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Biography: A Brief History

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For thousands of years we have recorded real lives--the lives of others, and of ourselves. For what purpose and for whom has this universal and timeless pursuit endured? What obstacles have lain in the path of biographers in the past, and what continues to confound biographers today? Above all, how is it that biographies and autobiographies play such a contested, popular r For thousands of years we have recorded real lives--the lives of others, and of ourselves. For what purpose and for whom has this universal and timeless pursuit endured? What obstacles have lain in the path of biographers in the past, and what continues to confound biographers today? Above all, how is it that biographies and autobiographies play such a contested, popular role in contemporary Western culture, from biopics to blogs, from memoir to docudrama? Award-winning biographer and teacher Nigel Hamilton addresses these questions in an incisive and vivid narrative that will appeal to students of human nature and self-representation across the arts and sciences. Tracing the remarkable and often ignored historical evolution of biography from the ancient world to the present, this brief and fascinating tour of the genre conveys the passionate quest to capture the lives of individuals and the many difficulties it has entailed through the centuries. From the "Epic of Gilgamesh" to "American Splendor," from cuneiform to the Internet, from commemoration to deconstruction, from fiction to fact--by way of famous biographical artists such as Plutarch, Saint Augustine, Sir Walter Raleigh, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lord Byron, Sigmund Freud, Lytton Strachey, Abel Gance, Virginia Woolf, Leni Riefenstahl, Orson Welles, Julian Barnes, Ted Hughes, Frank McCourt, and many others--Nigel Hamilton's "Biography: A Brief History" will change the way you think about biography and real lives.


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For thousands of years we have recorded real lives--the lives of others, and of ourselves. For what purpose and for whom has this universal and timeless pursuit endured? What obstacles have lain in the path of biographers in the past, and what continues to confound biographers today? Above all, how is it that biographies and autobiographies play such a contested, popular r For thousands of years we have recorded real lives--the lives of others, and of ourselves. For what purpose and for whom has this universal and timeless pursuit endured? What obstacles have lain in the path of biographers in the past, and what continues to confound biographers today? Above all, how is it that biographies and autobiographies play such a contested, popular role in contemporary Western culture, from biopics to blogs, from memoir to docudrama? Award-winning biographer and teacher Nigel Hamilton addresses these questions in an incisive and vivid narrative that will appeal to students of human nature and self-representation across the arts and sciences. Tracing the remarkable and often ignored historical evolution of biography from the ancient world to the present, this brief and fascinating tour of the genre conveys the passionate quest to capture the lives of individuals and the many difficulties it has entailed through the centuries. From the "Epic of Gilgamesh" to "American Splendor," from cuneiform to the Internet, from commemoration to deconstruction, from fiction to fact--by way of famous biographical artists such as Plutarch, Saint Augustine, Sir Walter Raleigh, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lord Byron, Sigmund Freud, Lytton Strachey, Abel Gance, Virginia Woolf, Leni Riefenstahl, Orson Welles, Julian Barnes, Ted Hughes, Frank McCourt, and many others--Nigel Hamilton's "Biography: A Brief History" will change the way you think about biography and real lives.

30 review for Biography: A Brief History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    This book is the history of biography. Hamilton explains the evolution of the biography and autobiography or idiography its prior name. The author states the Greco-Roman era as the golden age of biography. Hamilton goes on to explore the dark ages and the rise of Christian hagiography (the biographies of saints). Hamilton discuses Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and states he is the father of the modern literary biography. Hamilton also covers the research required for writing a biography, as wel This book is the history of biography. Hamilton explains the evolution of the biography and autobiography or idiography its prior name. The author states the Greco-Roman era as the golden age of biography. Hamilton goes on to explore the dark ages and the rise of Christian hagiography (the biographies of saints). Hamilton discuses Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and states he is the father of the modern literary biography. Hamilton also covers the research required for writing a biography, as well as the role of authorized and unauthorized biographies. Hamilton includes a section on the rise of film as a medium of use in a biography. I learned a lot from the book. The book was easy to read and quite entertaining. The book is 345 pages and well indexed, also there are notes and a bibliography. The book is published by Harvard University Press in 2007. Hamilton is a professor at the University of Massachusetts. He is an award-winning biographer of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and of John F. Kennedy.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Carl Rollyson

