Biography, Memoir, and Reminiscence

Robert D. Habich

in The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism

Published in print April 2010 | ISBN: 9780195331035
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Biography, Memoir, and Reminiscence

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This article looks at memoirs, biographies, and reminiscence. In a journal entry for 1832, while musing over the need for a “Modern Plutarch,” Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, “I would draw characters not write lives”. His statement suggests clear lines between portraiture and narrative, art and exposition, the internal and external selves, troubling issues in the writing of biography that were far from clear during the nineteenth century. Like their contemporaries in an age enamored of biography, the Transcendentalists struggled with these distinctions, and while the impulse to “write lives”—to reveal the individuality of another person—would seem central to the Transcendentalists' project, they did surprisingly little of it. Personally Thoreau found the lives of others morally compelling. Likewise, Emerson's injunctions in Nature against building “sepulchres of the fathers” would seem to equate biography with unproductive retrospection. For the Transcendentalists, biographical authority derived from a sympathetic relationship to one's subject.

Keywords: biography; memoirs; journal; Modern Plutarch; biographical authority; narrative; transcendentalists

Article.  5755 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (Fiction, Novelists, and Prose Writers)

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