Biography and Autobiography

Margaretta Jolly

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Biography and Autobiography

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The history of life writing reflects the history of selfhood itself, particularly as it has tracked the rise of individualism and, arguably, individuality. Biography, the interpretation of another’s life, is an ancient form with roots in religious and royal accounts, and can be found in all civilizations, although its didactic and moral emphasis has slowly faded in favor of debunking approaches. Autobiography is generally argued to arise in modernizing societies where the individual’s perspective gains cultural value, and has been linked to deep questions of self-awareness, self-division, and self-performance. The Romantic period crystallized this relationship as well as linked life writing to a new cult of the author. In the context of late modern culture, life narrative has become still more autobiographical than biographical, an everyday practice of confession and self-styling. However, biography and autobiography are not always distinct. Memoir can focus on another or oneself and has become the preferred term for literary autobiography in the past few years, arguably because today’s tastes are for stories of intimate relationship in which elements of biography and autobiography come together. Critics have therefore become interested in the inevitable dependency of one’s own story on another’s, a subject of ethical trouble but aesthetic, intellectual, and political fascination. Such “auto/biographies” express a range of relationships, from the ghostwriter’s service to a public figure’s memoir, to the ethnographer’s or doctor’s view of a person as case history. More often, family relations are the grounds on which the complexities of representational contracts are played out. This negotiation relates to a second defining aspect of life narrative: the reader’s expectation that it be true. “Memory is a great artist,” claimed a great autobiographical experimenter, André Malraux, and an enduring critical question has been whether life writing can be both artful and historically accurate. Increasingly, however, scholars broaden from such aesthetic debates to consider the social, political, and psychological work of life narrative. Readers will therefore find that this bibliography pushes out from the literary to encompass a capacious field of enquiry which includes social scientists interested in narrative or biographical methods, and interdisciplinary studies of personal storytelling in the contexts of human rights activism or, conversely, of the late capitalist trade in celebrity or exotic lives and digital cultures of self-publication. For literary critics therefore, biography and autobiography are now generally appreciated as two genres within a bigger field of life writing, life narrative, or life story about self–other relations, although they remain touchstones for those interested in how life experience can be aestheticized.

Article.  17018 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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