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History and cultural context of biographies

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The purpose of biographies varies with their historical and cultural context and may be seen as acts of social construction.

Early formsEdit

The first known biographies were written by scribes commissioned by the various rulers of antiquity: ancient Assyria, ancient Babylonia, ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, among others. Such biographies tended to be chiseled into stone or clay tablets, a method called cuneiform.

The Jewish holy scripture is an anthology of some of the earliest biographies in existence, detailing the lives of chiefs, kings, tribes, patriarchs and prophets. However, the dates of these written accounts are disputed.

Classical formsEdit

Ancient Greeks developed the biographical tradition which we have inherited, although until the 5th century AD, when the word 'biographia' first appears, in Damascius' Life of Isodorus, biographical pieces were called simply "lives" (βιοι: "bioi"). It is quite likely that the Greeks were drawing on a pre-existing eastern tradition; certainly Herodotus' Histories contains more detailed biographical information on Persian kings and subjects than on anyone else, implying he had a Persian source for it.

The earliest surviving pieces which we would identify as biographical are Isocrates' Life of Evagoras and Xenophon's Life of Agesilaos, both from the fifth century BC. Both identified themselves as encomia, or works of praise, and that biography was regarded as a discrete entity from historiography is evidenced by the fact that Xenophon treated King Agesilaos of Sparta twice in his works, once in the above-mentioned encomium and once in his Greek History; evidently the two genres were conceived as making different demands of authors who enrolled in them. Xenophon could present his Cyropaedia, an account of the childhood of the Persian King Cyrus the Great now regarded as so fabulous that it falls rather into a novelistic tradition than a biographical one, as a serious work, without any disclaimers or caveats.

Whereas Thucydides set the benchmark for a historiographical tradition comprising 'conclusions ... drawn from proofs quoted ... [which] may safely be relied upon' (Thuc. 1.21), and offering little explicit judgement on the men with whom he dealt, biographers were quite often more concerned with drawing a moral point from their investigations of their subjects. Parallel Lives by Plutarch, a Greek writing under the Roman empire, is a series of short biographies of eminent men, ancient and contemporary, arranged in pairs comprising one Greek, one Roman, in order that a broad educative point might be extraced from the comparison (for example Mark Antony and Demetrius were paradigms of tyranny, Lysander and Sulla examples of great men degenerating into blood-thirsty corruption).

However, although their moralising approach is not in fashion in the current intellectual climate, Greek biographies still have much to offer the modern reader, and for the most part it is reasonable to assume that while authors may have suppressed details which did not fall in with the general theme which they wished to convey, they are unlikely to have fabricated much. Not least, they were instrumental in developing the modern idea of the person. The traditional Greek attitude to individuals was to 'reduce them to types'; the Peripatetic tradition records various categories into which men might fall: the flatterer, the superstitious man and so on. Greek rhetorical handbooks give advice on 'ethopoia', that is creating a character, one of a recognised type, to win favour in the law courts.

The biographical tradition does draw on these types, but it also gives explicit recognition to the importance of individual ideosyncrasies in defining a man, and places the emphasis firmly on a man's personality rather than merely listing his accomplishments. As Plutarch says in the introduction to his Life of Alexander the Great, 'in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue and vice, but a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation than battles where thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities'. Thus the individual is recognised as having some value and interest irrespective of the impact of his actions on the broader sweep of history.

Under the Roman Empire, the biographical and historiographical traditions converged somewhat, likely due to the nature of government, whereby the state was dominated by a single emperor with totalitarian power and whose character and actions set the tone for the period; Tacitus's History and his Annals, as well as Dio's History contain much of the same material as the biographer Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve Caesars. However, although Tacitus in particular was extremely critical of the regime, his disapproval emerges in subtle characterisation and arrangement of his material, in contrast with Suetonius' vicious authorial comment.

Middle Ages and RenaissanceEdit

The Early Middle Ages (AD 400 to 1450) saw a decline in awareness of classical culture. During this time, the only repositories of knowledge and records of early history was the Roman Catholic Church. Hermits, monks and priests used this historic period to write the first modern biographies. Their subjects were usually restricted to church fathers, martyrs, popes and saints. Their works were meant to be inspirational to people, vehicles for conversion to Christianity. See hagiography. One significant example of biography from this period which does not exactly fit into that mold is the life of Charlemagne as written by his courtier Einhard.

By the late Middle Ages, biographies became less church-oriented as biographies of kings, knights and tyrants began to appear. The most famous of these such biographies was Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. The book was an account of the life of the fabled King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Following Malory, the new emphasis on humanism during the Renaissance promoted a focus on secular subjects such as artists and poets, and encouraged writing in the vernacular. Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550) was a landmark biography focusing on secular lives. Vasari created celebrities of his subjects, as the Lives became an early "best seller." Two other developments are noteworthy: the development of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the gradual increase in literacy.

