English Biography in the Seventeenth Century: Selected Short Lives

English Biography in the Seventeenth Century: Selected Short Lives

English Biography in the Seventeenth Century: Selected Short Lives

English Biography in the Seventeenth Century: Selected Short Lives

Excerpt

Biography is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the history of the lives of individual men, as a branch of literature." As history biography should be the product of critical intelligence, detached curiosity, and the careful sifting and analysis of records. As literature it should have organic unity, and should satisfy standards of aesthetic judgment by its style and structure. As the study of individuals it should be informal and intimate, though opinions will differ as to the degree of frankness which is permissible, or desirable, in a biography. This "most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing," as Lytton Strachey calls it, is necessarily a very late development in literature. It presupposes a society with a detached curiosity about human life, and a conception of every human being as an individual worthy of respect, as well as a tolerance and a freedom of speech that are only possible in secure and highly civilized communities. Dr Johnson, in his admirable essay on biography (No. 60 of The Rambler, 1750), the first notable study of the subject in English, writes that

the business of the biographer is often to pass lightly over those performances and incidents, which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestick privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men only excel each other in prudence and virtue.

James Boswell, the greatest of English biographers, wrote, in his Life of Johnson (1791):

I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man's . . .

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