views updated May 11 2018


BIOGRAPHY . The subject here is best termed sacred biography, which most precisely designates the written accounts of lives of persons deemed to be holy, although its usage is extended also to oral traditions concerning such figures. The reason for allowing this wider usage is clear: in most contexts it was oral traditions that not only preceded but also largely shaped the later, written versions. The category of sacred biography is bounded on one side by mythologythat is, narratives concerning gods and other beings thought to be supernaturaland on the other side by biography, efforts to reconstruct credible accounts of the lives of ordinary human beings. It might also be defined as a genre that mixes myth and biography: unlike the former, its subjects are held even today to have actually lived but, unlike the latter, the received versions of their lives are often heavily mythologized.

Whereas mythology will usually tell only of random deeds of deities in a largely episodic and nonconsecutive manner, the subjects of a sacred biography will tend to be treated as persons whose life stories need to be told as discrete and continuous lives. The subject of a sacred biography will tend to be treated as someone whose life story can be told from birth to death and, to that degree at least, as it would be treated in a secular biography. The difference from the latter, however, lies in the degree to which such a subject will be represented as carrying out a divinely planned mission, being the possessor of a "call" or visions authenticating such a mission, and having either infallible knowledge or supernatural powers. Individual instances of this genre differ in the degree to which they exemplify either the empirical or the mythological sides of the spectrum, but some degree of combination is present in all. Most sacred biographies are written either about the founders of the major religions or about saintsin which case this rubric overlaps with hagiography. In order to illustrate the genre our consideration here will focus upon sacred biographies of the founders.

History of the Designation "Sacred Biography"

The detection or designation of sacred biography as a genre of oral and written literature with its own structure and rules was initially a concomitant of that nineteenth-century scholarship which, under the aegis of positivist expectations and the use of an objective historical method, had sought to disentangle the incontrovertible "facts" of the life of Jesus of Nazareth from the overlay both of pious fabrications and Christological dogma. The intention of this process of winnowing and reconstruction was captured best in Albert Schweitzer's phrase "the quest of the historical Jesus." To some extent Schweitzer's work, while not terminating the search for verifiable facts, did signal the end of the nineteenth-century scholars' confidence that they could simply circumvent or dispense with the piety and Christology of the early Christian community and thereby disclose the "facts" of Jesus' life. When twentieth-century scholarship abandoned that part of the earlier "quest," it became possible to see that the Gospels are not merely flawed or failed biographies but a form of devotional literature of the early church, and, to that extent, examples of a genre with its own intentions and norms. As a result scholars came to see the rubric of sacred biography as discrete and legitimate for the first time. They recognized that the documents in question ought not merely to be sifted through for the purpose of separating fact from fiction, but that they had to be subjected to the more sophisticated type of analysis known as "form criticism."

With this perspective such studies could also become comparative and cross-cultural for the first time. Important in this development was Martin Dibelius's Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (Tübingen, 1919), translated as From Tradition to Gospel (New York, 1935). Dibelius referred to a "law" at work in such biographies and noted that there existed "many points of agreement between Buddha-legends and Jesus-legends" as well as between the saints of otherwise very different traditions. He claimed that this was a "law of biographical analogy leading to formulations constantly renewed" rather than a pattern that arose from cultural borrowing or diffusion. As examples he noted that various traditions separately articulate "a fixed idea of the life of the holy man: such a man may neither be born nor die without the significance of the event being proclaimed from heaven." Likewise his calling is announced in his youth and he has divine powers at his disposal throughout his life.

Although Dibelius arrived at this formulation through his analysis of the literary form of the Christian Gospels, his attribution of intrinsic value to sacred biography implicitly recognized that the early Christian community had quite properly had the decisive role in shaping the account of the life of Jesus according to its own ideals and expectations; modern scholars neither could nor should simply circumvent the contributions of the church in an attempt to reconstruct an "objective" biography of its founder.

This shift in attitude coincided with the embryonic development of the sociology of religion. Joachim Wach interpreted and applied Max Weber's concept of charisma and its routinization in his Sociology of Religion (Chicago, 1944). He discussed in some detail the founders of the great religions and took note that the term founder "does not denote any intrinsic quality or activity of the personality but refers to the historical and sociological effect of his charisma." He went on to state that "virtually all the founders became objects of religious veneration themselves." Although Wach tended to give causal priority to the founder and his teaching, he went further than others before him in recognizing an element of reciprocal generation in this phenomenon: at least in a sociological sense, the religious community creates its founder almost as much as the founder creates the community. Therefore, the message of the founder will often tend to be "implemented by miraculous acts, such as healing, feeding, transforming matter, etc." In this "hagiographical development" will be illustrated "the specific personal charisma which designates the man of God in an unmistakable and uninterchangeable way."

Wach, who brought a detailed knowledge of many religious traditions to his comparative efforts, tried as much as possible to retain the particularity of the separate traditions. His focus on the social matrix of religious traditions also led him to emphasize the relationship that each founder of a major religion had to his own circle of disciples. His 1924 essay on this topic shows how central it was in his thinking (Eng. trans., "Master and Disciple: Two Religio-Sociological Studies," Journal of Religion 42, 1962, pp. 121). The importance of this essay is that it reconstructs the psychological and social interaction between a master and his disciplesprecisely the element that would seem to have frequently been the prelude to a later mythic embellishment of the deceased master's life in the form of sacred biography.

Although Mircea Eliade did not specifically elaborate a new theory of sacred biography, his discussions of the paradigmatic and exemplary nature of sacred time had a deep impact upon many scholars working on biographical materials of the past. This influence is clearly evident in the most comprehensive study of this topic to date, namely, The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps (The Hague, 1976).

Sacred Biography and the Great Founders

The crucial importance of the concept of sacred biography in modern scholarship is that it has forced attention to certain kinds of materials that had tended to be slighted, dismissed, or regarded as uninteresting to intellectual historians and positivist text critics. It acknowledges that the formation of the major religions and religiously based philosophies was not merely the result of individual geniuses and their ideas but equally the product of social groupings and the projection of their shared ideals onto that person who, precisely through this reciprocity, was coming to be regarded as the "founder" of the new community. In the section above we looked at the process through which the Christian Gospels came to be gradually recognized as such a form of sacred biography. But a similar process was present in the formation of the received "lives" of the founders of the other major religions as well, and we focus here upon the Buddha, Muammad, and Confucius by way of illustration.

Although the scholarly study of Buddhism in nineteenth-century Europe made great strides in linguistic and textual matters, the recognition of the received biographies of the Buddha as a form of sacred biography was comparatively late. The reason for this was that scholarship on the life of the Buddha tended to oscillate between the two positions just beyond the boundaries of the sacred biography spectrum: pure mythology on one side and "factual" biography on the other. Advocates of the former, scholars working mostly with Sanskrit texts, saw the Buddha's life story as a variety of mythsolar myth in this case. The two principal proponents of this view were Émile Senart in his Essai sur la légende du Bouddha, son caractère et ses origines (Paris, 1882) and Hendrik Kern in his Der Buddhismus und seine Geschichte in Indien (Leipzig, 18821884). Their position was strenuously opposed by T. W. Rhys Davids and others in England who, working with and usually trusting the antiquity and reliability of the newly discovered Pali texts, were convinced that, with the carrying out of requisite analyses, the authentic life of the Buddha could be extracted from these sources. Although their materials were many and various, the scholars of the London school of Pali studies saw their task as different from that of their counterparts working on the life of Jesus, inasmuch as the Pali texts tended to present the Buddhaespecially in his adult yearsas an unparalleled but fully human teacher, not as an incarnate deity performing miracles. In that sense their texts themselves resembled ordinary biography much more than mythology.

Posed in this way between the alternatives of myth on one side and ordinary biography on the other, scholars working on the life of the Buddha had difficulty recognizing the presence and integrity of sacred biography in their texts. Only with the collapse of the solar-myth hypothesis and the gradual recognition that the Pali sources were more complex and mythicized than had been previously assumed did it finally become possible to see the life of the Buddha as a variety of sacred biography. Edward J. Thomas's The Life of Buddha as Legend and History (London, 1927) makes some tentative steps in that direction. By the middle of the twentieth century scholars had generally accepted the fact that, even though the Buddha had existed and had lived within a detectable time frame, it was impossible to ignore the role that the ideals of the early sagha (the Buddhist order) had played in shaping and elaborating the received narratives of their founder's life. To that extent the impassable presence of sacred biography has been recognized even though individual scholars differ considerably in their analyses of the process of its composition and its movement from oral tradition to scripture.

Once the sacred biographies of the Buddha could be seen not merely as excrescences to be scaled off but as research topics with their own intellectual importance, the relationship of these to the specific cultural matrix of India could be studied as well. In particular, the Indian presupposition that life involves multiple lives could be positively assessed: the Jātakas, tales of the earlier lives of the Buddha, could be studied as part of the later sacred biographical tradition.

Quite soon after the death of Muammad in 632at least by the eighth centurybiographies appeared that demonstrated the growing tendency to idealize the Prophet as sinless and capable of performing miracles. Throughout most subsequent history the received accounts of the life of Muammad were clearly in the genre of sacred biography. Beginning with William Muir's The Life of Mahomet and History of Islam, to the Era of Hegira (London, 1861), this view was challenged, especially by Ignácz Goldziher's Muhammedanische Studien (Halle, 18881890). The Qurʾān itself was subjected to analyses in order to locate reliable data for the reconstruction of what European scholars regarded as a verified account of the life of Muammad. This was much to the consternation of Muslims, for whom the Qurʾān is special and divinely derived revelation, not a source among other sources for a critical study of the Prophet's life. The first reaction to this approach on the part of Muslim scholars themselves came in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in the form of many new biographies of Muammad, works clearly intended to state the facts of his life correctly from within the faith-framework of Islam. Although these biographies did tend to stress the prophetic in Muammad's life and to play down the miraculous, to many Western scholars they nevertheless seem continuous in some sense with the classical sacred biographies' tendency to idealization.

Within this context the study of sacred biographies of Muammad has been relatively difficult. Tor Andrae, best known for his Mohammed: The Man and His Faith (London, 1936), contributed earlier and substantially to this topic in his Die person Muhammeds in lehre und glauben seiner gemeinde (Stockholm, 1918). Distinguished by its skillful use of comparative materials, Andrae's book amply demonstrated the growth of legends that formed over time around the person of the Prophetso much so that as a superhuman exemplary figure he eventually came to have status almost equal to that of the Qurʾān for some Muslims. More recent studies include Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam by William A. Graham (Paris, 1977), a work that uses and adapts Eliade's conception of "sacred time" to insist that later Muslims looked back on the whole period of Muammad's life as such a paradigmatic age even though it was historical time as well. Graham notes that, although passages in the Qurʾān distinguish mortal Muammad from immortal God, the tradition also includes materials showing that "the divine authority of [Muammad's] role as God's Apostle was a major factor in the tendency to divinize his person" and that as such he became "the paradigm for Muslim life" (p. 23). In an important essay Earle H. Waugh focuses upon later (ūfī) materials but also uses Eliade's studies of shamanism to analyze the legends concerning Muammad's Miʿrāj as a form of shamanic ascension. He also explores the exemplary role of these legends in the spiritual life of individual ūfīs ("Following the Beloved: Muhammed as Model in the ūfī Tradition," in Reynolds and Capps, 1976, pp. 6385). Perhaps what makes the study of sacred biography in the Islamic tradition both difficult and fascinating is the fact that its very existencesuggesting as it does the apotheosis of the foundercould only exist and develop in some state of tension with Islamic orthodoxy's insistence upon the uncompromisable transcendence of God.

The study of sacred biography as it exists in the Chinese cultural context has presented scholars with very different kinds of problems. Because there remain serious questions about any historical fact underlying the accounts of the life of Laozi, the reputed founder of Daoism, it is best here to restrict our consideration to Confucius (511479 bce). If sacred biography is characterized by the forging together of myth and history, accounts of the life of Confucius certainly tend to remain closer to the history side of this combination. In addition, since the Analects (Lun-yü ) clearly shows that Confucius himself turned attention away from the gods and spirits and toward man and society, modern scholars, sensing this way of thought to be remarkably consonant with the temper of the modern West, have tended to find the subsequent sacralization of Confucius within China to be intellectually uninteresting at best and reprehensible at worst. It is not incidental, therefore, that the latter of these views informs the approach taken in what remains to date the most important and influential biographical study, H. G. Creel's Confucius: The Man and the Myth (New York, 1949), republished as Confucius and the Chinese Way (New York, 1960).

There was indeed a tradition of sacred biography that grew up around the figure of Confucius, but his apotheosis was shaped by distinctly Chinese cultural norms. This is shown in the fact that the Master's apotheosis was expressed through the extension of his sagacity rather than his power; in a work such as the K'ung-tzu chia yü (Discourses of the Confucian school) of the third century bce, Confucius is presented as infallible, not as a miracle worker. In a similar fashion the Tso chuan, which was composed around 300 bce, attributes to him not supernatural deeds but knowledge of arcane and supernatural mattersthings that seem rather far removed from the Confucius of the Analects. Also in the Tso chuan his lineage is presented as derived from that of the Sage-Kings of archaic times; some scholars such as D. C. Lau (in his translation The Analects, London, 1979) do not find this exceptionable, but Creel judged it to be so. If it was, in fact, part of the developing sacred biography of Confucius, it also shows the imprint of the pattern of the culture. In subsequent centuries, especially in the writings of what was called the New Text school, Confucius was viewed as having received a mandate from Heaven and was often also treated as a supernatural being (See Donald J. Munro's The Concept of Man in Early China, Stanford, 1969, p. 40).

