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Ira Bruce Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form (St. Martin's Press, 1984). See Examples and Observations, below.


The story of a person's life, written by another. Adjective: biographical.

The writer of a biography is called a biographer. The subject of a biography is the biographee.

See also:


From the Greek, "life" + "write"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written."
    (Mark Twain, Autobiography, 1924)

  • "Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography. . . . Formerly we used to canonize our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarize them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable."
    (Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1890)

  • The History of Biography
    - "As early as the fourth century B.C.E. in the Western tradition, biography began to be distinguished from general history as a separate rhetorical form. Two principal lines emerged: historical biography chronicling the subject's entire life, and popular biography recounting notable incidents and sayings with little or no attempt to establish chronology or to depict the subject in historical context. . . .

    "Theophrastus, the Greek philosopher of the fourth and late third century B.C.E., applied to the art of verbal portraiture his teacher Aristotle's proposition that character, the root word meaning a mark or stamp, as in the impression on a coin, is best revealed by acts. The Characters is a book of ideal types illustrated by specific behavior. . . . The Characters, revived and translated into English beginning in the late sixteenth century, influenced verbal portraiture in drama, poetry, and the newly developing genres of fiction and nonfiction prose from the Renaissance on."
    (Catherine N. Parke, Biography: Writing Lives. Routledge, 2002)

    - "[In] the late-seventeenth-century, . . . 'biography' became the correct dictionary designation for a written record of a particular human life, but it was not distinguished from the more generic term 'biography'--[which includes] the entire field of real-life human depiction, in various media: a noble field that stretches back to classical times and beyond."
    (Nigel Hamilton, Biography: A Brief History. Harvard Univ. Press, 2007)

  • Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson
    "Biography as a literary genre is largely the product of one seminal work, James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Of course, biographies had appeared earlier, including several by Johnson himself, and the idea of biography extends backward to medieval saints' lives and to Plutarch (46?-120), whose Parallel Lives has exerted an enormous influence on the history of biography. But Boswell's innovations revolutionized the genre and made it the target of suppression and censorship. He sought not only to memorialize a great man but to reveal his flaws. Boswell reported long stretches of Johnson's conversation, notes his mannerisms, and in general gave an intimate picture such as no biographer had ever before dared to attempt."
    (Carl Rollyson, Essays in Biography. iUniverse, 2005)

  • Writing a Biography
    "[When writing a biography] ask yourself these questions to help you spot weaknesses . . .:
    - Have I researched thoroughly and carefully to avoid writing a biography that misrepresents the subject?
    - Does my biography reflect the research accurately and acknowledge sources completely?
    - Have I avoided personal bias so that I do not misrepresent the subject?
    - Did I avoid too much name-date-place information?
    - Have I included meaningful details to support the focus?
    - Are names, dates, places, and details accurate?
    - Does the biography read well, or does it sound like a list of facts and figures?
    - Does the reader get a good glimpse of the subject?
    You should have answered 'yes' to each of the preceding questions."
    (Sharon Sorenson, Webster's New World Student Writing Handbook, 5th ed. Wiley, 2010)

  • Biography as a Genre: Between History and Fiction
    - "Between history and the novel stands biography, their unwanted offspring, which has brought a great embarrassment to them both. In the historian's view biography is a kind of frogspawn--it takes ten thousand biographies to make one small history. To the novelist we are simply what Nabokov called 'psycho-plagiarists.' Yet biographers claim to have thrived on their outcast state. While so much history has been respectably academicised, and even the novel fenced off behind academic theory, the biographer is still free to roam wherever his instinct takes him. A vital literature needs cross-border trading."
    (Michael Holroyd, Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography. Basic Books, 2002)

    - "[T]he greatest stimulus to the re-presentation of lives in biographies is the novel, with character forming the most important point of intersection between the two genres. But where fiction borrowed from biography in the 18th century for the presentation of character, the reverse appears to be true for the 20th. . . .

    "'The biographer's imagination,' [Virginia Woolf] confessed, 'is always being stimulated to use the novelist's art of arrangement, suggestion, dramatic effect to expound the private life.' . . .

    "Through fact and revision, biography strives to demythologize the individual but inevitably, this becomes an ironic effort, since readers replace old myths with new if they read biography uncritically."
    (Ira Bruce Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form. St. Martin's Press, 1984)

  • R.L. Stevenson on Biographies: "Where the Fun Comes In"
    "I like biography far better than fiction myself: fiction is too free. In biography you have your little handful of facts, little bits of a puzzle, and you sit and think, and fit 'em together this way and that, and get up and throw 'em down, and say damn, and go out for a walk. And it's real soothing; and when done, gives an idea of finish to the writer that is very peaceful. Of course, it's not really so finished as quite a rotten novel; it always has and always must have the incurable illogicalities of life about it, the fathoms of slack and the miles of tedium. Still, that's where the fun comes in."
    (Robert Louis Stevenson, letter to Edmund Gosse, June 18, 1893)
Pronunciation: bi-OG-re-fee
Also Known As: life-writing, history of the life

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