    Biography is the dominant nonfiction of the present age. It even pervades the media. So why, Hamilton asks, can one find "no single, accessible introduction to the subject, either for the general reader or the specialist?" As a subject, biography per se is not taught at the college level, and biographers are rarely represented in literature anthologies. "Distinguished chairs" in literature go to postmodern studies, women's studies--virtually any specialization but biography. The great misfortune Biography is the dominant nonfiction of the present age. It even pervades the media. So why, Hamilton asks, can one find "no single, accessible introduction to the subject, either for the general reader or the specialist?" As a subject, biography per se is not taught at the college level, and biographers are rarely represented in literature anthologies. "Distinguished chairs" in literature go to postmodern studies, women's studies--virtually any specialization but biography. The great misfortune for biography, Hamilton points out, is that "instead of becoming, like 'history' or 'art' or 'literature,' a premier domain of the humanities and sciences" biography came to be "constrained by a focus so narrow that no student could be made sufficiently curious to learn of its history," its "integral role in the shaping of human identity," or its "varying practice through the ages across different media." Hamilton discusses all this here and in so doing begins to rectify an enormous injustice. He shows that biography in itself is a form of knowledge or way of apprehending the world that deserves its own departments and centers of scholarly study. Supported and explicated by lively studies like this one, biography may finally get the respect it deserves.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Brown