The cult of Confucius increased over the centuries, often to the neglect of his writings. As late as the early twentieth century Kang Yuwei (18581927) advocated Confucianism as a state religion for China. Although much less work has been done on Confucius than on the other founders considered above, the tradition of reverence for him as a founder presents difficult but important problems for any theory of the nature of sacred biography. It demonstrates that, whatever tendency may exist for sacred biography to develop around a figure who comes to be recognized as a religious founder, that development occurs in distinctive cultural patterns. Confucius's life is certainly presented as a paradigmatic one, but he is the exemplar of the teacher and sage. There seem to be specific cultural restraintsperhaps even derived from the doctrinal content of the Analects itself to the exfoliation of the mythic dimension in this case. Wach's explication of the master-disciple relationship may well be the most useful methodological tool to apply in connecting the sacred biographies of Confucius with those of the other founders of the great religions.

Recent Directions in Scholarship

Current scholarship shows a marked tendency to focus upon the varieties of sacred biographical composition found within a specific cultural context. The research tradition that began it allnamely, the one initially concerned with the Gospels and the quest for the historical Jesusremains in the forefront in terms of detailed and innovative studies. The scope has been widened to include a variety of types of hagiography and sacred biography found throughout the Hellenistic period extending to late antiquity. Although Eliade's point about sacred biographies being paradigmatic and exemplary is widely accepted and employed, there is increasing attention to both intertextuality in these matters and to the particularity of special kinds of idealized figures within a given cultural context. One example is the hypothesis that there exists a connection between the Gospels and the aretalogies of the Greco-Roman periodproposed especially by Morton Smith in his "Prolegomena to a Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels, and Jesus" (Journal of Biblical Literature 90, 1971, pp. 174199) and Jonathan Z. Smith in his "Good News Is No News: Aretalogy and Gospel" (in Christianity, Judaism, and Other Greco-Roman Cults, edited by Jacob Neusner, Leiden, 1975, vol. 1, pp. 2138).

Also important is the growing attention to the combination of religious with sociopolitical aspirations in every specific community that projected its ideals onto its founder or its saints. Not only the specific social matrix of the community that shaped its sacred biographies but also the history of such popular piety deserves attention. In his critique of the "two-tiered model" that has long relegated popular piety to the inferior status of something that is always and everywhere the same, Peter Brown (The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, Chicago, 1981) charts a direction that could be profitably followed by students of sacred biography generally. Another important new studyagain focused on the Greco-Roman worldis Patricia Cox's Biography in Late Antiquity: A Quest for the Holy Man (Berkeley, 1983). Especially valuable is her discussion of paradigms of the divine sage in that period.

Aside from Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps's The Biographical Process and Michael A. William's Charisma and Sacred Biography (1982), real comparative work on this genre seems nonexistent in recent literature. (This is in keeping with the concentration of recent studies upon intertextuality and the continuities within a specific cultural area.) Perhaps after this phase of scholarship has attained its objectives, new energies and techniques can again be directed toward comparative work on sacred biography.

See Also

Autobiography; Buddha; Confucius; Heroes; Jesus; Muammad; Myth; Oral Tradition; and Sainthood; Schweitzer, Albert.


Brown, Peter. The Making of Late Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.

Dungan, David L., and David R. Cartlidge, eds. and trans. Sourcebook of Texts for the Comparative Study of the Gospels. 4th ed. Missoula, Mont., 1974. See part 1, "Selections of Popular Religious Biographies."

Hadas, Moses, and Morton Smith. Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity. Freeport, N.Y., 1970.

Jaspers, Karl. Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The Paradigmatic Individuals. New York, 1962.

Reynolds, Frank E., and Donald Capps, eds. The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion. The Hague, 1976. Includes an extensive bibliography on this and related topics. See especially Joseph M. Kitagawa's "Kūkai as Master and Savior" (pp. 319341) and my "The Death and 'Lives' of the Poet-Monk Saigyo: The Genesis of a Buddhist Sacred Biography" (pp. 343361).

Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 16261676. Princeton, 1973.

Waugh, Earle H. "Images of Muammad in the Work of Iqbal: Tradition and Alterations." History of Religions 23 (1983): 156168.

Williams, Michael A., ed. Charisma and Sacred Biography. Chico, Calif., 1982.

Wright, Arthur F. "Biography and Hagiography: Huei-chiao's Lives of Eminent Monks." In Silver Jubilee Volume of the Zinbun-Kagaku-Kenkyūsho, pp. 383432. Kyoto, 1954.

Wright, Arthur F. "Sui Yang-Ti: Personality and Stereotype." In his Confucianism and Chinese Civilization, pp. 158187. New York, 1964.

New Sources

Ashton, Gail. The Generation of Identity in Late Medieval Hagiography: Speaking the Saint. New York, 2000.

Greer, Allan, and Jodi Bilinkoff, eds. Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 15001800. New York, 2003.

Hahn, Cynthia J. Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Fifteenth Century. Berkeley, 2001.

Heffernan, Thomas J. Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographies in the Middle Ages. New York, 1988.

Mooney, Catherine M., ed. Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters. Philadelphia, 1999.

Schober, Juliane, ed. Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Honolulu, 1997.

Sharpe, Richard. Medieval Irish Saints' Lives: An Introduction to Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae. New York, 1991.

Szarmach, Paul. Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose saints' Lives and Their Contexts. Albany, 1996.

William R. Lafleur (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 21 2018


Between 1870 and 1920, biography was an unstable genre, and many questions surrounded the practice of it. Who, for example, deserved to be the subject of a biography? Should biographers present their subjects as unique individuals or as representative of something larger? Should they consider only the public lives of their subjects or their private lives as well? Should they attempt to elevate their subjects or should they "debunk" them by revealing their unknown shortcomings? Must a biography present a complete, linear narrative of a subject's life? Or should a biographer distill the essence of a subject's "inner life" using a few telling anecdotes? Such questions reflect the development of biography as a genre, but also circumstances that were specific to the cultural context of the United States.


In the broadest sense, modern biography reflects an abiding Western belief in the autonomy and importance of the individual. The genre emerged in part from the medieval Christian tradition of hagiography, that is, spiritual biography that presents the exemplary lives of saints so that believers might imitate them. Hagiography is not supposed to be strictly factual or objective; it presents idealized role models that help to construct and stabilize the values of the communities.

By the late eighteenth century, however, the values of the Enlightenment were encouraging greater objectivity in biographical writing. Secular biography sought to present factual, even scientific documentation of the actions of important figures in politics, exploration, science, and war in the emerging democratic nation-state. Secular biographies may have an exemplary character, but their importance to readers is presumed to lie less in the realm of faith than in their encouragement of civic progress. The main tendencies reflected in these two traditions—religious and secular, subjective and objective, idealistic and realistic, exemplary and individualized—were continually being renegotiated by communities of authors and audiences. The general development has been away from the religious traditions of hagiography. Nevertheless, both traditions supported a view that individual lives were worth documenting for the instruction of future generations.

The circumstances of postcolonial cultural nationalism in the United States after the Revolution—coupled with the uneven spread of Enlightenment secularism to relatively isolated rural communities—meant that hagiographical writing persisted well into the nineteenth century, particularly in education and religious culture. After the Civil War, the assassinated Abraham Lincoln became the great exemplar of national virtues. Of course, there was a note of Northern triumphalism in this celebration of the Rail-splitter, but Lincoln was also a better model of the self-made man than the slave-owning George Washington, whom he replaced as a favorite subject of biography. Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–1899), author of the best-selling Ragged Dick series (beginning in 1868), applied the rags-to-riches template to Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy; or, How a Young Rail-Splitter Became President (1883). After President James Garfield was assassinated, Alger wrote a companion volume: From Canal Boy to President; or, The Boyhood and Manhood of James A. Garfield (1881). Similar popular volumes about Garfield as a self-made man and secular saint were written by James S. Brisbin, James Dabney McCabe, William R. Thayer, and many others. Of course, the somewhat priggish version of American presidents inflicted on generations of schoolchildren probably did much to encourage a complete rejection of the vestiges of the hagiographical tradition toward the end of the nineteenth century. These popular biographies would provide writers with a tradition to define themselves against, particularly in the so-called Gilded Age when the notion of a saintly politician seemed cloying and that of the self-made man a misguided justification of the excesses of capitalism.


While popular biographies reached large segments of the reading public by presenting simplified and idealized subjects, so-called monumental biographies were often unreadable compendiums of ill-digested letters and diaries presented chronologically within their historical context. With titles such as "Life and Times" or "Life and Letters," these biographies occupied several volumes and were ponderous in style as well as heft. If scrupulously edited, monumental biographies could be valuable repositories of primary documents. More often, these documents were selected, edited, and in some cases revised to suit the interests of the compilerbiographer. Readers were frequently left to extract their own interpretations from the mass of material and most had little interest in doing so.

Monumental biographies usually took many years to write because of the difficulty in gaining access to papers and permission to publish their contents. Unlike popular biographies, written on short notice to meet market demand, a monumental biography generally could not be produced until a generation or more had passed since the death of its subject. Most of the more reliable monumental biographies of revolutionary figures were not published until well into the nineteenth century. For example, William W. Henry published Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches in three volumes in 1891. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, subjects' writings in such biographies increasingly tended to be presented in more complete form, particularly as close associates and relatives ceased to have control of the documents. Indeed, at that time an author's close association with the subject of a monumental biography was thought to undermine its claims to objectivity. This was particularly true when the biographer was a family member, friend, employee, or political associate.

Lincoln's secretaries, John G. Nicolay (1832–1901) and John Hay (1838–1905), collaborated for nearly fifteen years to write Abraham Lincoln: A History (10 vols., 1890). The biography was serialized in the popular Century Magazine (1886–1890), earning its authors the enormous sum of fifty thousand dollars. Nicolay and Hay were careful to avoid the shortcomings of Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (1889), which considered Lincoln's religious unorthodoxy, his stormy marriage, and his youthful romances. Instead of personal anecdote, Nicolay and Hay relied as much as possible on documentary evidence, although many of Lincoln's papers were under the control of Robert Lincoln, who insisted on his right to dictate the interpretation of materials. Unlike William Henry Herndon (1818–1891), Nicolay and Hay spent little time on Lincoln's obscure youth; eight of the ten volumes focus on the Civil War. Their work was partisan, favoring the North and the Republican Party, and Lincoln was clearly presented as a heroic figure. Still, Abraham Lincoln: A History, although not monumental in scale, reflected an ongoing shift toward more interpretive forms of biographical writing.

Although the Nicolay and Hay biography was an important publication, monumental biographies for the most part were the literary equivalent of Grant's Tomb: structures so grandiose that one could scarcely remember who was buried inside. Of course, there was an economic incentive behind their size: subscriptions for two-volume biographies were more profitable than over-the-counter sales of single volumes. To judge from the many extant copies of monumental biographies with pristine pages, the vast majority of these works were never read by the owners who displayed them. Eminently respectable, they were biographies as furniture, signifiers of middle-class status. After World War I, monumental biographies would come to represent everything that was stodgy and hypocritical about the Victorian era.

In Eminent Victorians (1918), Lytton Strachey (1890–1932) complained of

those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead—who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, the lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortege of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism. (Altick, p. 281)

Although they are often useful as scholarly resources, few monumental biographies could be regarded as literary, and, from the start, they coexisted with—and perhaps contributed to—the desire for shorter, more readable, and more analytic biographies by disinterested professional writers.


James Parton (1822–1891) was the first professional biographer in the United States; he invented the role as the market for biography was growing, but he also helped to create the market. He was not a hagiographer or a didactic nationalist, nor was he an associate of the famous or a specialist in a single figure like Nicolay and Hay. Parton attempted to capture the "inner life" of his subjects in deft strokes rather than overwhelming his readers with extensive documentation. Most of all, he wanted to elevate biography to a literary art, a hybrid of history and novel. Parton could adapt his style to the North American Review as well as to the New York Ledger, and the various forms his biographies took—multiple volumes, single volumes, shorter pieces for literary magazines, and popular articles for newspapers—catered to different kinds of readers.

Parton did not reduce the complexity of his subjects to suit a preconceived didactic purpose. He cited extensive printed sources and conducted interviews. His methods were historical, but his prose was journalistic, even literary, uncovering mysteries about his subjects. He used dramatic license such as invented dialogue and paced the narrative to maintain reader interest. In that sense, Parton pursued the connection between biography and the bildungsroman, a novel that describes a protagonist's moral or intellectual development. But Parton did not regard himself as a fiction writer, still less as a sensationalist. He refused to repeat unsubstantiated rumors, even on matters of substance, such as Aaron Burr's reputation as a womanizer.

For his subjects, Parton generally chose American figures who were already well known. His career began with Horace Greeley (1855), a biography that presented its subject as a virtuous, self-made man. It was remarkable in part because Greeley was still alive, but it rose above adulation by virtue of Parton's in-depth research. He followed Horace Greeley with The Life and Times of Aaron Burr (1858, enlarged to two volumes in 1864), which was also extensively researched and supplemented by interviews. In each case, Parton claimed he wanted to discover the complex inner man, not just present the public record. Burr, for example, is depicted as a morally flawed political visionary with many redeeming qualities. Parton's subsequent biographies—The Life of Andrew Jackson (3 vols., 1860–1861) and The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2 vols., 1864)—were even more extensively supported with quotation and documentation, but they also demonstrated Parton's flair for storytelling. The success of these works made Parton the foremost American biographer in the 1860s. Atlantic Monthly praised him as a literary artist, and biography began to establish itself as a distinct genre, a mixture of history and literature.

