Biography, the written account of an individual life. (An autobiography is a biography written by the subject.) The term biography connotes an artful, conscious literary genre that employs a wide range of sources, strategies, and insights; that deals with the intimate, inconsistent textures of personality and experience; and that attempts to render the whole sense of its subject, not the life only but what it was like to have lived it at its several stages.
Ideally, the writer molds complex biographical facts—birth and death, education, ambition, conflict, milieu, work, relationship, accident—into a book that has the independent vitality of any creative work but is, at the same time, “true to life.”
Biography is as old as recorded history. Rulers and magnates of ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia had their deeds incised in stone and clay. The Old Testament contains many brief lives of patriarchs and prophets, and the four Gospels of the New Testament can be described as parallel lives of Jesus Christ (see Bible).
Three notable examples of biographical writing in classical times are Memorabilia, a recollection and defense of the Greek philosopher Socrates by Xenophon; Parallel Lives by Plutarch, which the English playwright William Shakespeare used as a source book; and the gossipy and anecdotal Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius. The practice of commemorating the illustrious dead continues today, in a more objective manner, in multivolume modern compilations such as the Dictionary of American Biography and the British Dictionary of National Biography.
In Western culture until about the middle of the 17th century, biography was generally commemorative; it was meant to be edifying and inspirational, and it dealt didactically with the cautionary lives of malefactors and tyrants as well as with the exemplary lives of heroes and heroines. Its chief subjects, once Christianity had triumphed, were saints, martyrs, and church fathers, who were depicted less as individuals than as actors in a stylized drama of salvation; the “saint's life” became one of the conventions of medieval literature. A late work in this hagiographic tradition was Acts and Monuments (popularly known as The Book of Martyrs), originally written in Latin by the English martyrologist John Foxe and published in 1563. In the same decade appeared the original Italian version of Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, a work that reflected the new spirit of Renaissance humanism in the fine arts as well as in the interpretation of lives.
An important transitional work is Life of Donne by Izaak Walton, a biography of the English poet John Donne first published in 1640 and, in three successive editions over the next 25 years, revised and developed by its author in the direction of modern biography. Appropriately, the year of Walton's death, 1683, saw the first recorded use in English—by John Dryden, writing about Plutarch—of the word biography.
The publication in 1791 of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell, is generally thought to have established Boswell as the first great modern biographer and to have inaugurated a “golden age of biography” that has extended to the present day. Yet somewhat the same claim of precedence could be made for Samuel Johnson himself—”The biographical part of literature,” he said, “is what I love most”—and his Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744). Johnson later wrote The Lives of the English Poets (1779-1781).
During the 19th century, with the publication of such significant works as the Life of Sir Walter Scott (7 volumes, 1837-1838) by John Gibson Lockhart and two biographies of Thomas Carlyle (1882, 1884) by James Anthony Froude, the biographical impetus that sprang from romantic celebrations of the individual contended with and eventually survived social pressures toward reticence and propriety. At the same time, favored by conditions that later vanished with the advent of the telephone, rapid travel, and electronics, invaluable source materials for biography—personal letters, journals, diaries, and the like—proliferated and were frequently preserved.
In the 20th century the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and other scientific observers of the individual and society provided a further impetus for the exploration of personality through narrative. Meanwhile, literary standards for the writing of biography continued to rise along with a general level of sophistication. “A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one,” Carlyle said in 1827; the precise sentiment was echoed nearly a century later by Lytton Strachey, author of the popular and influential Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921). Strachey described biography as “the most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing.” Biography retained its broad appeal as various 20th-century literary fashions came and went. Recent achievements by American biographers include Leon Edel's study of the life and work of the American author Henry James (5 volumes, 1953-1972); Richard Ellmann's 1988 book on the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize; James Gleick's Genius (1992), about the American physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman; and David McCullough's Truman (1992; Pulitzer Prize, 1993), an account of the life of the American president Harry S. Truman.