    The world has long been in great need of a good narrative history of one of the most popular genres of writing (and other media): biography. Unfortunately, the world still is. This fact came as a great shock to me. Nigel Hamilton, himself an award-winning biographer and from 2010-2012 president of the Biographers International Organization, would seem to be the ideal candidate for writing precisely that volume, a historical introduction to biography; after all, he himself notes that, as of the ti The world has long been in great need of a good narrative history of one of the most popular genres of writing (and other media): biography. Unfortunately, the world still is. This fact came as a great shock to me. Nigel Hamilton, himself an award-winning biographer and from 2010-2012 president of the Biographers International Organization, would seem to be the ideal candidate for writing precisely that volume, a historical introduction to biography; after all, he himself notes that, as of the time of writing, he had been teaching the history of biography for ten years, and so here proposes to "give readers a narrative overview of biography's modest origins in prehistory and its long development in the West, culminating in its explosive growth in the late twentieth century" (2). (What's more, the book received a sterling review from Carl Rollyson, himself a biographer of considerable renown.) Consequently, I expected a competent and compelling narrative overview of exactly that. The result, however, was sadly disappointing - dreadfully unfocused and marred by significant flaws. First, though, what it does well. Hamilton faces no problem in offering a solid definition of biography, as being "our creative and nonfictional output devoted to recording and interpreting real lives" (1). This seems as good a distillation as any of the essence of what biography does. Hamilton defines its scope broadly, primarily so as to venture freely and frequently beyond the bounds of traditional print media; the "cross-media expansion" of biography is among Hamilton's key foci, and he announces from the prologue itself that the term "needs to be redefined to encompass the many, many different ways in which real-life depiction is practiced in Western society" (3). I'll admit that this became the source of one secondary disappointment in the book: in venturing as readily into visual media and biopics, Hamilton perhaps diverges from his focus. For the most part, at least once he reaches the modern era, Hamilton does typically produce, chapter by chapter, a narrative that treats the development of biography. He certainly gives Lytton Strachey his due, and then some; Strachey is not only treated in his own time and place, but recurs throughout the book. (On first read, I thought Hamilton paid too little attention to Samuel Johnson before that, but he does indeed offer Johnson, with his biographer James Boswell, a fine chunk of the third chapter.) In particular, I found the cursory eight chapter ("Death of the Author"), with its incisive look at poststructuralist, deconstructionist, and postmodern contributions to biography (or, rather, the lack of meaningful contributions therefrom), to be enthralling, entertaining, and clear-headed, even if his closing tangent on the infamous Sokal affair undoubtedly does more to advance a general critique than to further the message of the book. Moreover, Hamilton consistently writes with an eye toward the negotiation between privacy concerns and the biographical enterprise, and in so doing he does bring out probably the key factors spurring the directions in which Western biography developed. For all this, he deserves due credit. But not all is well here. Hamilton is not content to chronicle the development of biography, or to lay out the questions raised at each turn; he prefers to play the pundit also. Consequently, he has a vision for what goals a 'good' biography should have, and uses them as the standard for measuring biographical endeavors in the ancient, medieval, and modern eras alike. So, for instance, he seems to see 'good' biography as an unmasking, and so biographies written to depict models for virtuous living (e.g., hagiographies) are presented in a substantially poorer light than those by "Suetonius and Tacitus, who reveled in stripping the masks from much commemorated heroes of Greece and Rome" and thus constituted "the first golden age of biography," from which biography degenerated into a "largely commemorative role" following the fall of the Western Roman Empire (34). Hamilton's understanding of history is outdated, and he - unlike the vast majority of serious historians - still holds to the spurious moniker of the "Dark Ages" (41), even "a Dark Ages of almost universal philistinism" (48), which seriously undermines Hamilton's credibility. Also, Hamilton's notion of a 'good' biography - or even a good life - is apparently one linked largely to external experiences. He presents positively the fact that ancient Assyrian biographers presented the adventurous Gilgamesh as an example of learning unto broad-mindedness, and contrasts this with the negative cast he gives to the lives, and biographies, of Christian figures whom Hamilton slurs as complacent but (pace Hamilton) whose journeys were in fact just as broad and deep but were not linked to thisworldly geography (55). Likewise, Hamilton seems to regard a 'good' biography as subversive of public norms. At least, that seems the only conclusion one can draw when one observes how incessantly, over and over again, Hamilton highlights the sexual dimensions of biographies, particularly those that explore LGBT lives or have a heterosexual subject but revel in the erotic and the explicit. Hamilton appears to take special pleasure in meditating on sexuality in biography, such that other aspects of the human experience shrink in comparison. He isn't wholly without justification here, of course. One of his stated lenses in this book is the way in which negotiations over presenting private lives for public consumption (including the ramifications for public morals) have driven biography's development. And yet, from the way those matters are presented, one surmises some element of personal obsession must lie behind the descriptions here. Moreover, the overwhelming focus on LGBT biographical subjects seems to defy balance; there were surely many biographical projects Hamilton overlooked precisely to focus on these, and one wonders how this selectivity may have distorted the narrative overview thus produced. Hamilton begins his saga, of course, in prehistory, with the depictions of Paleolithic human life in cave paintings, and the stylized representations of ancient Egypt (6-8). He looks to the Epic of Gilgamesh as an early example of biography in poetic form (13-17), and soon leaps ahead to classical Greece and its compilation of "essays about statesmen, soldiers, or philosophers" (20), and thereafter to Roman biography (24-32). Only later does Hamilton turn back the clock to the most cursory sort of treatment of the Old Testament imaginable, which he simply refers to as a "biographical compendium of the ancient Jewish world" (34) and a collection of "a thousand years of speculative and documented genealogy, encomia, rhetoric, poetry, prophecy, and love of narrative, in memorable depictions (from a variety of sources) of individual men and women, heroes and villains" (36). One might to both his understanding of the sources of Old Testament literature and to his needless cheap shot at "Fundamentalist Christians" who believe in the Old Testament as the word of God (36). Hamilton undertakes no consideration of the actual contribution the Old Testament made to biography in its own right. In this he can be forgiven; it wasn't until the year after this book came out that Oxford University Press released Joshua Berman's landmark 2008 study Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought , which in its fifth chapter demonstrates that in Exodus (and elsewhere) we have the pioneering of new forms of narrative - the sort without which, the modern enterprise of biography, in precisely those elements