In 1893, shortly after this pioneer's death, McClure's Magazine published "James Parton's Rules of Biography." In this essay, Parton explained his techniques: research your subjects thoroughly; do not eulogize them; keep events in perspective; and hold back nothing that the reader has a right to know. The biographer's job was not to provide moral instruction but to satisfy curiosity about the subject's life. "The great charm of all biography," according to Parton, "is the truth, told simply, directly, boldly, charitably" (p. 59). But Parton had a complex view of human behavior: "A human character is complicated. It is often inconsistent with itself, and it requires nice judgment to proportion it in such a way as to make the book correspond with the man" (p. 59). Such views mark Parton as an antecedent of biographers who sought to reveal the psychological complexity of their subjects, and his status would remain high in the late nineteenth century, when most biographies written by his generation were ridiculed.


One of the factors influencing biographers such as Parton to explore the "inner life" of their subjects was the growth and spread of literary romanticism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Romanticism broadened who could be considered worthy of biography; it stressed the importance of individuals of "genius," who could be figures such as Washington or Napoleon but also writers and artists. In the American context, the exceptional individual was often seen as what Ralph Waldo Emerson called a "Representative Man," one who embodied the virtues of his time and place. Sainthood and the notion of the self-made man were reframed in the Romantic era as a quest for "character," a search for individuality. There was also a nationalistic quality to American literary biography, which sought to demonstrate that the United States could produce individuals of genius as well as successful practical men.

Literary biographies were frequently written in the monumental style by family members for a middle-class audience, and many of these are little more than letters strung together with brief transitions. Examples of this genre include Samuel Longfellow's Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Extracts from His Journals and Correspondence (3 vols., 1886) and Charles Edward Stowe's Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1899). One of the more notable examples is Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife: A Biography (2 vols., 1884), compiled by their son, Julian Hawthorne (1846–1934). Julian's avowed purpose was to shed light on his parents' celebrated marriage rather than to assert the literary merit of such works as The Scarlet Letter (1850). His method was to let the subjects "speak for themselves whenever possible," and Julian claims he did not "err on the side of reticence," though, he adds, "there was nothing to be hidden" (p. 1). He included long quotations from his father's unpublished letters, but he also edited the letters to suit the portrait he wished to present. The decision to depict a marriage was a remarkable endorsement in literary history of the value of private, romantic relationships, and, though the biography is generally positive, it also presents the psychological difficulty of being the child of a famous writer.

Biographies by the close friends and family members of authors were often highly flattering of subjects whose deaths the writers were still mourning. William Ellery Channing's recollections in Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist (1873) presents the author of Walden (1854) as a modern-day Saint Francis. Such works were an invaluable resource for subsequent biographers, but the living guardians of an author's reputation were also an impediment to increasingly professionalized scholars seeking to write more objective biographies. In his novella The Aspern Papers (1888), Henry James (1843–1916) presents the heirs of a famous Romantic poet as hindering serious research rather than serving

Henry James's The Aspern Papers (1888) describes the efforts of an American biographer to obtain a bundle of letters written by Jeffrey Aspern, a fictional romantic author based on Lord Byron. The letters are in the possession of an elderly former lover of the poet and guarded by her niece who, ultimately, will not surrender them to anyone besides the man who agrees to become her husband. The biographer is faced with a choice between his private happiness and his desire to document the life of his favorite author.

The world, as I say, had recognized Jeffrey Aspern, but Cumnor and I had recognized him most. The multitude, today, flocked to his temple, but of that temple he and I regarded ourselves as the ministers. We held, justly, as I think, that we had done more for his memory than anyone else, and we had done it by opening lights into his life. He had nothing to fear from us because he had nothing to fear from the truth, which alone at such a distance of time we could be interested in establishing. His early death had been the only dark spot in his life, unless the papers in Miss Bordereau's hands should perversely bring out others. There had been an impression about 1825 that he had "treated her badly," just as there had been an impression that he had "served," as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way. Each of these cases Cumnor and I had been able to investigate, and we had never failed to acquit him conscientiously of shabby behavior. I judged him perhaps more indulgently than my friend; certainly, at any rate, it appeared to me that no man could have walked straighter in the given circumstances. These were almost always awkward. Half the women of his time, to speak liberally, had flung themselves at his head, and out of this pernicious fashion many complications, some of them grave, had not failed to arise . . .

. . . Every one of Aspern's contemporaries had, according to our belief, passed away; we had not been able to look into a single pair of eyes into which his had looked or to feel a transmitted contact in any aged hand that his had touched. Most dead of all did poor Miss Bordereau appear, and yet she alone had survived. We exhausted in the course of months our wonder that we had not found her out sooner, and the substance of our explanation was that she had kept so quiet. The poor lady on the whole had had reason for doing so. But it was a revelation to us that it was possible to keep so quiet as that in the latter half of the nineteenth century—the age of newspapers and telegrams and photographs and interviewers. And she had taken no great trouble about it either: she had not hidden herself away in an undiscoverable hole; she had boldly settled down in a city of exhibition. The only secret of her safety that we could perceive was that Venice contained so many curiosities that were greater than she. And then accident had somehow favored her, as was shown for example in the fact that Mrs. Prest had never happened to mention her to me, though I had spent three weeks in Venice—under her nose, as it were—five years before. Mrs. Prest had not mentioned this much to anyone; she appeared almost to have forgotten she was there. Of course she had not the responsibilities of an editor. It was no explanation of the old woman's having eluded us to say that she lived abroad, for our researches had again and again taken us (not only by correspondence but by personal inquiry) to France, to Germany, to Italy, in which countries, not counting his important stay in England, so many of the too few years of Aspern's career were spent. We were glad to think at least that in all our publishings (some people consider I believe that we have overdone them), we had only touched in passing and in the most discreet manner on Miss Bordereau's connection. Oddly enough, even if we had had the material (and we often wondered what had become of it), it would have been the most difficult episode to handle.

Henry James, "The Aspern Papers," in Complete Stories, 1884–1891 (New York: Library of America, 1999), pp. 230–232.

as useful collaborators. Relatives of biographical subjects might make access to their letters conditional on some distortion of the full truth; they might seek to sanitize the historical record or conceal crucial documents, which could surface later to the embarrassment of the biographer. As romanticism gave way to realism in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a need for more disinterested, authoritative analyses of authors who could establish a national canon by reaching a wide audience.

Inspired by the English Men of Letters series (1878–1884), the American Men of Letters series was edited by Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900). The series began with Warner's Washington Irving in 1881 and by 1904 twenty-two volumes in all had appeared. Published as a uniform series with the more successful American Statesmen series, they were a collectible pantheon of American authors such as N. P. Willis, Margaret Fuller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the more remarkable volumes in the series was George Woodberry's Edgar Allan Poe (1885). Woodberry (1855–1930) called himself a "documentary biographer" and regarded his research as almost scientific in its precision. He conducted research more thoroughly than any previous Poe biographer and corrected Rufus Griswold's defamatory portrait that had persisted since the 1840s. Woodberry's Poe was not a tragic Romantic figure so much as a talented writer ruined by moral shortcomings. Woodbury, along with several other writers in the American Men of Letters series, moved literary biography away from personal reminiscence and closer to modern research and criticism.

The success of the American Statesmen series and some volumes in the American Men of Letters inspired other series such as American Crisis Biographies, American Worthies, American Men of Progress, Men of Achievement, Great Commanders, and the short Beacon Biographies (31 vols., 1899–1910), edited by M. A. DeWolfe Howe. The Beacon Biographies were cheaply priced and pocket-size; they came with a portrait, a chronology, and a bibliography. They treated literary figures (James Fenimore Cooper, Emerson, Hawthorne), statesmen (Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln), military leaders (Ulysses S. Grant, David Farragut, Robert E. Lee), and scientists (Louis Agassiz, John Audubon, Samuel Morse). The purpose of the series, according to Howe, was to provide brief, readable, and accurate accounts of important Americans in a variety of fields for a wide audience. The spread of such biographies reflected a convergence of conventions in a genre that had once been clearly divided between the hagiographic popular forms and the more documentary monumental forms.


Even as biographies of a single subject began to establish some generic norms, new forms of biographical writing proliferated. Group biographies, for example, describe the interactions of a subject with other individuals. They may include anecdotes, remembered conversations, and exchanges of letters, among other elements. They are not comprehensive but instead re-create the web of relationships that defines an intellectual or social coterie. Henry James's William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903) describes a cluster of individuals who had dealings with the nineteenth-century American sculptor. James says the "subject is the period—it is the period that holds the elements together, rounds them off, makes them right" (Parke, p. 112). Other group biographies published near this time include James Russell Lowell and His Friends (1899), by Edward Everett Hale; Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900), by William Dean Howells; and Authors and Friends (1896), by Annie Fields.

Collective biographies are usually arranged thematically or alphabetically. Following the British Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1901), edited by Leslie Stephen, Appleton's National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1887–1889) aspired to be a comprehensive biographical dictionary, including founding fathers, patriots, and individuals of note up to the present time. The authoritative Dictionary of American Biography was first published in 1928 and continues to be updated. Directories such as Who's Who in America (1899–), founded by A. N. Marquis, began with 8,600 names and included only basic data (education, career, honors, memberships). Who's Who helped to define the regional, national, and professional elite. Indeed, having one's biographical sketch published in a reference work became so desirable that people sometimes paid for the privilege.

Local histories often included biographical volumes; in many cases, historical discourse proper was eliminated altogether in favor of biographical sketches of leading local citizens. These so-called mug books were a means for the rising middle-class to establish its legitimacy. The subscription agent was often the writer, and subjects paid a fee for the biographical sketches based on their length. These circumstances were never mentioned in the publication itself. Larger regional books such as Hubert Howe Bancroft's Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth (1891) included only figures who had paid at least a thousand dollars to be included. Undoubtedly, mug books have value as regional histories, but their primary market was the subjects themselves, who regarded a printed biography as proof that they had "arrived." Mug books confirm there was an ongoing belief in the self-made man and in the importance of local communities.

During this period, however, novelists such as William Dean Howells (1837–1920) questioned the reality of the conventional rags-to-riches narrative that characterized nearly every American biography. Howells was a rags-to-riches story himself, but he came to see social mobility as a source of unhappiness and social disorder and as out of reach for most Americans. His novel A Modern Instance (1882) depicts the rise of a journalist from youthful poverty to professional success at the cost of his moral character and eventually his life. The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) demonstrates the costs of rapid social mobility, showing how the behavior of the upper classes cannot simply be learned; even in America, the upwardly mobile individual is always an interloper. For Howells, the democratization of biography was one way that the illusion of the self-made man was perpetuated at the expense of social reforms.


As the twentieth century approached, biographers began to respond to the ideas of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herbert Spencer. Less subject to the conditions of the immediate postcolonial period and its concern with nation-building, biographers in the Progressive Era began to question received wisdom about figures such as Washington and Lincoln. Although the "Great Man" approach remained popular in schools and among the general public, professional historians now tended to emphasize large-scale social forces over individuals. Literary realism also rejected the idea of heroism in favor of more accurate representations of human behavior based on the insights of science, economics, and psychology.

The True George Washington (1896) and The Many-Sided Franklin (1899), both by Paul Leicester Ford (1865–1902), were not comprehensive biographies arranged chronologically so much as a series of topical essays. The Franklin biography, for example, includes chapters titled "Physique: Theories and Appetites," "Relations with the Fair Sex," and "The Scientist." Other biographies reappraised national heroes such as Thomas Jefferson, William Penn, and Andrew Jackson. What were called "true" biographies sought to "humanize" their subjects by investigating themes absent in the more linear, comprehensive biographies By contrast, "real" biographies attempted to debunk their subjects, which they regarded as inflated and sanitized. Charles L. C. Minor's The Real Lincoln (1901) uses contemporary accounts to demonstrate that Lincoln invoked Christianity hypocritically and supported the abolition of slavery inconsistently for his own political advantage. Both the "true" and the "real" approaches encouraged the unauthorized publication of private letters, investigative reporting by muckraking journalists, and exposés by former employees and associates (who were well compensated for their information). Ida M. Tarbell (1857–1944), the author of The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln (1896), portrayed John D. Rockefeller as a corrupt monopolist in her History of the Standard Oil Company (1904). Tarbell showed how the ideal of the American self-made man embodied by Lincoln was out of reach for the average American in an age of unregulated capitalism and incipient class warfare.

The New Biography earned a bad name for itself among some readers, who regarded it as unpatriotic sensationalism at best. Owen Wister (1860–1938) attempted directly to refute the debunkers in adulatory biographies such as The Seven Ages of Washington (1907). M. A. DeWolfe Howe (1864–1960) drew on the monumental tradition, basing his lives on excerpts from letters, but, in works such as Phillips Brooks (1899), Life and Letters of George Bancroft (2 vols., 1908), Letters of Charles Eliot Norton (1913), Memories of a Hostess (1922), and Barrett Wendell (1924), his writing was more interpretive and more willing to explore sympathetically the complexities of his subjects. Similarly, biographies by William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923) such as The Life and Letters of John Hay (1915) and Theodore Roosevelt, An Intimate Biography (1919) offered insight into the private lives of his subjects, but in doing so the author attempted to demonstrate the authenticity of the virtues displayed in their public lives. Roosevelt, he argued, was above all "pledged to Righteousness" (p. ix).

