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Biography and Autobiography


BIOGRAPHY AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Though the terms themselves appeared relatively late, "biography" in 1683 (first in English) and "autobiography" in 1789 (in German), writing "lives"whether one's own or other people'swas practiced throughout the early modern period. A new interest in life narratives stemmed from major cultural changes witnessed by the Renaissance: new notions of the secular individual, an explosion of print culture, an emphasis on experience and on seeking truth in particulars, the development of Christian humanism, and the value attached to individual conscience and consciousness. Biography as a record of a life not merely used to celebrate ideal qualities or to discuss broader philosophical or religious issues but examined for its own sake came into its own in the seventeenth century.

Considered as part of history writing (Francis Bacon defined and encouraged it in The Advancement of Learning in 1605), biography was inspired by reading Tacitus, Suetonius, and especially Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives were popularized by Jacques Amyot's 1559 translation. Historians such as Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme (c. 15401614) and poets such as Giovanni Boccaccio (13131374) recounted lives of rulers, of illustrious men, and of beautiful or gallant women. Religious biographies such as Jean de Bolland's Acta Sanctorum (from 1643) were inspired by medieval hagiographies and idealized the saints whose lives they told. Other writers, such as Pierre Bayle in his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697), told the saints' lives from a more critical perspective. Until the eighteenth century, however, such biographies started from similar presuppositions, whether in the form of funeral orations (Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet), religious lives (The Life of M. Pascal by his sister Gilberte Périer, 1684), rulers' eulogies (Mme. de Motteville's seventeenth-century Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire d'Anne d'Autriche ), salon portraits (also found in the baroque novel), or moral "characters" inspired by the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus. These biographies explained actions by preexisting virtues or vices and, although sometimes critical, sought to provide a moral lesson through examples, thus resulting in the creation of types rather than actual human beings.

Somewhat more open were short lives and portraits composed by diplomats, such as Ézéchiel Spanheim in his Relation de la cour de France (1699), where subtle psychological analysis of court figures grounded political speculation about the future. Realistic psychological analyses based on close observation appear as well in early modern aristocratic memoirs written in French, such as those of Jean-François-Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz; Roger de Rabutin, comte de Bussy; Anne-Marie-Louise Orléans, duchesse de Montpensier; and Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon.

Yet the first biographies based on thorough documentary research and an intrinsic interest in a person's singularity were not developed until the eighteenth century: Samuel Johnson's Life of Savage (1744) and Lives of the Poets (17791781), and James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) are credited with seeking in their writing a more personal truth. In this respect biography developed alongside the eighteenth-century novel, which often took the form of a full-fledged fictional life and explored themes of interiority, social influence, and historicity. The Romantic sensibility brought about a blossoming of literary and historical life narratives.

Autobiography is considered a subspecies of biography since the life it narrates is the author's own. Before Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (17661770), which are considered the first autobiography in the modern sense, writing about the self was to be found in the essay form (Montaigne's enormously influential Essays [1580, 1588]), in aristocratic memoirsoften titled "lives" by their authors (Giovanni Jacopo Casanova and the cardinal de Retz) and sometimes even written in the third person (Agrippa d'Aubigné, François de La Rochefoucauld), in journals such as the Diary of Samuel Pepys, or in letters. Scarce in the Middle Ages, the genre flourished in the Renaissance, inspired by antiquity (St. Augustine's Confessions and Julius Caesar's Commentaries ) as well as by the humanist ambition of celebrating intelligence (Benvenuto Cellini and Geronimo Cardano) and of painting, through one's individual life, "the entire human condition" (Montaigne). Though early modern men and women could hold the Christian belief that the "self is despicable" (Pascal), they would set out to recount their life moved by spiritual reasons (Teresa of Avila and Mme. Guyon) or the need to illustrate their intellectual trajectory (René Descartes).

In personal memoirs, widely popular among the seventeenth-century French aristocracy, writing about the self stemmed from altogether different motives: the wish to bear witness to history because of the authors' high political rank (Mlle. de Montpensier, La Rochefoucauld, Cardinal de Richelieu), because of their proximity to power (Mme. de Motteville), or, conversely, due to imprisonment or solitude that prompted self-examination (François de Bassompierre and Saint-Simon). While steeped in an aristocratic conviction of personal worth, these writings presented the author as an intrinsically public, political being, and said little about his or her more intimate self: in spite of a distinct personal perspective, they focused on events rather than on the witness and gave priority to actions and words over reflections. They had no literary pretensions and sought mainly to redress history. Some other aspects, however, were more characteristic of autobiography: a wish to relive one's past, to give sense to one's life, a pleasure felt in writing that often comes as a surprise to the author, finally the presence of the genre's defining feature, what Philippe Lejeune calls the "autobiographical pact" made with the reader in which the promise to tell the truth is sealed by the author's name and signature. Other personal writings such as journals by English Puritans or dissenters (John Wesley, George Fox) would in their turn introduce the belief in the inherent dignity of all men as well as the introspective bent acquired through a regular religious practice of self-examination.