of which Hamilton is so fond, could not have developed. In touching upon the Late Roman and Early Medieval periods, Hamilton justly puts focus on Augustine, to whom the origins or transformations of autobiography are widely attributed. But Hamilton discusses very few other actual biographies in this period, preferring to speak in generalities of the "hagiographies" for which he has little respect. He includes an excerpt from Adamnan's life of St. Columba (50-52), but offering no discussion in the text. His sole reference to the heavily impactful biography of St. Antony by St. Athanasius is in presenting Antony as an exemplar of ignorance (55). This he mentions after excoriating the Roman Catholic Church for its Index librorum prohibitorum, but conveniently neglecting to mention that this was promulgated in the 1500s, over a thousand years after the Confessions of St. Augustine being discussed in the same chapter! In fact, during this whole intervening era, Hamilton provides not a whit of substantiation for the "church-maintained biographical barriers" he decries, in the sense of institutional control (59; cf. 54). As for the much-derided hagiographies, again, other than wholly insufficient treatment of those of St. Columba (excerpted but not discussed) and St. Antony (exploited for polemical purposes), Hamilton offers nothing. No description of the techniques of 'hagiographical' biographers using actual examples. He does a grave disservice to the entire era. Other reviewers here have objected to Hamilton's "Islamophobia." And not without some justification. Hamilton can be forgiven for not devoting much space to biography in the Muslim world; after all, he states in the prologue that he aims to limit his survey "primarily to the English-speaking nations" (2). And yet he chooses to talk about Islam anyway - about "the much-married prophet Mohammed and the assembling of the Koran" (45). In particular, he lambastes Islam as "a religion that eschewed individual life depiction as insulting to the majesty of Allah," so that Islamic hegemony would have "spelled the end of biography" (48). He states his regard of Islam as a "religious ideology" wherein "individuality itself is superseded" (292). In all this, Hamilton apparently writes in utter ignorance of the biographical traditions in Islam - of the fact that biographical literature on the life of Muhammad (Sirah) is a staple of Islamic discourse (see, e.g., Ibn Ishaq), or the fact that al-Tabari devoted an entire work to biographical sketches of the Sahaba and the Tabi'un (as the appendix to his History of the Prophets and Kings), or any of the other evidence vitiating Hamilton's sweeping condemnations. Unlike his treatment of Islam, Hamilton concedes that the heyday of "the Christian contribution to biography ... deepened the focus upon the individual self" (49). He welcomes the addition of introspection through the confessional genre (58). He grants, though one senses it is begrudgingly, that "Christian biographical writers and artists did introduce to the biographical canon the lives of ordinary, humble believers - especially women - rather than adhering to the exclusive community of statesmen, soldiers, poets, and philosophers of the Greco-Roman golden age of biography" (56). In this he is doubtless correct. But his assorted cheap and unprofessional disparagements of Christianity mingle poorly here. He has a tenuous grasp on Christian doctrine, in reducing it to "personal salvation in this life, and the avoidance of hell in the next, by following the example of Jesus as described by his four authorized biographers" (49). He slams "the majority of Christians" throughout history for having "behaved with the utmost arrogance," though what place Hamilton's personal vendettas have in an ostensibly academic work is anyone's guess. Perhaps worse than these, however, is his lamentable grasp on the origins of the fourfold Gospel tradition, which he presents - contrary to both the best New Testament scholarship and the best patristic scholarship - as an arbitrary selection out of a larger pool of viable candidates. He explicitly depicts this as four biographies chosen as 'authorized' out of a larger collection of biographies ("competing versions of Christ's biography" [38]). In particular, he makes mention of the "alternative, less deifying, and literally death-defying biographies by writers such as the Gnostic chronicler Thomas," which he claims were "damned, destroyed, or driven into concealment by the early Christian church authorities for almost two thousand years" (39). Where to even begin with this ahistorical mess? Whoever authored the pseudepigraphal 'Gospel of Thomas,' its production was hardly a "death-defying" act - no second-century Gnostic (if the work properly qualifies as 'Gnostic,' which is somewhat controverted in contemporary scholarship) was ever at risk of death from any bishops or priests, who were focused on evading persecution themselves much of the time. One questions even the phrase "less deifying," for although the canonical Gospels have a high Christology within the context of Second Temple Jewish thought, the Gnostic Gospels certainly don't present the sort of merely human Jesus popular with their twentieth- and twenty-first-century pop-(mis)interpreters. As for such literature being "destroyed," Hamilton describes no evidence from the relevant period for concerted destructive action; and, as for "driven into concealment," more recent studies have evinced that the physical format of recovered Gnostic works is that of private reading rather than congregational use (see, e.g., the works of Hurtado and Kruger). Hamilton botches virtually everything about this historical moment on the basis of what he thinks he knows. But perhaps most importantly, the very example he chooses to highlight - the so-called Gospel of Thomas, to which we may also add the Gospel of Mary Magdalene he excerpts, and even the Gospel of Judas he mentions in a footnote thereto - does not meet Hamilton's own definition of 'biography'! Unlike the canonical Gospels, in fact, not a one of these is an example of "creative and nonfictional output devoted to recording and interpreting real lives" (1). The Gospel of Thomas, dating to the late second century (at best), is a collection of sayings abstracted from a narrative framework; the so-called Gospel of Mary is of a discourse format, and does not even purport to be any sort of biography of Jesus; and much the same is true of the Gospel of Judas. Again: Hamilton's other 'biographies' do not meet his own definition of the term. Why, then, does he call them such, at the sacrifice of consistency? One may imagine a few reasons, none of which Hamilton ought receive as a compliment; but at the very least, one may fairly say that, if he did not profess them to be biographies, he could not even pretend to rank them alongside the canonical Gospels and further his narrative of institutional church suppression, which narrative is so very much in vogue these days. It's worth noting that, in Hamilton's discussion of the Gospels (both the canonical Gospels of the first century and the Gnostic so-called 'Gospels' of later vintage), his sources are limited. Limited, in fact, to one: Elaine Pagels' venture The Gnostic Gospels . That's it. Hamilton, in all this, makes no reference to a single piece of actual New Testament scholarship. In treating what it means for the Gospels to be biographies, he does not consult even Richard Burridge's field-changing 2004 book What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography - and for this, Hamilton is surely culpable. But this is symptomatic of the whole: even for a "brief history," Hamilton's sourcing is frequently underwhelming. Ironic, given that one of his charges to extol Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus at the expense of the Gospels is that the former "were far better historians in terms of research and documentation" (37) - when Hamilton's documentation of his claims is often wanting. Hamilton could have written the history of biography that the world has been waiting for. But he didn't. I hope someone will.