Thayer described his methods in a series of lectures called The Art of Biography (1920). He sought a compromise between idolatry and debunking, between hagiography and the New Biography. Thayer believed that everything about a subject's life should be open to investigation, but the results of this investigation should be interpreted in a novelistic manner. "The scientific method," he writes, "defeated its purpose by substituting material and mechanical standards for the spiritual. Science can vivisect bodies, but up to the present the soul of man eludes the microscope and the scalpel" (Novarr, p. 22). Thayer laments that the biographers of his era emphasized historical and natural forces above the unique qualities of the individual, which, according to him, it is the sole task of the biographer to describe. For Thayer, the biographer was ultimately an intuitive artist more than a historian, scientist, or political activist.


Gamaliel Bradford (1863–1932) was one of the most prominent and influential biographers of the early twentieth century. In addition to full-length biographies such as Lee the American (1912), he wrote more than a hundred substantial character sketches, which were collected in Types of American Character (1895), Confederate Portraits (1914), Union Portraits (1916),

By the mid-1880s, biographical sketches of leading citizens had fallen into a generic rut. Quick-sketch biographers, often compilers of mug books, had become a species of literary professional, though one of embarrassingly low rank for those with literary aspirations. Even the more naïve subjects of such mass-produced biographies—when not indulging their vanity—were self-conscious about the rigid conventions of the self-made man tradition.

When Bartley Hubbard went to interview Silas Lapham for the "Solid Men of Boston" series, which he undertook to finish up in "The Events," after he replaced their original projector on that newspaper, Lapham received him in his private office by previous appointment.

. . . "I don't know as I know just where you want me to begin," said Lapham.

"Might begin with your birth; that's where most of us begin," replied Bartley.

A gleam of humorous appreciation shot into Lapham's blue eyes.

"I didn't know whether you wanted me to go quite so far back as that," he said. "But there's no disgrace in having been born. . . . I was born on a farm, and—"

"Worked in the fields summers and went to school winters: regulation thing?" Bartley cut in.

"Regulation thing," said Lapham, accepting this irreverent version of his history somewhat dryly.

"Parents poor, of course," suggested the journalist. "Any barefoot business? Early deprivations of any kind, that would encourage the youthful reader to go and do likewise? Orphan myself, you know," said Bartley, with a smile of cynical good-comradery.

Lapham looked at him silently, and then said with quiet self-respect, "I guess if you see these things as a joke, my life won't interest you."

"Oh yes, it will," returned Bartley, unabashed. "You'll see; it'll come out all right." And in fact it did so, in the interview which Bartley printed.

"Mr. Lapham," he wrote, "passed rapidly over the story of his early life, its poverty and its hardships, sweetened, however, by the recollections of a devoted mother, and a father who, if somewhat her inferior in education, was no less ambitious for the advancement of his children. They were quiet, unpretentious people, religious, after the fashion of that time, and of sterling morality, and they taught their children the simple virtues of the Old Testament and Poor Richard's Almanac."

Bartley could not deny himself this gibe; but he trusted to Lapham's unliterary habit of mind for his security in making it, and most other people would consider it sincere reporter's rhetoric.

"You know," he explained to Lapham, "that we have to look at all these facts as material, and we get the habit of classifying them. Sometimes a leading question will draw out a whole line of facts that a man himself would never think of."

. . . "Yes, sir," said Lapham, in a strain which Bartley was careful not to interrupt again, "a man never sees all that his mother has been to him till it's too late to let her know that he sees it. Why, my mother—" he stopped. "It gives me a lump in the throat," he said apologetically, with an attempt at a laugh. Then he went on: "She was a little frail thing, not bigger than a good-sized intermediate schoolgirl; but she did the whole work of a family of boys, and boarded the hired men besides. She cooked, swept, washed, ironed, made and mended from daylight till dark—and from dark till daylight, I was going to say; for I don't know how she got any time for sleep. But I suppose she did. She got time to go to church, and to teach us to read the Bible, and to misunderstand it in the old way. She was good. But it ain't her on her knees in church that comes back to me so much like the sight of an angel as her on her knees before me at night, washing my poor, dirty little feet, that I'd run bare in all day, and making me decent for bed. There were six of us boys; it seems to me we were all of a size; and she was just so careful with all of us. I can feel her hands on my feet yet!". . . "We were patched all over; but we wa'n't ragged. I don't know how she got through it.

. . . Bartley hid a yawn over his note-book. . . . [He] had learned to practise a patience with his victims which he did not always feel, and to feign an interest in their digressions till he could bring them up with a round turn.

William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham, in Novels, 1875–1886: A Foregone Conclusion, A Modern Instance, Indian Summer, and The Rise of Silas Lapham (New York: Library of America, 1982), pp. 861–864.

Portraits of Women (1916), A Naturalist of Souls (1917) American Portraits, 1875–1900 (1922), and Damaged Souls (1923), his most popular work. Bradford called these sketches "psychographs" and they reflected the influence of Marx's materialist approach to history, Darwin's theory of natural selection, and, most of all, Freud's theories about the unconscious and the importance of childhood development. Bradford thought of psychography as a genre separate from biography. Psychography emphasized the inner self, the "soul" of the subject, which the author abstracted from the whirl of external events. Bradford was an exhaustive researcher but, like Parton and Thayer, he thought of himself as a literary artist informed by science. He too was wary of scientific or psychological generalizations that tended to reduce the uniqueness of individual human "character." Bradford was not interested in long sequences of facts; instead, he paid great attention to small but revealing details such as Freudian slips. "A careless word, spoken with no intention whatever," he writes, "may fling open a wide window into a man's inmost heart" (Biography and the Human Heart, p. 7).

In Lee the American, Bradford says that his aim was to "give a clear, consistent, sympathetic portrait of a great soul," and the focus is on the development of Lee's character rather than his accomplishments as a general (p. vii). Bradford gives notable attention to Lee's "Great Decision" to side with the Confederacy; he presents the conflicted inner man, not the marble statue of Lee, which is the "sort of thing that made Washington odious to the young and remote from the mature for generations," he writes (p. 25). Ultimately, Bradford's portrait of Lee is not iconoclastic; he presents Lee's life as a noble tragedy.

While some biographers were smashing the idols (Strachey) and others were trying to restore them unblemished (Wister), in works such as Damaged Souls Bradford attempted to rehabilitate figures with tarnished reputations: Benedict Arnold, Thomas Paine, Aaron Burr, John Brown, P. T. Barnum. According to Bradford, his purpose was to "bring out their real humanity and show that, after all, they have something of the same strength and weakness as all of us" (p. 4). His sketch of Barnum the showman and circus promoter, is deft, balanced, and largely positive. It is well researched, though not exhaustive or scholarly in tone, and, while Bradford praises Barnum as a purveyor of entertainment and a pioneer in advertising, he also shows his subject's lack of sensitivity toward the people he exhibited as freaks.

On the whole, Bradford's subjects emerged as complex human beings, but the author's psychoanalytic diagnoses were as much a reflection of the analyst's mind as of the subject's psychology. In that sense, "psychography," like the New Biography that preceded it, sought to be more objective without becoming ponderous, but ultimately it represented yet another negotiation between the ultimately unknowable reality of the subject and the organizing power of the biographer.

See alsoHistory; Success


Primary Works

Bradford, Gamaliel. Biography and the Human Heart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.

Bradford, Gamaliel. Damaged Souls. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Bradford, Gamaliel. Lee the American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.

Hawthorne, Julian. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892.

Parton, James. "James Parton's Rules of Biography." McClure's Magazine 1 (June 1893): 59–62.

Thayer, William Roscoe. Theodore Roosevelt: An Intimate Biography. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1919.

Secondary Works

Altick, Richard D. Lives and Letters: A History of LiteraryBiography in England and America. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Amigoni, David. Victorian Biography: Intellectuals and theOrdering of Discourse. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Casper, Scott E. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Cawelti, John G. Apostles of the Self-Made Man: ChangingConcepts of Success in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Cockshut, A. O. J. Truth to Life: The Art of Biography in theNineteenth Century. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Cunliffe, Marcus, ed. The Life of Washington, by Mason Locke Weems. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Dargan, Marion. Guide to American Biography: Part II,1815–1933. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952.

Flower, Milton E. James Parton, the Father of ModernBiography. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1951.

Merrill, Dana Kinsman. American Biography: Its Theory andPractice. Portland, Maine: Bowker Press, 1957.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Biography: Fact, Fiction, and Form. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Novarr, David. The Lines of Life: Theories of Biography,1880–1970. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1986.

O'Neill, Edward H. Biography by Americans, 1658–1936: ASubject Bibliography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1939.

O'Neill, Edward H. A History of American Biography,1800–1935. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935.

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

Peterson, Merrill D. Lincoln in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Gamaliel Bradford. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

William Pannapacker


views updated May 29 2018


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.

Ancient Biography

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. 145c. 85 b.c.e.) included short character sketches, anecdotes, and dialogue between archetypal subjects. The historian Ban Gu (formerly transliterated as Pan Ku, 3192 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. 490c. 421 b.c.e.) wrote quasi-biographical character sketches of eminent figures such as Pericles and Sophocles. Xenophon (c. 431c. 352 b.c.e.) wrote a life of Cyrus (c. 365 b.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. 100c. 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. 46after 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. 56c. 120 c.e.) and Suetonius (c. 69after 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. 106113; 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. 347419 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 (538594), Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731), and later Einhard's Life of Charlemagne (c. 829836; 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 (13541355; 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 (13551374; On the fall of illustrious men) and De claris mulieribus (13601374; On famous women), the first collection of women's lives. Partly in response to Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus, Christine de Pisan (1364c. 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. 14321436), by Margery Kempe (c. 1373c. 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. 13811382; 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 (14961578) wrote the Life of Sir Thomas More and George Cavendish (15001561?) 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. 15401614) 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 (1620after 1675) and The Life of William Cavendish (1667) by Margaret Cavendish (16231673). Some important biographical works were the five lives of eminent figures by Izaak Walton (15931683), the Lives of Eminent Men by John Aubrey (16261697), the diary of Samuel Pepys (16331703), and Roger North's Lives of the Norths (17421744). 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 (18371838), 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, 18591894). 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 (18851967). 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 (18601935) 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 preCivil 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.

See also Autobiography ; Genre ; Literature .



Ban Gu (Pan Ku). The History of the Former Han Dynasty. 3 vols. Translated by Homer H. Dubs. Baltimore, Md.: Waverly Press; and Ithaca, N.Y.: Spoken Language Services, Inc., 19381955. Translation of the Han shu.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Life of Dante. 13541355. Translated by Vincenzo Zin Bollettino. New York: Garland, 1990. Translation of Trattatello in laude di Dante.

Boswell, James. The Life of Johnson. 1791. Reprint, edited by George Birbeck Hill and L. F. Powell, Oxford: Clarendon, 1971. 4 vols.

Christine de Pisan. The Book of the City of Ladies. 1405. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea, 1998. Translation of Le livre de la cité des dames.

Jerome, St. On Illustrious Men. c. 392. Translated by Thomas P. Halton. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999. Translation of De viris illustribus.

Nanamoll, Bhikku. The Life of the Buddha. Seattle: Buddhist Publication Society, 2001. Translated from the Pali Canon.

Plutarch. Lives. Edited by Arthur Hugh Clough and translated by John Dryden. New York: Modern Library, 2001. 2 vols. Clough's 1864 revision of Dryden's 1683 translation.

Sima Quan (Ssu-ma Ch'ien). The Records of the Grand Historian of China. 2 vols. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961. Translations from the Shih-chih.

Strachey, Lytton. The Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, General Gordon. 1918. Reprint, London: Continuum, 2002.

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. c. 110 c.e. Translated by Robert Graves. London: Penguin, 2003.

Sylvester, Richard S., and Davis P. Harding, eds. Two Early Tudor Lives: "The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey," by George Cavendish [and] "The Life of Sir Thomas More," by William Roper. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962.

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Rev. ed. 1568. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. New York: Knopf, 1996.


Edel, Leon. Literary Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Frederick Liers


views updated May 14 2018




Biographical films, or biopics, depict the lives (or segments thereof) of past and present eminent, famous, and infamous people. The boundary between the biopic and other genres is fluid, since biography can include historical film, costume drama, musical, melodrama, western, crime film, social problem film, documentary, and so on. The biopic distinguishes itself by emphasizing the person rather than a history of an era, at least in its title. The genre is not static, but rather sensitive to cultural and social transformations involving nation and community, and its form and discourse alters over time. Biopics can be allegories of power, tributes to genius and talent, paradigms of economic success, or celebrations of nation formation and patriotism, or they can capitalize on transgressions of prescribed standards of social behavior (as in gangster films, social problem films, and docudramas). Biopics present their historical subjects by means of textual and intertextual strategies that draw on the predilections of the producer, the technological and economic resources of a studio, the likelihood of profitability, the style of a director, and the personae of stars, as well as on existing versions of social history, propaganda, or a particular ideology. The biopic bases its claims to authenticity on research—written histories of a period, biographies, diaries, journals, paintings, architecture, fashion—often relying on and crediting the work of historical advisers.

The classic form of the biopic is sensitive to direct and indirect forms of censorship, and the elimination or reworking of pertinent and sensitive data about the personal life of the biographical subject is a common feature of the genre that elicits criticism about its historical legitimacy. The biopic has been a catapult to stardom for some actors because it creates the illusion of a fit between the physical appearances, mannerisms, modes of speaking, and temperaments of the actor and the famous subject. Yet the use of a star can create a tension between the famous biographical subject and the fame of the star, contributing to the complexity of the portrait or creating problems of credibility. The style can follow the model of established generic formulas, veer in an avant-garde experimental direction, or assume an investigative and reflexive mode.


