The Newness of the ‘New Biography’: Biographical Theory and Practice in the Early Twentieth Century

Laura Marcus

in Mapping Lives

Published by British Academy

Published in print September 2004 | ISBN: 9780197263181
Published online February 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191734595 | DOI:

Series: British Academy Centenary Monographs

The Newness of the ‘New Biography’: Biographical Theory and Practice in the Early Twentieth Century

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The dominance of modernist and avant-garde literature in the early decades of the twentieth century directed attention away from certain texts and genres. Biography was one of the genres that underwent transformation. In the 1920s and 1930s, it took new forms, which gave rise to an unprecedented popularity of life-writing. This rise in the popularity of biographies was linked to the perception that they had been reinvented, requiring a new level of critical self-awareness. This chapter discusses biographical theory and practice in the early twentieth century. This biographical dimension crossed national boundaries wherein common biographical tenets were developed. In this period, the concept of ‘new biography’ proliferated. This new concept of biographies was grounded on the relationship between the literary and the scientific, and the importance of the study of the character. In the chapter, the tenets and characteristics of the ‘new biography’ and the ‘new biographers’ are considered. It examines the new equality between the biographer and the subject; the brevity, selection, and attention to the form and unity associated with fiction; the development of central motifs in a life and of a key to personality; and the focus on the character rather than the events.

Keywords: 1920s and 1930s; new forms; biographical theory; biographical practice; early twentieth century; biographical tenets; new biography; new biographers; new equality; attention to form

Chapter.  11945 words. 

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies

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