  4. 5 out of 5

    secondwomn

    informative, readable - a good broad overview of biography in the western tradition, with a wide net that includes film and art to the extent that an overview can.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    This is a really great book so far (just starting chapter 6 - about halfway through). I have a new found appreciation for Walter Raliegh, Virginia Woolf, and Lytton Strachey. I can't wait to finish this book, and I need to get a copy for myself as soon as possible in order to annotate key ideas when I re-read this. That said, I think that most biography buffs will NOT like this book. Those will like it, in my opinion, are those who enjoy learning about how our modern culture developed, and those This is a really great book so far (just starting chapter 6 - about halfway through). I have a new found appreciation for Walter Raliegh, Virginia Woolf, and Lytton Strachey. I can't wait to finish this book, and I need to get a copy for myself as soon as possible in order to annotate key ideas when I re-read this. That said, I think that most biography buffs will NOT like this book. Those will like it, in my opinion, are those who enjoy learning about how our modern culture developed, and those who like literature survey or history of the novel courses.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Hayley

    I read this while working on my senior thesis. I found it highly informative and useful. The best thing about this book is its readability; so many history books can become dry and dull. This book was not dry at all. The only thing that bugged me about it was that from time to time it was a bit melodramatic. On the whole, it's a great little book. Few books are dedicated to the actual history of biography, so this is a great contribution to this understudied field. I read this while working on my senior thesis. I found it highly informative and useful. The best thing about this book is its readability; so many history books can become dry and dull. This book was not dry at all. The only thing that bugged me about it was that from time to time it was a bit melodramatic. On the whole, it's a great little book. Few books are dedicated to the actual history of biography, so this is a great contribution to this understudied field.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jimmy

    good historical overview of the different motives and methods behind the writing of Biographies. Hamilton also helps define the genre of Biography apart from its relatives, History, Memoir, even Fiction.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sean

    A fine overview of Western biography. Problems as with all of these kinds of books include: aggressive Western-centrism, and presentism. Unique problems include really uncomfortable, tacit Islamophobia.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Agatha Lund

    Interesting, but way too dry for the subject material -- it's taken me six weeks to get a third of the way through this one, I'm finally just giving up. Interesting, but way too dry for the subject material -- it's taken me six weeks to get a third of the way through this one, I'm finally just giving up.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mary Louise

    Excellent overview of the history of biography, and how, up until now, we talk about it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Perry

    A very enjoyable and broad look at the art of biography. Bios are evolving and have done so with history.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Vojta

  13. 5 out of 5

    Dan Allosso

  14. 5 out of 5

    Huma Malika

  15. 4 out of 5

    Inass G.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tarmo J├╝risto

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ben

  18. 5 out of 5

    Fiona Deans Halloran

  19. 5 out of 5

    Annie M

  20. 4 out of 5

    Betsy Connor

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rosalind Reisner

  22. 5 out of 5

    Paul Linae

  23. 5 out of 5

    Cindy

  24. 5 out of 5

    Steph

  25. 4 out of 5

    Eleonora Capra

  26. 5 out of 5

    Valerie

  27. 4 out of 5

    Roberta

  28. 5 out of 5

    Gabriel Finkelstein

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mary Alice

  30. 4 out of 5

    Cody White

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