Biography: A Brief History

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 18 April 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "Biography: A Brief History", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 4, pp. 334-336.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Biography is one of the most popular forms of writing at the moment. It offers everything from scholarly reassessment to voyeuristic gossip. Celebrities write biographies (giving work to ghost‐writers and quick if ephemeral profits to publishers) and, like the biographies of anyone else and autobiographies by anyone else, there is always someone who wants to read it. Nigel Hamilton is well‐placed to write this excellent popular introduction to biography, having written about Montgomery and John Kennedy and currently researching a large study of Bill Clinton. Hamilton rightly says that our interest in the form, and the urge to write them too, derives from our continuing fascination with identity and human nature. There might also be a distrust of publicly received “truth”, driving us to ask what really happened, what was she really like, what really were the intentions behind it all.

Some biographies seem determined to hide away. The most legendary of these was Salinger, author of A Catcher in the Rye, who not only refused to work with Ian Hamilton but too him famously to court in the USA over matters of copyright and privacy. In fact, Ian Hamilton went on to write another book about the excessive control by descendants over author's literary estates. Other biographies get re‐evaluated by time and their idiosyncrasies exposed, perhaps in more enlightened or prurient times. A watershed in biography writing came with Michael Holroyd's study of Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury set, exposing (that favourite word) Strachey's sexuality. A later work in this idiom was Birkin's biography of Barrie, whose attraction to Peter Pan masked far more complex psychological issues in his life. Indeed, Hamilton suggests that psychologizing has been one aspect of writing biography that leads us to think of biography as a genre poised between many others. Its historical trigger, if you like, might have been Freud's biography of Leonardo, a book that appeared at the start of the twentieth century and that (like Holroyd's later work) re‐examined what came to be seen as Victorian repression.

Part of the appeal of – and confusion about – biography as a genre (if that is what it is, given that it can range from hagiography to exposé) is that it provides, or claims to provide, a “real‐life” depiction of people's lives and personalities. As such it weaves a complex pattern with mainstream history and literature, a lot of biography (such as Xenophon and Plutarch) being used to represent moral insights into the historical process. Julius Caesar wrote his own, Suetonius deconstructed the Caesars, St Augustine revealed just a little too much in his confessions, encomia were constructed to proselytize religious sentiments (lives of saints and martyrs and Christian worthies), Shakespeare drew on biographies (above all Holinshed), Raleigh like Newman devised an apologia pro vita sua, and then Samuel Johnson and Rousseau gave us “the biography” in the sense we know it today. Romantic sensibility (e.g. Byron, Goethe) and nineteenth‐century respectability (lives of Dickens and Lincoln and other “eminent Victorians”) laid down what seemed a tradition, and then Wilde came along, Virgina Woolf spoofed the form in Orlando, and it became clear that Gosse found his father a tyrant. These issues, about private and public sphere, are constants in the world of biography.

The broadly historical framework of Hamilton's book is helpful for the general reader and for the expert. Biography is a field where a lot of specialist studies exist (an excellently eclectic bibliography is provided, and see the references at the end of this review for some of them) and so this book fills a gap that is much needed. Hamilton suggests that biography is a form caught in a kind of flow between disclosure and confidentiality, between critique and moralizing sentiment, between psychologizing and decorum, between fact and fiction. These are thought‐provoking ideas, worth really thinking about hard if you are a writer or a reader, let alone a student (the book is ideal for the public and academic library shelves as well as a personal purchase). His travels through the twentieth century are as revealing as those through earlier periods – populism in books and films (biopics), a theme of democratic criticism about great figures (Abel Gance's J'Accuse, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, a series of anti‐hero works after the first world war), the rise of the genre (with Hermione Lee, Claire Tomalin, and many more). Surviving the post‐structuralist “death of the author”, we move into new Territory today with Capote's In Cold Blood, Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, The Life of Brian, the strange marriage of the Nicolsons, and the tense relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

Throughout Hamilton is a safe pair of hands, choosing excellent examples on the whole to make excellent points about the form, an inspired advocate of biography and clearly right on top of his brief. He moves easily between established fields of scholarship and inquiry to pick up on literary and historical, psychological and sociological, linguistic and life‐narrative approaches to the subject, and pushes this forward in two important ways: advocating more academic departments of biography (there are very few) and much greater systematic attention to biography from a historiographic and bibliographic viewpoint. By this token he admires Daniel Burt's book on the form. For any serious student of biography, cases like Suetonius, Vasari, Boswell's Johnson, Freud's Leonardo, Holroyd's Strachey, Ian Hamilton's Salinger, and the Plath‐Hughes affair (comparing, say, Janet Malcolm's 1994 study The Silent Woman with Ted Hughes's own Birthday Letters of 1998) will provide a framework for any further work. Nigel Hamilton's style and tone are clear, unpretentious, perceptive, and wise.

Once or twice Homer nods: chapter seven allows free speech and censorship to wander off into the Sullivan case (a defamation case that led to the notion in US law that public officials shouldered the burden of proof in such cases) and chapter eight wanders off into Sokal's notorious “spoof”/”fraud” article on “Transgressing the Boundaries” (for the journal Social Text in 1996): it is difficult in both cases to see the direct relevance, except to the underlying concepts and arguments about censorship and reality and truth. That said, Hamilton is a superb guide. An acknowledgements section at the end reveals that he was one of several people who tried to set up a “British Institute of Biography” in the 1990s and that, in both UK and US university settings, he kept on trying. In a way this book is an acknowledgement of that period in his life as well as a testament to his wide‐ranging knowledge of the form itself. It is a book likely to appeal to many different readers – from experts on life‐writing (there is a journal with this title published by Routledge) and literature and history to the general reader. Any genre that so clearly raises issues like truth and realism, scholarship and prying, disclosure and privacy, and human identity, cannot be ignored.

Further reading

Backscheider, P. (1999), Reflections on Biography, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Burt, D. (2001), The Biography Book: A Reader's Guide to Non‐Fiction, Fictional and Film Biographies, Oryx Press (Greenwood Press), Westport, CO.

Eakin, P.J. (1999), How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Hamilton, I. (1992), Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, Hutchinson, London.

Jolly, M. (Ed.) (2001), Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms, Fitzroy Dearborn, London.

Life Writing, a peer‐reviewed journal published twice a year in April and October by Taylor & Francis, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK, annual institutional rate £116.

Miller, R. (Ed.) (2005), Biographical Research Methods, four volumes, Sage Publications, London.

Roberts, B. (2002), Biographical Research, Open University Press, Buckingham.

Zinsser, W. (1987 and 1998), Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

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