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James Boswell (1740—1795) lawyer, diarist, and biographer of Samuel Johnson

Plutarch (c. 46—120 ad) Greek biographer and philosopher

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A narrative history of the life of some person; or the practice of writing such works. Most biographies provide an account of the life of a notable individual from birth to death, or in the case of living persons from birth to the time of writing; but some treat the connected lives of paired subjects or of groups (known as ‘group biography’); and since the late 20th century the term has been stretched to cover accounts of non-human subjects such as houses, cities, or commodities, in which case ‘a biography’ really means an intimate or gossipy history. The Western tradition of biography originates with the Greek historian Plutarch and his Bioi paralleloi (Parallel Lives, c.100 ce), in which he compares and contrasts the virtues of several Greek leaders with their Roman counterparts. Sir Thomas North's English translation of this work (1579) became a main source for Shakespeare's Roman plays. Medieval biographical writing was restricted to works in praise of monarchs or of saints (for the latter, see hagiography). The modern tradition in English, which has generally been more vigorous than in other languages, may be dated from Izaak Walton's Life of John Donne (1640), but its most influential founder, as biographer, subject, and theorist, was Samuel Johnson (1709–84), who wrote The Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), the important essay ‘On the Genius of Biography’ (1750), and the long sequence of Lives of the English Poets (1779–81) before himself becoming the subject of the most famous biography in the language, James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791).

In the 19th century biography became a literary industry, consolidated in great national reference works such as the French Biographie universelle (ed. L.-G. Michaud, 1811–28) and the British Dictionary of National Biography (ed. Leslie Stephen, 1885–90). In reaction against the often turgidly pious works of that age, a new movement emerged from 1918, known as the new biography, led by Lytton Strachey in England and André Maurois in France, in which biography was treated as an imaginative art in which invented dialogues, interior monologues and other techniques borrowed from the novel were employed. The new biography was also less reverential towards its subjects, notably in Strachey's landmark sequence of biographical essays, Eminent Victorians (1918). The 20th century also saw the emergence of psychobiography, informed by psychoanalytic theories of development, and of sensational biographies exposing the sexual and other personal secrets of famous figures.

Biography has a number of subgenres, of which the most important is autobiography, in which the subject and the author are the same person. Other recognized types are distinguished by the walk of life in which the subject was noted, e.g. political, military, artistic, theatrical, scientific, sporting; among these, literary biography retains a favoured position. An unusually disreputable minor form, practised mostly in the United States, is the campaign biography, a one-sidedly glowing account of a candidate for political office: Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote one in 1852 for his friend Franklin Pierce, who won the US Presidency and rewarded the author with the consulship at Liverpool. For an extended introduction, consult David Ellis, Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding (2000).


Subjects: Literature

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