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The Development of Biography as a Literary Form

By the 18th cent. literary biography (works about poets and men of letters) had become an important extension of the genre. Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779–81) set the example for James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), the first definitive biography. This monumental work was drawn not only from Boswell's exact recollections of conversations with Johnson, but from letters, memoirs, and interviews with others in Johnson's circle as well. Two equally celebrated autobiographies, Benjamin Franklin's, noted for its practicality, and Jean Jacques Rousseau's, noted for its candor, also mark this age.

Among the avalanche of biographies and autobiographies published in the 19th cent. Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit (1808–31), Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833–34) and Frederick the Great (1858–65), and Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus (1863) are important. Also noteworthy was the publication of the Dictionary of National Biography (1882), edited by Leslie Stephen.

As a result of Freud's defining of the unconscious, the 20th cent. produced a new sort of biography—one that used the technique of psychoanalysis on the subject. Examples of such works are Freud's own Leonardo Da Vinci (1910) and Anaïs Nin's Diaries (1931–44). As antidotes to the tradition of the official biography Lytton Strachey wrote Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921), works that deflate and debunk.

Twentieth-century biographers often sought to make structure a reflection of theme. Henry Adams's Education of Henry Adams (1918) explores the metaphor of the title; Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain (1948) follows the analogue of Dante's Inferno; and Lillian Hellman's Pentimento (1973) presents portrait sketches of the people in her life as seen from the vantage point of her maturity. Notable literary and scholarly biographers of the 20th cent. include Harold Nicolson, Allan Nevins, D. S. Freeman, André Maurois, J. H. Plumb, Carl Sandburg, Dumas Malone, Elizabeth Longford, and Leon Edel.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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