Doubtless, few people have ever taken the trouble to put the definite query, What is biography? Fewer still, perhaps, have ever attempted to formulate an answer to what seems so easy a question. When we do seek for enlightenment, no host of critics can be summoned to our aid as in the case of such other forms of literature as poetry and prose fiction; for, as yet, biography has not been made to any great extent the subject of critical analysis and discussion. Such criticism as exists is scattered chiefly throughout reviews -- often hastily and perfunctorily written -- or is contained in a few remarks now and then made by biographers in the course of their narratives. Evidently, it has been generally taken for granted that every one knows what biography is.
It is true that definitions are usually unsatisfactory, and that most of us get along very well in using words which we should be puzzled to define logically. Yet not for this reason should the process of defining be set aside as useless, or unnecessary: attempts at definition are helpful in clarifying thought-processes, and the results are, at least, suggestive, affording points of departure for further discussion. We may see how needful is the attempt in the present instance by the briefest glance at what have usually passed for definitions of biography. Plutarch set before himself the task of "writing the lives of famous persons," of "comparing the lives of the greatest men with one another." No further thought of expressing more definitely what is meant by lives seems to have occurred to any one until John Dryden, in 1683, introduced the word biography into . . .