Biographies in the English language began appearing during the reign of Henry VIII. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563), better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, essentially was the first dictionary of biography, followed by Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England (1662), with a distinct focus on public life.

Modern biographyEdit

The "Golden Age" of English biography emerged in the late 1700s, the century in which the terms "biography" and "autobiography" entered the English lexicon. The classic works of the period were Samuel Johnson's Critical Lives of the Poets (1779-81) and James Boswell's massive Life of Johnson (1791). The Boswellian approach to biography emphasized uncovering material and letting the subject "speak for itself." While Boswell compiled, Samuel Johnson composed. Johnson did not follow a chronological narration of the subject's life but used anecdotes and incidents selectively. Johnson rejected the notion that facts revealed truth. He suggested that biographers should seek their subject in "domestic privacies", to find little known facts or anecdotes which revealed character. (Casper, 1999)

The romantic biographers disputed many of Johnson's judgments. Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1781-88) exploited the romantic point of view and the confessional mode. The tradition of testimony and confession was brought to the New World by Puritan and Quaker memoirists and journal-keepers where the form continued to be influential. Benjamin Franklin's autobiography (1791) would provide the archetype for the American success story. (Stone, 1982) Autobiography would remain an influential form of biographical writing.

Generally, American biography followed the English model, however, incorporating Thomas Carlyle's view that biography was a part of history. Carlyle asserted that the lives of great men were important to understanding society and its institutions. While the historical impulse would remain a strong element in early American biography, American writers carved out their own distinct approach. What emerged was a rather didactic form of biography which sought to shape individual character of the reader in the process of defining national character. (Casper, 1999)

The distinction between mass biography and literary biography which had formed by mid nineteenth century reflected a breach between high culture and middle-class culture. This division would endure for the remainder of the century. Biography began to flower thanks to new publishing technologies and an expanding reading public. This revolution in publishing made books available to a larger audience of readers. Almost ten times as many American biographies appeared from 1840 to 1860 than had appeared in the first two decades of the century. In addition, affordable paperback editions of popular biographies were published for the first time. Also, American periodicals began publishing series of biographical sketches. (Casper, 1999) The topical emphasis shifted from republican heroes to self-made men.

Much of late 19th-century biography remained formulaic. Notably, few autobiographies had been written in the 19th century. The following century witnessed a renaissance of autobiography beginning with Booker T. Washington's, Up From Slavery (1901) and followed by Henry Adams' Education (1907), a chronicle of self-defined failure which ran counter to the predominant American success story. The publication of socially significant autobiographies by both men and women began to flourish. (Stone, 1982)

The authority of psychology and sociology was ascendant and would make its mark on the new century’s biographies. (Stone, 1982) The demise of the "great man" theory of history was indicative of the emerging mindset. Human behavior would be explained through Darwinian theories. "Sociological" biographies based their subjects' actions as the result of the environment, and tended to downplay individuality. The development of psychoanalysis led to a more penetrating and comprehensive understanding of the biographical subject, and induced biographers to give more emphasis to childhood and adolescence. Clearly, psychological ideas were changing the way Americans read and wrote biographies, as a culture of autobiography developed in which the telling of one's own story became a form of therapy. (Casper, 1999)

The conventional concept of national heroes and narratives of success disappeared in the obsession with psychological explorations of personality. The new school of biography featured iconoclasts, scientific analysts, and fictional biographers. This wave included Lytton Strachey, André Maurois, and Emil Ludwig among others. Strachey's biographies had an influence similar to that which Samuel Johnson had enjoyed earlier. In the 1920s and '30s, biographical writers sought to capitalize on Strachey's popularity and imitate his style. Robert Graves (I, Claudius, 1934) stood out among those following Strachey's model of "debunking biographies." The trend in literary biography was accompanied in popular biography by a sort of "celebrity voyeurism." in the early decades of the century. This latter form's appeal to readers was based on curiosity more than morality or patriotism.

By World War I, cheap hard-cover reprints had become popular. The decades of the 1920s witnessed a biographical "boom." In 1929, nearly 700 biographies were published in the United States, and the first dictionary of American biography appeared. In the decade that followed, numerous biographies continued to be published despite the economic depression. They reached a growing audience through inexpensive formats and via public libraries.

Women's biographies were revolutionized in the 1970s, according to scholar Carolyn Heilbrun. At this time women began to be portrayed more accurately, even if it downplayed the achievements or integrity of a man (Heilbrun 12). This was in the era of the feminist movement.

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