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Psychobiography's aim is to understand historically significant individuals--artists, political figures, and so on--through the application of psychological theory and research. It is, in essence, a form of case study. Freud's analysis of Leonardo (titled "Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood") is generally considered to be the first "modern" psychobiography. Persons who have been the subject of much psychobiographical research over the years include Hitler, Sylvia Plath, Freud, Jung, van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Gordon Allport, Elvis, and Richard Nixon, among others. A lot of psychobiography is Freudian or psychodynamic in orientation, but other commonly used theories include narrative models of identity (such as Dan McAdams's life story model), script theory, object relations, and existentialism/phenomenology.
The discipline of psychobiography has developed various methodological guidelines for psychobiographical study (see, for examples of many of these, Schultz, 2005). Some of the most prominent are these:
1. The use of prototypical scenes in the life of the subject to serve as a model of their personality pattern
2. The use of a series of indicators of salience, markers such as primacy, frequency, and uniqueness of an event in a life, to identify significant patterns
3. The identification of pregnant metaphors or images that organize autobiographical narratives
4. Logical coherence or consistency as a criterion for adequate psychological interpretations
It is worth noting, however, that there continue to be psychobiographical studies produced by scholars untrained in the discipline who do not follow these guidelines.
The most productive psychobiographers working today are William Todd Schultz and Alan C. Elms (Schultz was Elms's student at UC Davis). Schultz's book is listed below; Elms's is titled Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology. Schultz maintains a very useful website on psychobiography (http://www.psychobiography.com), as does Elms (http://www.ulmus.net).
Other important psychobiographical authors include Erik Erikson, Irving Alexander, James Anderson, Henry Murray, Dan Ogilvie, Nicole Barenbaum, George Atwood, William Runyan, and Robert White.
- Elms, Alan (1993). Uncovering Lives. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ogilvie, Dan (2004). Fantasies of Flight. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Runyan, William (1982). Life Histories and Psychobiography. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Schultz, William Todd (2005). Handbook of Psychobiography. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Safranski, Rudiger. Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography Granta Books, London, (2002); Vienna, (2000); New York (2002) ISBN 0-393-05008-4
- Waite, Robert G.L. The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler. New York: First DaCapo Press Edition, (1993) (orig. pub. 1977). ISBN 0-306-80514-6.