From Plutarch's Lives, and from Shakespeare's history plays, with their focus on the tragic fate of monarchs, to erudite and popular biographies, the fascination with the lives of the rich, the famous, and the infamous persists, as does the question of the source of this fascination. In the evolution of cinema, individuals of "consequence" were not slow to appear onscreen: short films were produced in the United States, France, Russia, and Italy, featuring monarchs, political dignitaries, military heroes, dancers, and celebrities. Early documentaries such as The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895), President McKinley Taking the Oath of Office, President McKinley Reviewing the Troops at the Pan American Exposition, and Funeral of President McKinley (all United States, 1901), The King and the Queen at the Royal Castle at Monza (Italy, 1897), The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (France, 1908), The Coronation of Czar Nicholas II (Russia, 1896), Queen Elizabeth (France, 1912), and Garibaldi and His Times (Italy, 1926) were vignettes of visual history, a harbinger of the power of the cinema to engage audiences with images of prominent people that previously they only could read about in books and, more unlikely, see at public ceremonies. These films assumed that the spectator had some prior knowledge of the subjects filmed, but the pleasure resided in the experience of actually seeing these noteworthy individuals. The main characteristic of these short films was their documentation, their soliciting of the spectator's attention, but they were not docudramas that developed the psychology and motivation of the biographical figures.

By the middle years of the twentieth century's second decade the cinema had turned from an artisanal mode of production to an industrial one with greater industrial and technological standardization. The opportunities for the creation of complex narratives were in place, and biopics such as Joan the Woman (1917), Madame Dubarry (1919), and Anna Boleyn (1920) became part of the cinematic landscape. What technological, economic, and formal changes meant for the biopic is seen in the lengthy Joan the Woman (125 minutes) by Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959). The film's creation of the historical context relied on huge panoramas based on replicas taken from paintings, sketches, lithographs, and photographs of villages, towers, castles, and cathedrals such as Rheims Cathedral, as well as on the use of weapons purchased from museums. Starring the opera diva Geraldine Farrar, the film was enhanced by hand-tinted shots and the use of double-exposure effects to convey her visions, and contrasts between her and the crowds. In presenting Joan as a young woman in love with a soldier who sacrifices herself to religious and national responsibility, DeMille constructed the biopic as a form of melodrama, employing monumental history that relied on spectacle to convey conflict between desire and duty, and the private and the public spheres.

Another version of Joan's life, contrasting sharply with the DeMille biopic, appeared a decade later. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968), signaled another direction for the biopic. This radical cinematic experiment eschewed the epic dimensions of DeMille's Hollywood melodrama, restricting the action to twenty-four hours in the life of the saint and minimizing the use of costumes, objects, and makeup. Dreyer's film focuses on Joan's trial and execution in numerous close-ups, creating a counterexample to expansive and spectacular forms of the biopic. A year earlier, Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (Abel Gance's Napoleon, 1927) presented yet another biopic and experimental treatment of epic, using every possible cinematic device including montage, tinting, split screen, superimpositions, dissolves, matte shots, and dramatic camera angles. The film followed the career of Napoléon Bonaparte from schoolboy to soldier, lover, revolutionary, and empire builder. Its historical sweep monumentalized Napoléon, and its encyclopedic depth established the biopic as a premier form of biography, history, and drama.


The advent of synchronized sound charted new directions for the biopic. More than announcing the arrival of sound on film, The Jazz Singer (1927) anticipated the marriage of the biopic and the musical, highlighting the lives and careers of musical impresarios, entertainers, and composers. The Great Ziegfeld (1936), produced by MGM, with lavish sets, song and dance numbers, guest appearances by popular entertainers, and the use of stars, memorialized the rise and fall of the impresario. Biopics documenting the lives of entertainers increased in number throughout the remainder of the interwar years; films about Johann Strauss, Victor Herbert, Vernon and Irene Castle, and Fanny Brice celebrated the overcoming of adversity through talent and perseverance, and, by implication, the role of cinema in bringing these figures to life on the screen. Images of landscape and architecture, paintings, costumes, and dialogue (and intertitles) all helped to create the historical milieu, and sound enhanced the depiction of the period through orchestral scores of classical music, the introduction of patriotic and folk songs, drum rolls, and sound effects pertaining to coronations, marriages, funerals, and military encounters. Musical leitmotifs heightened character or cued irony.

Biopics about monarchs, literary figures, and political and military leaders featured stars with impeccable acting credits from stage and film, including George Arliss (1868–1946) in Disraeli (1929), Voltaire (1933), and the Iron Duke (1934), and, in the late 1930s, Paul Muni (1895–1967) in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939). These films had a morally uplifting message and a tendency to humanize and universalize ethical commitment, social responsibility, and opposition to vested interests. The Arliss and Muni films had a theatricality that highlighted the acting style of the performer and their ability to impersonate the historical figure.

Biopics also featured popular female and transnational stars of the silent and early sound eras, notably Greta Garbo (1905–1990) in Mata Hari (1931) and Queen Christina (1933) and Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992) in The Scarlet Empress (1934). These films were tailored to their star images and to tie-ins between the films and contemporary fashion. Garbo's portrait of the Swedish queen capitalized on the monarch's bisexuality, ill-fated romance, and disdain for fame and power in a style that accentuated the star's legendary face, ambiguous sexual identity, and independence. Dietrich's portrait of the Russian empress fused the personae of the historical figure and the star, relying on Dietrich's publicized image in movie magazines and contemporary gossip as well as on the director's role in her creation.

The biopic is also associated with crime films of the late 1920s and 1930s. Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932) were thinly veiled, fictionalized accounts of the life of Al Capone that resulted in intensified demands for industry self-regulation. Thus the biopic played a role in the implementation of the Production Code, which was designed to regulate depictions of sex and criminality and to offer a moral image of the industry through commonly accepted and respectable models of moral behavior, appearance, and action.

Biopics of the interwar and World War II years were closely tied to discourses of nation formation. Abraham Lincoln (1930), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) depicted the transformation of an unprepossessing figure to an icon endowed with exceptional abilities and power. The casting of Walter Huston (1884–1950), Henry Fonda (1905–1982), and Raymond Massey (1896–1983), respectively, in the title roles identified them with these qualities. While the Lincoln biopics differ in the selection of the biographical events filmed, in the acting, and in the depictions of communities, the tendency of the films—most evident in Young Mr. Lincoln—is to mask the politics, presenting history as a moral parable or allegory about national unity. To develop the credibility of the historical context presented, the films include portraits of social institutions: the family, the local community, law, commerce, the military, and the government. History is visualized through costuming, photographs, landscapes, and printed documents, as well as reinforced through the uses of music and speeches.

Clive of India (1934), Rhodes of Africa (1936), Stanley and Livingstone (1939), which featured such prominent actors as Ronald Colman (1891–1958), Walter Huston, Spencer Tracy (1900–1967), and Cedric Hardwicke (1893–1964), are biopics concerned with issues of empire. Replete with images of maps, scenes of combat, trials, and oratory, these biopics romanticized the trials and the superhuman qualities of European men—entrepreneurs, expansionists, explorers, and colonizers—who undertook to civilize the "natives." Relying on the rhetoric of a benevolent imperialism, the films highlighted an "exotic" landscape, depicted hostile encounters with indigenous peoples, and underscored the protagonists' successful struggle to create peace and unity in an alien terrain despite the resistance of the natives. According to established conventions, it is not chance that determines these men's victory, but their resourcefulness and indomitable wills.


Directly or indirectly, the Hollywood wartime biopic justified national involvement in war, dramatizing the essentially peaceful and moral nature of the American male and distinguishing him from the enemy. Sergeant York (1941), starring Gary Cooper (1901–1961), is an example of the biopic's linking its biographical subject to national crises, and also of the genre's malleability to changing historical circumstances. Set during World War I but clearly making analogies with World War II, the film focuses on the transformation of an uneducated and problematic figure, a "hillbilly," to a wartime hero. Cooper's star image as a shy, modest, and inarticulate American male, slow but sure to rise to action, serves the demands of the York character and of the narrative's ideological designs. In a series of dramatic encounters with the community, his minister, and his military superiors, York fights a series of moral and personal battles that bring him finally to a spiritual conversion that enables him to renounce pacifism and serve the nation. Similarly, in The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Cooper reincarnates his star persona: Cooper takes on Gehrig's persona, but Gehrig becomes Cooper the star. Heroism is played down, becoming all the more prominent for its being muted. In its focus on Gehrig's fatal illness and his equanimity in facing death, the biopic offers a model of heroism transferable to the home front and battlefield, offering a strategy to cope with death. This self-effacing form of masculinity accords with a proper conception of stardom during the war and with the studio's conception of moral responsibility to its audiences at a critical time for the nation.

British biopics of wartime such as Young Mr. Pitt (1942), starring Robert Donat (1905–1958), are more polemic, drawing on allegory to create parallels between the Napoleonic wars and the war with the Nazis. Donat's portrait of Pitt is unmistakably hagiographic; Pitt becomes a martyr to the nation, a monument and testimonial to the British national character, and a figure of wisdom and sacrifice in the interests of national unity and mobilization.

A further development of the biopic came from the German cinema of the interwar and Nazi era, in which the illustrious man's view of history was deployed in the interests of propaganda. Among the biopics depicting the lives of monarchs, political leaders, artists, and scientists, the most notable were Friedrich Schiller (1940), Bismarck (1940), Ohm Krüger (1941), and Paracelsus (1943). These men of genius and prophetic vision realized heroism in the service of their nation against seemingly overwhelming odds. The film narratives are constructed with an escalation of conflicts involving private and public life that portray the protagonists' indomitable will and indefatigable ability to overcome the constraints of the commonplace and everyday world. Built on oppositions between life and fiction, escapism and realism, these biopics rely on the spectators' extratextual memories from schoolbooks, paintings, and architecture. The films utilize costume, musical accompaniment, period settings, props, makeup, and actor's poses to distinguish the individual from the mass.

Emil Jannings (1884–1950), known for his roles in such films as The Last Laugh (1924) and Variety (1935), lent his prestige to The Old and the Young King (1935) and Ohm Krüger. The protagonists of these films realize heroism in the service of their nation but in a manner that separates them and places them above the common people. Despite their ostensible similarity to the conventions of the Hollywood biopic, these biopics reversed the process of humanizing the historical protagonist, portraying him instead as a monument, an immortal being who has risen above history. While they are self-consciously intertextual and rely on conventions of the biographical film, these biopics are not reflexive about their uses of history and their status as film.


Post–World War II cinema focused on more contemporary biographical subjects—and on the audience as consumers of popular culture—and displayed a more overt reflexivity about its identity as historical spectacle. One direction for the biopic dealt with the lives of entertainers, particularly musicians, and sports figures, as The Babe Ruth Story (1948), The Great Caruso (1950), With a Song in My Heart (1952), The Glenn Miller Story (1953), and The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), about the actor Lon Chaney (1883–1930). The Great Caruso followed a chronological trajectory to underscore Caruso's "natural" genius, portraying his gradual rise to fame as a vindication of his talent in the face of social class distinctions and economic obstacles. The identification of the aspiring opera singer and movie star Mario Lanza (1921–1959) with Caruso signaled a shift in the ethnic clichés of Latinos as womanizers, exotic dancers, and gangsters; by contrast, Lanza's life and operatic career is integrated into mainstream American culture. His body, voice, and working-class credentials identified Lanza with the regeneration of the "American dream," as an exemplification of the power of "people's capitalism" touted in ads of the 1950s.

Concomitantly, the biopic began to portray eccentric literary figures whose scandalous heterosexual and homosexual behavior had been censored, omitted, or doctored in earlier forms of the genre (for example, in the 1946 biopic of Cole Porter, Night and Day). Biopics such as The Bad Lord Byron (1948) depicted the scandalous heterosexual affairs of the writer, and by 1960, The Green Carnation (1960), a biopic about Oscar Wilde, confronted the writer's homosexuality. Biopics about transgressive women were not new: Madame Dubarry, Queen Christina, and The Scarlet Empress, all from the 1930s, had portrayed the lives of "promiscuous" women. But the postwar biopic was inclined to focus on the scandalous behavior of less illustrious women, signaling the fusion of the biopic with the social problem film by linking marginal behavior to problematic social conditions. Susan Hayward (1918–1975), whose star image was associated with a stormy personal life that made headlines, appeared in two biopics that capitalized on her bad-girl image and best exemplified the fusion of genres. I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955) portrayed Lillian Roth's alcohol addiction, fall from fame, and personal recuperation. I Want to Live (1958) depicted "social misfit" Barbara Graham's connections to the underworld and her arrest, trial, and execution for murder; the film's tone is sympathetic, with scenes that portray her sexual encounters with men, her run-ins with the law, and the injustice of capital punishment. Yield to the Night (1956), another indictment of capital punishment, was a veiled story of Ruth Ellis, who was tried and executed for the murder of her lover. It featured Diana Dors (1931–1984), another female star identified with a turbulent and much publicized personal life.

Biopics about deranged, promiscuous, and violent women (and about homosexuals) survived into the 1980s. Dance with a Stranger (1985), another biopic about Ruth Ellis, focused on her working-class background, her struggles to survive economically with her son as a woman on her own, her exploitation by her upper-class lover David Blakely and his snobbish friends, the desperation that led her to shoot and kill Blakely, the drama of her trial, and her sentence to death by hanging. Prick Up Your Ears (1987) portrayed the unstable, and ultimately violent, homosexual relationship of the gifted playwright Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, which resulted in Orton's death. Other biopics portrayed corruption in high places (for example, Scandal, 1988). The tempestuous relationship between the writer T. S. Eliot with his mentally unstable first wife, Vivian, was dramatized in Tom and Viv (1994). If these biopics were a form of social history, they were indicative of the intertextual character of the biopic as it engaged with the effects of contemporary politics, the ongoing struggles of the film industry in the international market, the impact of television with its endless sensational reportage, and changing discourses of sexual, national, and gendered identity.