Rousseau's Confessions part of his autobiographical writings, which also include the Reveries of the Solitary Walker and the Dialogues and which were published between 1781 and 1788, mostly posthumouslywere the first to combine all these features with two new ideas about the self: its uniqueness, irreducible to any social or religious identity, and its boundless mobility and capacity for transformation. The Confessions made the self and its quest for unity the principal object of writing. Together with narrating a unique individual life in its idiosyncracy, they reflected the features attributed henceforth to the modern self: a tremendously enlarged scope of inner voice, a deeper inwardness, and a radical autonomy. The much-quoted opening lines of the Confessions proclaimed Rousseau's awareness of the revolutionary character of his project: "I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator. I want to show my fellow-men a man in all the truth of nature; and this man is to be myself." Though rightly judging its importance, however, Rousseau was wrong about his posterity: at the close of the eighteenth century, the era of autobiography had only just begun.

See also Boswell, James ; Diaries ; Johnson, Samuel ; La Rochefoucauld, François de ; Montaigne, Michel de ; Pepys, Samuel ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy ; Vasari, Giorgio.


Coleman, Patrick, Jayne Lewis, and Jill Kowalik, eds. Representations of the Self from the Renaissance to Romanticism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

Gusdorf, Georges. Auto-bio-graphie. Paris, 1991.

Kendall, Paul Murray. The Art of Biography. New York, 1965.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Translated by Katherine Leary. Edited by Paul John Eakin. Minneapolis, 1989.

. Le pacte autobiographique. Paris, 1975.

Maschuch, Michael. Origins of the Individualist Self: Autobiography and Self-Identity in England, 15911791. Stanford, 1996.

May, Georges. "Autobiography and the Eighteenth Century." In The Author in His Work: Essays on a Problem in Criticism, edited by Louis L. Martz and Aubrey Williams, pp. 317333. New Haven, 1978.

. L'autobiographie. Paris, 1979.

Parke, Catherine N. Biography: Writing Lives. New York and London, 1996.

Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, 1988.

Weintraub, Karl Joachim. The Value of the Individual. Self and Circumstance in Autobiography. Chicago and London, 1978.

Malina Stefanovska

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"Biography and Autobiography." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Biography and Autobiography

70. Biography and Autobiography

  1. Boswell, James (17401793) Scottish author and devoted biographer of Samuel Johnson. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 341]
  2. Cellini, Benvenuto (15001571) Italian sculptor and author of important autobiography. [Ital. Lit.: NCE, 488]
  3. Confessions Rousseau (17121778) reveals details of an erratic and rebellious life. [Fr.Lit.: Benét, 218]
  4. Confessions of St. Augustine, The St. Augustine tells of his life and conversion. [Christian Hagiog.: Hayden & Fuller, 153]
  5. Driffield, Edward novelist whose life story is examined by Kear and Ashenden. [Br. Lit.: Maugham Cakes and Ale in Magill I, 99]
  6. Education of Henry Adams, The intellectual autobiography traces the thought processes and moral degeneration of modern man. [Am. Lit.: The Education of Henry Adams ; Magill I, 238]
  7. Franklin, Benjamin (17061790) American statesman; author of famous autobiography. [Am. Lit.: NCE, 1000]
  8. Lives of the Caesars biographies by Suetonius of the first twelve Roman Emperors. [Rom. Hist.: Benét, 973]
  9. Memoirs of George Sherston, The fictional autobiography of a poet as country gentleman, soldier, and pacifist. [Br. Lit.: Magill I, 575, 579]
  10. Pepys, Samuel (16331703) English public official; author of diary. [Br. Lit.: NCE, 2103]
  11. Plutarch (c. 46c. 120) Greek biographer known for his Lives, a collection of biographies of Greek and Roman leaders. [Gk. Lit.: NCE, 2170]
  12. Toklas, Alice B. fictive author of an autobiography by Gertrude Stein. [Am. Lit.: Stein The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in Benét, 66]
  13. Venerable Bede (c. 673735) Benedictine monk; wrote memorable biographies of English saints. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 257]

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