Dante's Inferno; and Lillian HellmanHellman, Lillian,
1905–84, American dramatist, b. New Orleans. Her plays, although often melodramatic, are marked by intelligence and craftsmanship. The Children's Hour
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's Pentimento (1973) presents portrait sketches of the people in her life as seen from the vantage point of her maturity. Notable literary and scholarly biographers of the 20th cent. include Harold NicolsonNicolson, Sir Harold,
1886–1968, English biographer, historian, and diplomat, b. Tehran, Iran. Educated at Oxford, he entered the foreign office in 1909, and, until his resignation 20 years later, he represented the British government in various parts of the world.
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, Allan NevinsNevins, Allan,
1890–1971, American historian, b. Camp Point, Ill. After studying at the Univ. of Illinois, he followed a career in journalism until 1927. Teaching at Columbia from 1928, he became a full professor in 1931 and was made De Witt Clinton professor of American
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, D. S. FreemanFreeman, Douglas Southall
, 1886–1953, American editor and historian, b. Lynchburg, Va. He was editor of the Richmond News Leader from 1915 to 1949, when he retired to devote most of his time to historical writing.
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, André MauroisMaurois, André
, 1885–1967, French biographer, novelist, and essayist. His name was originally Émile Herzog. His first work, The Silence of Colonel Bramble (1918, tr. 1920), describing British military life, was highly successful.
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, J. H. PlumbPlumb, Sir John Harold,
1911–2001, British historian. Educated at the universities of Leicester (B.A., 1933) and Cambridge (Ph.D., 1936), he remained at Cambridge as a research fellow from 1938 and as a fellow and member of the university faculty from 1946.
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, Carl SandburgSandburg, Carl,
1878–1967, American poet, journalist, and biographer, b. Galesburg, Ill. The son of poor Swedish immigrants, he left school at the age of 13 and became a day laborer.
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, Dumas MaloneMalone, Dumas
, 1892–1986, American historian and editor, b. Coldwater, Miss. He received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1923 and was an instructor of history at Yale (1919–23) and associate professor (1923–26) and professor (1926–29) at the Univ. of Virginia.
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, Elizabeth LongfordLongford, Elizabeth
, 1906–2002, British author. Born Elizabeth Harman, she married (1931) Frank Pakenham, later (1961) earl of Longford. She was educated at Oxford, lectured for the Workers Education Association (1929–35), and was an unsuccessful Labour candidate
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, and Leon EdelEdel, Leon
(Joseph Leon Edel) , 1907–97, American literary scholar and biographer, b. Pittsburgh, Pa. A professor at New York Univ. (1953–72) and the Univ. of Hawaii (1972–78), he received the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for part of his
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Biography in a Multimedia Age

Motion pictures and television have adapted the form of biography to their own needs. With Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur, Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, or Spencer Tracy as Thomas Edison, films retraced for new audiences, although often in a romanticized fashion, the paths to success taken by men of intelligence and character: the old Plutarchian formula. Documentary biographies, composed of newsreel clips and photographs, have been made about public figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, the Duke of Windsor, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Two innovations of television are the dramatic documentary ("docudrama") and the interview. Ken Russell's film essays, commissioned by the British Broadcasting Company (1965–70), on Elgar, Rossetti, Delius, Richard Strauss, and Isadora Duncan attempted to convey the essence of a person's character and work rather than just the facts of his life. Homage to Plutarch was evident again in the format of Edward R. MurrowMurrow, Edward Roscoe,
1908–65, American news broadcaster, b. Greensboro, N.C. He joined the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1935 and became its European director two years later, assembling and training a news staff to cover the impending war.
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's interview program, Person to Person (1953–59), where guests like Marilyn Monroe and Sir Thomas Beecham were deliberately paired.

The television interview was expanded by such talk show hosts as Dick Cavett, David Frost, and Charlie Rose, who have led their usually well-known guests to talk about their lives for an hour or longer. The expansion of oral history programs, in which prominent figures record their reminiscences, are also providing a body of primary biographical source material. With the advent of cable television, biography became a daily staple of various channels and biographies were offered as part of the programming on channels devoted to a number of special subjects, e.g., history and education.


See H. G. Nicolson, The Development of English Biography (1928); E. H. O'Neill, A History of American Biography (1961); A. Maurois, Aspects of Biography (tr. 1966); P. Honan, Authors' Lives (1990); S. Weinberg, Telling the Untold Story (1992).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a work that recreates the history of a person’s life in conjunction with the social reality, culture, and daily life of his time. Biographies may be scholarly, artistic, popular, and so forth.

The biography of a writer or an artist may serve as a genre in which the object of study indirectly becomes the vital and personal basis for the author’s creative art (in its connection with his world view, social factors, and literary milieu). In the early examples of biography (in antiquity, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars; during the Renaissance, G. Vasari’s Lives of Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), the characteristics of historical research and artistic literary creativity were bound together in an indivisible unity. Biography in the modern sense (critical use of sources and historical accuracy) came into being during the 18th century and developed in the 19th century. In the 20th century the work of major writers (R. Rolland, S. Zweig, and A. Maurois) created a genre of artistic biography characterized by a subjective sympathy for the hero, a striving to penetrate into his inner world by means of artistic imagination, and the predominance of the aesthetic and partly philosophical task (in Rolland) over historical cognition.

In Russia biographical dictionaries devoted to historical figures, writers, and scholars have been published since the 18th century. During the 19th century biographical literature appeared as a special branch of literary scholarship (Fonvizin, by P. A. Viazemskii; Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin: His Life and Work, by N. G. Chernyshevskii; A Biography of F. I. Tiutchev, by I. S. Aksakov; and others). In 1933 the popular biographical series Lives of Famous People was established in the Soviet Union on Gorky’s initiative. (Examples include A. Shteckley’s Campanella, C. Sandburg’s Lincoln, I. Dubinskii-Mukhadze’s Shaumian, and S. Reznik’s Nikolai Vavilov, as well as M. Bulgakov’s Moliere, L. Grossman’s Dostoevsky, and others.) The critical biographical sketch dealing with contemporary writers developed. The lives of outstanding people often become the subject matter of biographical novels, novellas, and plays. A special type of biography is the autobiography.


Vinokur, G. Biografiia i kul’tura. Moscow, 1927.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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