Television offers another opportunity to experiment with biography. In addition to his 1950 film about St. Francis, Francesco guillare di deo (Francis, God's Jester, 1950), which was an antihagiographic treatment of the saint, Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977) directed for television The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966), in which the king is likened to a theatrical director who transforms social life into spectacle. Ken Russell (b. 1927), a prolific director of biographical television programs and films, has also experimented with the form, in Elgar (1962), The Music Lovers (1971), Lisztomania (1975), and Valentino (1977).

Hitler: A Film from Germany (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 1977) and Marlene (Maximilian Schell, 1983) are other alternative treatments of biography on film. Using a montage of clips from films, commentaries and monologues by various personages, impersonations, fictional figures, cartoons, documentary footage, allusions to legends, pornography, and inserts of icons, Hitler is a critical investigation of the German nation and the media that created Hitler. The ostensible subject becomes a vehicle for the deconstruction of the individual "great man" and a depiction of the legendary sources of his construction. Marlene avoids images of the dying diva, but through dubbed narration (as if she were already dead) becomes a meditation on the biopic and death, on relations between filmmaker and biographical subject, and on film as history. Similarly, the Hong Kong film Centre Stage (1991) is an index to contemporary reconstructions of the biopic in its uses of Brechtian distancing, its creation of multiple viewing positions, and its investigative probing of the clichés of public fame, authenticity, and the conventional biopic's treatment of time, narration, memory, and history.

The Hollywood biopic has continued to thrive in the films of Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), Spike Lee (b. 1957), and Oliver Stone (b. 1946). Schindler's List (1993), a blockbuster biopic and a contribution to the growing number of films (and works of critical literature) that memorialize the Holocaust, does not foreground familiar Nazis (though some are present). Rather, the biopic follows the fortunes of a benign member of the Nazi party, Oskar Schindler, a savior of many Jews whose altruism is the pretext for this elegiac treatment of the Holocaust. Malcolm X (1992) follows the familiar narrative trajectory of the biopic, portraying Malcolm's early brushes with the law, his conversion to Islam, and his rise to prominence, as well as the opposition to him that results in his assassination. As a biopic that purports to create an image of the man and his era, the film also situates Malcolm in the context of Black Power, the struggle against racism, and as a contrast to Martin Luther King Jr.

b. Southampton, England, 3 July 1927

Ken Russell has had a multifaceted career as a dancer, photographer, actor, and producer-director at the BBC, where he was responsible for a series of artist biographies including Elgar (1962), Bartok (1964), and The Debussy Film (1965). French Dressing (1963) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967) were his first films, but it was Women in Love (1969) that marked his coming out as a controversial British filmmaker. Based on D. H. Lawrence's novel and starring Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, and Oliver Reed, it revealed Russell's highly theatrical style and his use of visually compelling images of the eroticized body. Russell would return to Lawrence in a 1989 adaptation of The Rainbow with the same stars.

Russell's fascination with the gothic and with sexually transgressive subjects continued in The Devils (1971), his adaptation of Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, this study of corruption by church and state outraged critics with its visually vivid sensual depiction of sadistic and masochistic sexuality in a seventeenth-century French convent. The Music Lovers (1971), a musical biopic, probed Tchaikovsky's creativity through a stylized and theatrical depiction of the composer's incestuous and homosexual relationships. Mahler (1974), a film about another tormented composer with whom Russell identified, treated its subject in grotesque and dreamlike images and revealed the filmmaker's self-reflexive investment in his biopics. Lisztomania (1975) uses fantasy, horror, satire, and intertextual allusions to other films and composers in its depiction of Franz Liszt as a precursor of the rock star.

Maintaining the focus on fame and popular culture, The Boy Friend (1972) is an homage to Hollywood's Busby Berkeley, while Tommy (1975) is a countercultural classic, a rock opera about youth, stardom, and the fusion of popular music and cinema. Unlike the exuberant style of Lisztomania, Valentino (1977), another star biopic, explores the legend of the star Rudolph Valentino in a sympathetic and more restrained style than Russell's other biopics, recalling Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). In his contamination and critical treatment of genre forms, Russell challenges cultural taboos; his experimental treatments of narrative and of visual and sound images are examples of experimental filmmaking that crosses national boundaries and does not comfortably fit the mold of classical genres, realism, or heritage cinema.


Elgar (1962), Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), The Music Lovers (1971), Mahler (1974), Lisztomania (1975), The Boy Friend (1972), Tommy (1975), Lair of the White Worm (1988), The Rainbow (1989)


Baxter, John. An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

Hanke, Ken. Ken Russell's Films. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984.

Phillips, Gene D. Ken Russell. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Russell, Ken. Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell. New York: Bantam, 1991.

——. Fire over England: The British Cinema Comes under Friendly Fire. London: Hutchinson, 1993.

Marcia Landy

Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) raised conventional expectations for the biopic but revealed another form for the treatment of historical events on film. The film relied on the public's knowledge of the life of John F. Kennedy, choosing, like a crime detection film, to investigate the investigators of the assassination. JFK called attention to the questions of conspiracy and cover-up that are attached to the president's death, and, hence, took a critical view of American politics. Nixon (1995), also by Stone, is closer to the genre of the biopic in its depiction of the man's rise and fall from power. Beginning with the disgrace of the Watergate scandal,

the film uses flashbacks to offer another disastrous view of US political corruption.

Another permutation of the biopic is the "heritage film," exemplified by works such as Gandhi (1982), Another Country (1984), Carrington (1995), Shadowlands (1993), Restoration (1996), The Madness of King George (1997), Elizabeth (1998), and Shakespeare in Love (1998). This hybrid film form, which combines biography with costume drama, literary adaptation, and melodrama, has returned to the spectacular dimension of the earlier biopic. Marketed to appeal to audiences across cultural, economic, national, and generational divides, the films feature theatrical forms of acting and display, lavish period costumes and furnishings, and a forthright treatment of romance and sexual and gender conflicts in the context of an earlier period.


The biopic continues to thrive not only in the cinema but also on TV, on the Arts and Entertainment Network and the Biography Channel, and in docudramas about celebrities, royals, and politicians, as well as on the Internet. By far the most biographized contemporary figure is Princess Diana. But very few celebrities escape media treatment. There is an emphasis on their private lives, highlighting their troubled childhoods, struggles to succeed, fame, marriages and divorces, illnesses, and deaths. The televisual biopic proffers the lives of the famous and infamous by means of "documentary" footage of their lives and times, commentary by their biographers, family members, colleagues, and friends, and, in the case of film stars, clips from their films. The biographies benefit from controversial material, scandals, and conflicts with the law. Thus it seems that the "biopic" is alive and well: the unabated flow of media biography is testimony to its continuing popularity, its profitability, and its responsiveness to changing cultural and social conditions.

SEE ALSO Genre;Historical Films;Stars


Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1999.

Anderson, Carolyn. "Biographical Film." In Handbook of American Film Genres, edited by Wes D. Gehring, 331–353. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Bingham, Dennis. "I Do Want to Live: Female Voices, Male Discourse, and Hollywood Biopics." Cinema Journal 38, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 3–26.

Custen, George F. Bio/pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. "'Any Resemblance to Persons Living and Dead': Film and the Challenge to Authenticity." Yale Review 76, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 457–482.

Elsaesser, Thomas. "Film History as Social History: The Dieterle/Warner Brothers Bio-pic." Wide Angle 8. no. 2 (1986): 15–32.

Hanson, Cynthia. "The Hollywood Musical Biopic and the Regressive Performer." Wide Angle 10, no. 2 (1988): 15–23.

Higson, Andrew. English Heritage/English Cinema. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Landy, Marcia. Cinematic Uses of the Past. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Mann, Glenn, ed. "The Biopic." Biography 23, no. 1 (Winter 2000): v–x.

Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000.

Schulte-Sasse, Linda. Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University, 1996.

Stringer, Julian. "Center Stage: Reconstructing the Biopic." Cineaction 42 (1997): 28–39.

Marcia Landy


views updated May 09 2018


Between 1820 and 1870, authors and critics in the United States began to redefine the purposes and meanings of biography, a genre so popular that several magazines identified an American "biographical mania." Before 1820 Americans who discussed biography had divided into two camps. Most biographers and some critics recommended biography for promoting civic virtue among a rising generation and proclaiming America's republican experiment to the world. Other critics, but few American biographers, echoed the English critic Samuel Johnson: a subject's "character" was found in his "domestic privacies," not in the public deeds that republican ideology would highlight. After 1820 the links between biography and "character"—the reader's and the subject's—were transformed in new cultural and critical contexts. A rapidly expanding print culture vastly increased the volume of biographical production, in forms ranging from books to paperbound tracts and periodical articles. At the same time, biography became a significant vehicle for narrating and interpreting the nation's history and particularly for contesting who merited inclusion in that history. By the Civil War era, American biographical critics were arguing that illuminating the subject's character artistically mattered more than providing models for readers to emulate, but few biographers followed their dictates.


Authors and critics had long celebrated biography's instructive power: the life of a worthy subject could encourage readers' imitation or inspire them to higher values and virtuous action. An emphasis on republican instruction was specific to the post-Revolutionary American context. Biographies of American notables between 1790 and 1820 emphasized subjects' civic virtue—devotion to the nation above individual interest, simplicity of style in contrast to aristocratic pretension. Character was revealed on the public stage, whether the battlefield or the councils of state. As early as the 1820s, however, biography helped promulgate new definitions of character, particularly gendered notions associated with a rising northeastern middle class. An 1831 writer recommended that young people read "the lives of self made men" for "the several steps by which they arrived at eminent usefulness" (Civis, p. 281). Such biographies proliferated in several forms. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography became the model for the sketches in Henry Howe's collection Memoirs of the Most Eminent American Mechanics (1839) and similar works. Freeman Hunt's New York monthly, the Merchant's Magazine and Commercial Review, regularly ran brief lives of self-made merchants between 1839 and 1846 for the benefit of the thousands of young clerks thronging the metropolis in search of economic advancement. Whereas lives of merchants glorified commercial professions by suggesting that eminent businessmen retained an ethic of public service, biographical sketches of artisans offered a more ambiguous message. On the one hand, books such as Lives of Distinguished Shoemakers (1849) celebrated "manual toil as the true discipline of a man" (p. iii). On the other, they tended to share with merchant biographies an emphasis on self-education and self-making and took as subjects men who had left manual labor for more elevated intellectual or professional pursuits. The most famous American biographer of self-made men was William Makepeace Thayer, a former Congregational pastor whose books included The Poor Boy and Merchant Prince (an 1857 manual for young men that took lessons from the life of the manufacturing entrepreneur Amos Lawrence), The Bobbin Boy (1860, a life of the Massachusetts governor Nathaniel Banks), The Printer Boy; or, How Ben Franklin Made His Mark (1860), and The Pioneer Boy, and How He Became President (1863, about Abraham Lincoln).

Biographies of eminent women offered a range of cultural messages. The lives of women renowned for intellectual or literary achievement, such as Madame Germaine de Staël, empowered women readers to pursue their own intellectual development, often in reading groups or correspondence with other women. Numerous biographies told of women distinguished for benevolent work. Ann Haseltine Judson, a missionary to Burma, became more famous after her death than she had been in life thanks to a best-selling memoir by James D. Knowles and other biographies. Lives of Judson, Isabella Graham (who had founded charitable organizations through successful fund-raising), and kindred spirits provided models of heroic womanhood and authority in the public realm. In contrast, the popular biographies of European queens served largely to reinforce an ideology of domesticity: authors generally presented political power and femininity as incompatible and queens such as Elizabeth I as mannish perversions rather than figures to be admired.

For both men and women, religious biography—probably the most widely disseminated category of biographies in nineteenth-century America—aimed to shape readers' character as Christians. Some religious biographies were the literary handiwork of the subjects' friends or ministers, who wanted to memorialize a person (often a woman) noted for piety; these books might be locally published or adopted by a regional or national publisher. Others were the product of religious tract societies or the American Sunday-School Union. These organizations reprinted biographies first published by English tract societies and published newly written lives of American subjects. Inverting biography's usual mission to "record the incidents connected with the life of some distinguished individual," many religious memoirs told the lives of little-known subjects, whose very typicality could serve as the best inspiration for similarly ordinary readers (Clark, p. 3). Biographical sketches of exemplary Christians also appeared frequently in religious magazines and newspapers.

Tract societies were the most prolific, but far from the only, organizations that employed biography to create and mobilize imagined communities of readers. For abolitionist societies and publishers, the testimony recorded in the pages of slave narratives was the harshest literary indictment of the South's "peculiar institution." Although narrative and biography differed—"narratives" tended to be first-person accounts of a series of adventures or experiences (such as Indian captivity narratives) rather than full life stories—the authors and publishers of slave narratives, most famously Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), capitalized on the power of individual experience that gave biography much of its appeal. Political parties, which developed their own networks of publishers and newspapers in the 1830s and 1840s, used biography to promote not only presidential candidates but also larger political and social ideologies. Democrats' biographers portrayed candidates whose industry had raised them to candidacy within the political party, an ostensibly democratic institution. Their Whig rivals, who argued that party loyalty forced men to sacrifice independent judgment, depicted Whig candidates as men above party, elevated to leadership by innate qualities. At the same time, biographers of both parties emphasized candidates' devotion to the Union, implying that the party system itself had become a bulwark of the republic and an institution of republican education for a rising generation of men.


