Famous Biographies

A biography is a written account of a person's life. The term biography derives from the Greek bios (life) and graphein (to write). Many of the earliest biographies were accounts of the lives of important historical figures, and as such the genre of has often been considered a branch of history although differences between the two have existed since ancient times. Where writers of histories have always purported to present the truth, biographers can traditionally be biased, praising their subjects or presenting them as examples for moral or educational purposes.

The first biographies of ordinary men are considered to be the Dialogues of Plato (4th century BCE) and the gospels of the New Testament (1st and 2d century CE), both of which tell the story of their respective protagonists by letting each speak for themselves. Plutarch's Parallel Lives (2nd century) used biography to compare and contrast a number of different public figures, including Julius Caesar and Cicero. St. Augustine turned the same critical judgment on himself in his autobiography Confessions (4th century), comparing his character and conduct before and after his conversion to Christianity.

The Middle Ages produced Einhard's Life of Charlemagne (9th century), Eadmer's Life of St. Anselm (12th century), Jean de Joinville's Memoirs of St. Louis IX (13th century), and Jean Froissart's Chroniques (15th century), with each providing a lively depiction of their chosen subject's personalities and events surrounding them. Following on, the Renaissance rekindled interest in worldly power and self-assertion. Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography (16th century) recounted his escapades and artistic achievements. Saint-Simon's Memoirs (late 17th century) colorfully describe Louis XIV, his court at Versailles, and the effect of the monarch's power on the lives of the populace. The diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, Izaak Walton's Lives and John Aubrey's Lives of Eminent Men introduced both informality and intimacy to their treatments. Each wrote about contemporaries who were their friends or acquaintances.

The 18th century gave rise to another aspect of biography, literary biography, which covered poets and men of letters. Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779-81) set the example for James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), often considered to be the first definitive biography as the form exists today. The Life of Samuel Johnson was drawn from Boswell's exact recollections of conversations with Johnson, and from letters, memoirs, and interviews with various associates in Johnson's life. In addition, the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Jean Jacques Rousseau have been noted for their practicality and candor in their subject matters. The 19th century witnessed a rapid expansion of the genre. Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit, Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and Frederick the Great, and Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus are all considered to be biographies of great importance. Leslie Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography was founded in 1882. It is still printed today and can be viewed online.

As a result of Sigmund Freud defining the unconscious mind, the 20th century produced a new sort of biography; one that used the technique of psychoanalysis on the subject in question. Noted examples of this work are Freud's Leonardo Da Vinci and Anaïs Nin's Diaries. As antidotes to the tradition of the official biography Lytton Strachey wrote Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921), works that deflate and debunk their subject matter. The 20th century saw developments in the writing of biographies. Books by or about women began to appear for the first time. This coincided with the rise of feminism as a major cultural movement and a rapid increase in feminist life writings. The late twentieth century witnessed the emergence of traditionally underrepresented groups in biography, both as subjects and as biographers. As a result, publishing in the United States saw an increase in biographies covering gay and lesbian, African American, Asian American, Hispanic, and Native American subjects. Films and television have adapted the form of biography to suit their own format and market. Documentary biographies have been made about many public figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, the Duke of Windsor, John F Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Famous Biographies: Selected full-text books and articles

Hitler: A Study in Tyranny By Alan Bullock Harper & Row, 1962 (Revised edition)
Woodrow Wilson By Arthur Walworth Longmans, Green, vol.1, 1958
Librarian’s tip: This book won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize in Biography
Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography By Henry F. Pringle Harcourt Brace, 1931
Librarian’s tip: This book won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize in Biography
George Washington: A Biography By Douglas Southall Freeman Charles Scribner's Sons, vol.1, 1948
Mr. Lincoln By J. G. Randall; Richard N. Current Dodd Mead, 1957
Shakespeare: A Life By Park Honan Oxford University Press, 1999
Caesar By Christian Meier; David McLintock Basic Books, 1995
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