If the presentation of characters—and different notions of "character"—for readers' emulation and for the promotion of various collective identities was one major purpose of biography, the definition and elaboration of American history was the other. Through biography, American writers offered multiple interpretations of the nation's past. The first generation of American historical biographers, who included Jeremy Belknap (American Biography, 1794), John Marshall (The Life of George Washington, 1804–1807), and William Wirt (Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, 1817), all sought to tell the nation's story through individual lives. After 1820, as most states and even some localities founded historical societies, their successors emphasized the centrality of documentary research for historical scholarship. Jared Sparks (1789–1866), a former Unitarian minister and editor of the North American Review, became a leader among these mostly New England historians. Sparks argued for a clear distinction between "truth" (gleaned from research in written documents) and "tradition" (usually oral lore, passed down by subjects' descendants and acquaintances). Tradition, Sparks argued, had no place in serious historical or biographical writing.

The Library of American Biography, which Sparks edited in twenty-five volumes (1834–1848), revealed not only his ideas about the genre but also shifting visions of American history. As Sparks explained the project in his journal on 28 July 1832, "The purpose is to select some of the most prominent lives, from the first settlement of the country down to the present time. . . . The series will thus serve as in some degree a connected history of the country, as well as to illustrate the character and acts of some of the most illustrious men in the nation" (Adams 2:189). Sparks expected his authors to consult original sources but not to write biographies in the "life and letters" form replete with long documentary extracts. Instead he wanted easily readable narrative so that the volumes would sell. The first ten volumes (1834–1838) testified to the New England interpretation of American history dominant in the 1830s. Most of the authors in this "first series" of the Library were Harvard graduates like Sparks; the twenty-six subjects were predominantly New England figures, from Puritan times to the Revolutionary era and the early Republic. Many authors evinced a Unitarian, Whig bias: critical of Puritan theology and practice, troubled by Anglo-American (especially proto-Jacksonian) treatment of Native Americans, virtually silent about matters south of Pennsylvania. The second "series" (1844–1848) was different. Perhaps because historical societies now existed in southern and western states, Sparks engaged writers from across the nation, who wrote on subjects from every region. As a result these fifteen volumes told a different story, of a United States comprised of diverse local histories and individuals whose local or state eminence had contributed to building the nation.

By the 1840s too, other historical biographers used scholarly methods to challenge the narrative that Sparks and his New England compatriots had built. Some writers sought to broaden the range of biographical subjects. The New York historian William Leete Stone (1792–1844) wrote biographies of the Iroquois leaders Joseph Brant (1838) and Red-Jacket (1841), traveling as far as Montreal and Quebec for documents and employing an early form of ethnography in describing Native American customs and family structures. Stone argued that Anglo-American historians, and even the public documents in which they might seek "truth," distorted the true history of Native Americans. As a corrective, he published long extracts from Brant's own manuscripts. He also compared his method to those employed in John Marshall's Life of Washington, Thomas Moore's Life of Byron, and John Gibson Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott—placing Native American subjects within an Anglo-American biographical tradition. To write the three-volume Women of the American Revolution (1848–1850), Elizabeth F. Ellet (1812–1877) collected documentary records of her subjects but found that women's contributions had often gone unrecorded in writing. Therefore she turned to descendants of her potential subjects for information, even as she recognized the difficulties of substantiating their family "traditions." Ellet aimed to elevate the Revolutionary-era women through the medium of historical biography and to connect two literary worlds: scholarly historical writing, often perceived as men's domain, and domestic literature that focused on women's struggles and influence.

Southern biographers of the 1840s and 1850s went further, not merely proposing additions to the national pantheon but arguing that the surfeit of New England biography skewed Americans' comprehension of the national past. William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870), the foremost southern writer and editor, penned lives of Francis Marion and other South Carolinians and pungent biographical criticism in his Southern Quarterly Review. Southerners' historical indifference, Simms lamented, had ceded the field: "Our histories are slurred over by Yankee historians, the most important truths suppressed; our heroes receive but cold applause. Shall the warm and generous nature owe the record of its virtues, its uncalculating patriotism, its noble self-sacrifice, its oratory or its valor to the cold and frigid biographies of the unsympathising bigot of another and a too hostile region?" (p. 197). Sectional lines also emerged in the response to New Yorker Henry Stephens Randall's sympathetic Life of Thomas Jefferson (1857–1858): southern reviewers embraced this biography of their native son, while northern critics faulted Randall's Democratic bias and even his writing style.

In the mid-1850s Herman Melville (1819–1891) employed another genre—fictionalized personal narrative—to criticize Sparksian biography. In 1853 Melville had commented on biography in his short story "Bartleby," whose narrator laments, "I believe that no materials exist, for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. . . . Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small" (p. 3). Israel Potter, a veteran of the battle of Bunker Hill who became a London chair maker and dictated his life story to a Providence printer, had left more. Melville used Potter's 1824 "narrative" as the basis for Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855). Dedicating the book to "His Highness the Bunker-Hill Monument," Melville wrote that ordinary men like Potter were missing from "the volumes of Sparks." The monument, he argued, was truly America's "Great Biographer: the national commemorator of such of the anonymous privates of June 17, 1775, who may never have received other requital than the solid reward of your granite" (pp. 3–5). Even if Israel Potter was largely Melville's invention, the novelist echoed the questions that Stone, Ellet, Simms, and other contemporaries were asking: whose life stories biography ought to capture, and whether an insistence on documentary evidence excised some Americans from their rightful place in history.


In the 1840s and 1850s, critics in several American literary magazines argued that most biographies were defective as literature. Their criticism, derived from English Romantic arguments, imagined biography differently than did most Americans who wrote and read in the genre. To authors and readers, biography was either a didactic instrument of character formation or a branch of history. When earlier American critics had discussed the literary properties of biography, they had emphasized its distinction from the novel: biography offered rational, instructive amusement that fiction did not. Historians in Sparks's vein emphasized the quest for documentary truth more than any literary rules for presenting subjects' character. Few Americans wrote literary biography, the lives of American authors, in the vein of Lockhart's Life of Scott. But after 1840 literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic increasingly took issue with biographical practice.

Several of their complaints seem at first glance contradictory. On the one hand, critics defended the privacy of the subject against the prurient curiosity of the reader or the hack biographer. On the other, they faulted biographers for lapsing into eulogy that told too little of the subject, a lament that dated back to the eighteenth century. Romantic critics of biography offered another path, founded on different definitions of "truth" and "character." Truth now meant "truth to life": a sense of the subject's individuality. Only a biographer who wrote con amore—a phrase also used to describe the true poet's relationship to his subject—could capture what critics now called the "inner man." As Thomas Carlyle wrote and many American critics echoed,

If an individual is really of consequence enough to have his life and character recorded for public remembrance, . . . the public ought to be made acquainted with all the inward springs and relations of his character. . . . In one word, what and how produced was the effect of society on him? and what and how produced was his effect on society?" (Quoted in "A Biographer at Work," p. 222)

The biographer's responsibility lay in interpretation, not merely the collection of documentation or anecdote. English and American critics of the 1850s defined biography writing as literary artistry that required craftsmanship in arranging materials, vivid depiction of character and scene, and appreciation of the subject's character and accomplishment.

James Parton (1822–1891), a New York journalist for Nathaniel Parker Willis's Home Journal, did not immediately seem the sort of writer to meet the critics' standards. His first biography, The Life of Horace Greeley, which appeared in 1855 (a year before he married the novelist and fellow journalist Sara Payson Willis Eldredge, known to readers as "Fanny Fern"), displayed literary talent but resembled the myriad lives of self-made men written for aspiring youth. His second, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr (1857), became the most controversial biography of the 1850s: critics divided over whether Parton's brisk narrative presented a balanced portrait of a still-mysterious character or palliated the faults of a bad man in order to sell books. Parton's three-volume Life of Andrew Jackson (1860) established his reputation as America's premier biographer—indeed, the first American author known as a biographer. The hallmarks of his style included deep research in documentary and published sources (the Life of Jackson opened with a thirteen-page annotated bibliography) and animated prose that owed something to his journalistic roots.

Several critics noted that Parton pioneered an approach appropriate to telling an American life story. They suggested, too, that Parton wrote con amore, seeking the "inner man" as Romantic critics prescribed. This approach was most evident in Parton's long, interpretive articles on notable American politicians and entrepreneurs of the previous generation, which appeared in the venerable North American Review in the mid-1860s. At the same time, Parton's fame as a biographer afforded opportunities to write in other corners of the genre. For Robert Bonner's New York Ledger, he wrote brief, often didactic articles about famous men and women. He continued his career in American historical biography with a two-volume life of Benjamin Franklin (1864). He also capitalized on the fascination with Civil War commanders with General Butler in New Orleans (1863), a book not unlike the emerging "dime biographies" of contemporary figures published by the dime-novel publishers Beadle and Adams.

After the Civil War, biography in the United States remained as diverse as it had been for the previous half century. Critics might desire works of liter-ary polish and interpretive depth, but far more biographies adhered to familiar formulas. Didactic works continued to target aspiring self-made men and religious strivers, political parties still produced biographies of presidential candidates, and historians wrote the "lives and times" of historical figures. Beginning in the late 1860s, subscription publishing companies promoted several new sorts of biographical production, all with antebellum roots. Thick compendia of brief life sketches, including several volumes edited by Parton, reached back to collections about self-made men or eminent women but increasingly emphasized celebrity as much as instruction. The lives of Civil War generals, most famously Ulysses Grant's 1885 Memoirs, helped place the recent conflict into the nation's historical narrative. And ornately bound compendia of local history and biography, the so-called mug books that were compiled for hundreds of midwestern and western counties in the last quarter of the century, provided a site for ordinary individuals to have their achievements (and sometimes their pictures) recorded for posterity. Americans' "biographical mania" showed no signs of decline.

See alsoBook Publishing; Civil War; Education; English Literature; History; Literary Criticism; Political Parties; Religion


Primary Works

Adams, Herbert Baxter. The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1893.

"A Biographer at Work." New Englander 25 (April 1866): 218–227.

[Civis.] "Art. XII.—Biography." American Annals ofEducation and Instruction, and Journal of Literary Institutions 1 (June 1831): 281.

Clark, John A. The Young Disciple: or, A Memoir of Anzonetta R. Peters. Philadelphia: William Marshall, 1837.

Lives of Distinguished Shoemakers. Portland, Maine: Davis and Southworth, 1849.

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby." 1853. In Piazza Tales andOther Prose Pieces, 1839–1860. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Melville, Herman. Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1855.

Simms, William Gilmore. "Kennedy's Life of Wirt." Southern Quarterly Review 17 (April 1850): 192–236.

Sparks, Jared, ed. Library of American Biography. 25 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1834–1848.

Secondary Works

Altick, Richard D. Lives and Letters: A History of LiteraryBiography in England and America. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler. Prose in the Age of Poets:Romanticism and Biographical Narrative from Johnson to De Quincey. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Casper, Scott E. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Cockshut, A. O. J. Truth to Life: The Art of Biography in theNineteenth Century. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Fabian, Ann. The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narrative inNineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Reed, Joseph W., Jr. English Biography in the EarlyNineteenth Century, 1801–1838. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.

Scott E. Casper


views updated Jun 11 2018


Many religious traditions develop elaborate narratives about the life of the founding figure. Such sacred biographies often include accounts of mythic events and miracles that underscore the virtues and attainments of the founder. These narratives give shape to the history and legitimate the social institutions of emergent religious traditions. Buddhism has elaborated and embellished its biographical emphasis to create a sacred biography not only of the Buddha's final life but also of his earlier lives, the lives of his disciples, the lives of other enlightened beings, and ultimately the lives of all sentient beings who witness the Buddha's teaching. Biography may be understood as a core concept of the Buddhist tradition; it is a cultural idiom that continues to engender religious meaning in practice, doctrine, and belief. The importance of the Buddha's biography lies in the ways in which it has shaped the tradition in the centuries following his death (Reynolds). Indeed, Buddhist concern with life stories has generated biographical genres and modes of religious behavior that are articulated in oral narratives, classical and vernacular texts, visual art, and ritual, as well as in the cultural histories of Buddhist polities in much of Asia. The remainder of this entry describes some of the ways in which sacred biography has shaped the development of Buddhism in diverse cultural contexts.

Each of the major branches of Buddhism offers a different version of the life of the Buddha; these biographies are informed by doctrines specific to each school or lineage. Themes in the biographies of Gautama may illustrate not only his unique spiritual achievements, but also characteristics attributed to buddhas in general. In addition, biographical themes in the life or lives of the Buddha are often incorporated into the biographical narratives of other remarkable individuals, such as arhats, bodhisattvas, or eminent monks.

There are differing versions of the Buddha's biography, and scholars cannot identify a single or "original" source in Buddhist literature. After his death, accounts of the Buddha's life and teaching were transmitted orally for several centuries. Gradually, the Buddha's message became codified and committed to written texts that eventually came to be known as the Buddhist canon. Numerous passages in the Buddhist sūtras and vinaya refer to events and episodes of the Buddha's life, and there are many texts throughout the Buddhist tradition that describe mythic events and sacred qualities of the Buddha. The biographies that eventually emerged were initially not systematized or even organized in temporal sequence. It took some five centuries for the Buddha's biographical accounts to become standardized and formalized.

The Buddha's final life

Certain mythic episodes are salient in many accounts of the Buddha's life, despite the diversity in the stories that make up the Buddha's biography. According to these accounts, Siddhārtha's conception was immaculate, as a white elephant entered his mother's womb. His birth was painless, and, taking his first strides, he announced that this was his final and culminating life. Brahmin astrologers whom his father had consulted prophesied that the child would become either a world conqueror (cakravartin) who rules over a social and political universe, or a buddha who transcends ordinary reality through spiritual enlightenment. Raised in luxury and tutored in the seclusion of the palace, Siddhartha eventually married Yaśodharā and fathered a son, RĀhula. Curious about life outside the palace, Siddhartha encountered the inescapable human condition of old age, sickness, and death. This insight led him to discover that human existence is conditioned by suffering. Having fulfilled his obligations as a householder, he resolved to leave his indulgent life and renounce society. He became a wandering mendicant and apprenticed himself to several gurus. Eventually, he realized that extreme asceticism does not lead to enlightenment, and he determined to follow a middle path between indulgence and asceticism. Like other buddhas before him, he resolved to meditate under a bodhi tree until he achieved nirvĀṆa. While he was seated in meditation, MĀra, the Evil One, challenged him in vain with the promise of unlimited power, with attacks by his mighty army, and, finally, with his sensuous daughters. Rebuffing each offer, Gautama gained three knowledges (traividya; Pāli, tevijjā) on his path to enlightenment: He remembered all his past lives, he came to understand that the nature of one's existence is the result of past action, and finally, he gained complete knowledge of his liberation. The Buddha hesitated to preach, however, until the intervention of a god (deva) persuaded him to teach the dharma and to reveal his model for practice and the path to nirvana for others to follow.

In the course of a ministry that lasted more than forty years, the Buddha established the monastic order (saṄgha) and preached to a growing early Buddhist community. A prominent lay supporter, King Bimbisāra, donated land to establish the first permanent residence for monks. When the Buddha passed away and left the cycle of rebirth (saṃsĀra), he was given the funerary rites of a world conqueror, and his relics were enshrined throughout the Buddhist world. His disciples convened the first Buddhist Council shortly after his death to compile his teachings, and the Buddhist tradition began to take shape in the transition from the founder's charismatic life to the emerging institutional history and doctrinal developments. For instance, Aśoka's cult of relics helped promote the institutionalization of the Thervāda monastic lineage. Doctrinal interpretations of the bodies of the Buddha that are specific to the major branches of the tradition also correspond to their respective interpretations of the Buddha's sacred biography.

The story of the Buddha's culminating life in saṃsāra illustrates central beliefs and doctrines of Buddhism, including Gautama's model for and path to enlightenment, his message, and the establishment of Buddhist institutions. The story also legitimates the veneration of the Buddha's relics and the stŪpas that enshrine them, as well as the veneration of icons and images that embody his biography. These sacred objects are closely associated with the Buddha's biography and establish his presence in rituals. They remind Buddhists of the Buddha's enlightenment and of his absence from the cycle of rebirth.

The jātaka tradition

Central motifs of the sacred biography, especially the Buddha's remembrance of past lives in visions that culminated in his enlightenment, eventually developed into an elaborate genre of tales called jĀtaka, which are stories of the Buddha's former lives. In the Pali tradition, jātaka attained semicanonical status in compilations containing up to 550 such stories that recount the perfection of virtues by the buddha-to-be. These tales about the Buddha's past lives as a king, ascetic, monkey, or elephant do not follow a systematized sequence, but they do share a similar narrative structure. Generally, each story opens with a frame in the narrative present, namely the final life of Gautama Buddha, and identifies the place and occasion for the story about a past rebirth about to be recounted. The account then unfolds events in a former rebirth of the Buddha and concludes by explaining the outcome according to universal laws of Buddhist causality. The story of the former life becomes the dramatic stage upon which the consequences of moral action are illustrated. Jātaka stories generally conclude by returning to the time of the Buddha's final life and identifying companions of the Buddha with dramatis personae in the story just recounted.

Perhaps the best-known jātaka in the TheravĀda world is the Vessantara Jātaka, in which the buddha-to-be, in his life as Prince Vessantara (Sanskrit, ViŚvantara), perfects the virtue of generosity (dāna). Vessantara gives away everything a king or householder might value: his prosperity, power, home, and even his family, only to have it all restored at the conclusion of the tale.

Jātaka tales figure prominently in a variety of ways in Buddhist cultures; they appear in temple paintings, children's stories, movie billboards and, most recently, comic books. They offer abundant material for religious education. Central motifs in the biographies of the Buddha elucidate moral principles, values, and ethics, and certain well-known jātaka tales serve a didactic purpose in teaching younger generations about the tradition. Jātakas are salient across Buddhist communities and the themes they recount readily resonate with other aspects of religious knowledge and practice. As such, recounting certain jātaka stories in public sermons or even representing them in paintings can serve as commentary on current social and political issues. Stories about the Buddha's former lives are also a form of entertainment. In Burma, for example, these stories have traditionally been the subject of popular theatrical performances that continue through the night.

Cultural contexts of the biographical genre

In visual art, biographical references can be found in Buddhist architecture, in sculptures and icons of the Buddha, and in the visual narratives of paintings and stone carvings. Paintings of jātaka stories can be seen along walkways in monastery grounds and along the staircases leading to pilgrimage sites. Jātaka paintings also often decorate the inner spaces of Buddhist temples. Certain hand gestures (mudrĀ) or poses displayed in Buddha images refer to particular moments in his life, such as when he touched the earth as witness to his meritorious deeds at the time of his enlightenment or when he reclined at the moment of his departure from the cycle of rebirth. At Borobudur in Java, a magnificent MahĀyĀna Buddhist stupa from the seventh to the ninth century c.e., carved stone plates along the meditation path depict jātaka scenes that have been "read" by scholars in much the same way one would read a textual narrative. Whatever the initial motivation for the creation of visual portrayals of events from the Buddha's biographies, such images serve as objects of meditation, contemplation, and ritual reminders of the Buddha.

Many Buddhist rituals invoke salient idioms from the Buddha's biography. For example, Burmese Buddhists, especially the Shan people, celebrate a boy's temporary initiation as a novice with a ritual reenactment of Siddhārtha's splendorous life and departure from the palace. In Thailand, stories of the Buddha's life as Vessantara are chanted on ritual occasions and at the behest of devout lay patrons. Images of the Buddha are consecrated through an eye-opening ceremony, and a deferential protocol of behavior is required in front of consecrated images; one behaves as if one were in the Buddha's presence. Lastly, pilgrimages are undertaken to sites that commemorate episodes of the Buddha's life, as well as places that contain relics of the Buddha, such as Bodh GayĀ in northeast India, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment.

Biographies of the Buddha also give voice to local interpretations, and the Buddhist biographical genre includes numerous apocryphal jātaka stories. Countless stories about the Buddha's many lives enrich the biographical idiom in local Buddhist traditions, chronicles, myths, and religious sites, thereby linking persons and places with the Buddha's pristine early community. One way this occurs is through relating universal biographical themes to particular local features. For example, the colossal Burmese Mahāmuni was constructed, according to local myth, in the Buddha's likeness, and it is said to have been enlivened by him during a visit to the region now known as Arakan. Stories like this serve to legitimate not only the particular image, but, more significantly, all of its royal patrons and protectors through Burmese dynastic history. The Mahamuni complex further links the geographical and cultural periphery of lower Burma to central Buddhist concepts in the Buddha's biography (Schober). In the Theravāda tradition, apocryphal stories, local traditions, and peripheral locations are thus brought together to construct and perpetuate biographical extensions of the Buddha's lives.

In the traditions of Mahāyāna and VajrayĀna Buddhism, we find many life stories of other buddhas, bodhisattvas, and embodiments of enlightenment from the past, present, and even future. Such an expansion of the biographical genre made it possible to integrate preexisting religious and cultural values into Buddhist belief systems. In China, for example, Buddhist Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng zhuan) are informed by biographical conventions borrowed from the indigenous Confucian tradition. Like their counterparts in other branches of Buddhism, biographies of eminent Chinese monks take up familiar themes (Kieschnick). Asceticism, miracle working, healing, and scholarship commonly figure in biographies of eminent monks to underscore how their lives emulate and perpetuate extraordinary events in the biography of the Buddha. Such stories emphasize links between teachers and their disciples in order to construct a lineage that, at least in principle, is believed to establish a historical connection to the idealized time of the Buddha. Biographies of famous monks also commonly recount miracles associated with relics or they describe extraordinary practices with which charismatic monks have been credited.

In this way, Buddhist sacred biography is a genre that seeks to demonstrate that the accomplishments that eminent monks achieve in later periods share features in common with the words and acts of the founder of Buddhism. Buddhist sacred biography thus locates the Buddha's life story with specific Buddhist communities. By linking the universal with geographic peripheries and particular cultures, Buddhist biography engages the religious imagination of Buddhists and contributes to the continuing vitality of the tradition.

See also:Buddha, Life of the, in Art; Jātaka, Illustrations of


Kieschnick, John. The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Reynolds, Frank E. "The Many Lives of the Buddha." In The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion, ed. Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1976.

Schober, Juliane, ed. Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Juliane Schober

Maurois, André

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MAUROIS, ANDRÉ (originally Emile Herzog ; 1885–1967), French biographer, novelist, and essayist. Born in Elbeuf, Maurois was descended from Alsatian industrialists who moved to Normandy after the Franco-Prussian War. Raised in a staunchly patriotic home, he experienced antisemitism as a student at the time of the *Dreyfus Affair and was influenced by the philosopher Alain (Emile Chartier). He spent ten years in his father's factory and his experiences there were later used in his fiction. A French liaison officer and interpreter with a Scots division during World War i, he published a light-hearted book about his British army comrades, Les Silences du Colonel Bramble (1918; Eng. tr., 1919) using his pseudonym, André Maurois, for the first time. He followed it with Les discours du docteur O'Grady (1922). Maurois earned a reputation as an acute interpreter of the English scene and as an outstanding biographer. During the 1920s and 1930s he published Ariel, ou la vie de Shelley (1923; Eng. tr., Ariel, 1924); La vie de Disraeli (1927; Eng. tr., 1927); La vie de Lord Byron (1930; Eng. tr., 1930), and historical works such as Edouard vii et son temps (1933; Eng. tr. 1933) and Histoire de l'Angleterre (1937; Eng. tr., 1937). In writing his biographies, Maurois combined documentation, erudition, and imagination, to unfold the psychological development of his subjects. His books in this genre include studies of Voltaire (1935), Chateaubriand (1938; Eng. tr., 1938), George Sand (1952; Eng. tr., 1953), and Hugo (Olympio, 1954). Two outstanding biographies were A la recherche de Marcel Proust (1949; Proust, a biography, 1950) and Promethée, ou la vie de Balzac (1965). Maurois also wrote short stories and several semiautobiographical novels, notably Bernard Quesnay (1926; Eng. tr., 1927); Climats (1928; Whatever Gods May Be, 1929; and Le cercle de famille (1932; The Family Circle, 1932). In the first of these he told the story of his refugee Alsatian family.

After the armistice of 1940, Maurois supported the Vichy regime, but then violently opposed Hitler and fled to the U.S., where he taught at Princeton until the end of the war. He claimed that the Jews of the Diaspora had to choose segregation, assimilation, or some difficult intermediate path. Himself a convinced assimilationist, he nevertheless remained interested in problems of Jewish identity, to which he referred in the first part of his Mémoires (1942; I Remember, I Remember, 1942). In later years he confessed to "a deep sadness" within himself and praised the intellectual enrichment which the Jews had brought to French literature. Maurois' other works include: Aspects de la biographie (1928; Eng. tr., 1929); Magiciens et logiciens (1935; Prophets and Poets, 1935); Histoire des Etats-Unis (2 vols., 1943–44; Eng. tr., 1948); and Histoire de la France (1947; Eng. tr., 1949); and the autobiographical works Portrait d'un ami qui s'appelle moi (1959) and Mémoires 18851967 (1970). His collected works appeared in 16 volumes (1950–55). He was elected to the French Academy in 1938.


G. Lemaître, André Maurois (Eng., 1939); Chaigne, in: A. Maurois, Poésie et action (1949); J. Suffel, André Maurois (Fr., 1963).

[Sidney D. Braun]


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bi·og·ra·phy / bīˈägrəfē/ • n. (pl. -phies) an account of someone's life written by someone else. ∎  writing of such a type as a branch of literature. ∎  a human life in its course: although their individual biographies are different, both are motivated by a similar ambition.DERIVATIVES: bi·og·ra·pher / -fər/·o·graph·ic / ˌbīəˈgrafik/·o·graph·i·cal / ˌbīəˈgrafikəl/ adj.


views updated Jun 27 2018

biography Literary form that describes the events of a person's life. The first known biographies were Lives by Plutarch in the 1st century ad. In English literature the first biographies appeared in the 17th century, notably Lives (1640–70) by Izaak Walton and Lives of Eminent Men (1813) by John Aubrey. The first ‘modern’ biography was the Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell, which is rich in detail and first-hand recollections. See also autobiography


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penguin the penguin, noted for its wings developed into flippers for swimming under water, may be referred to in relation to a clumsy, waddling walk; the black and white plumage has also given rise to the informal penguin suit to denote a man's evening dress of black dinner jacket worn with a white shirt.
Penguin Books the name of the paperback publishing imprint founded by Allen Lane in 1935; the first ten titles, published in 1936 and priced at sixpence each, included titles by Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, and André Maurois.

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