Biography: Definition, Examples & Meaning

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      Biography is the truthful record of an individual’s life presented in such a manner that it attracts the attention of the reader and gives him aesthetic pleasure. A biography is simply a bio that gives an account or detailed description about the life of a person. In literature, biography is the biographical exploration of the lives of a writer and artist or any person by another writer. It entails basic facts such as childhood, education, career, relationships, family and death of the subject. Biography often portrays the experiences and evidences occurring in the person’s life in a chronological order.

      Unlike a resume or profile, biography provides life story of a subject, highlighting different aspects of subject’s life. The person or the writer, who writes biographies, is called as a biographer. What is of primary importance in pure biography is historical truth. The portrait given by the biographer should be above flattery or condemnation; the writer must maintain a detached and dispassionate attitude towards his subject. In this respect, Carlyle opines — “The history of mankind is the history of its great men: to find out these, clean the dirt from them, and place them on their proper pedestal.” The second essential quality of pure biography is that it should be well-constructed. Materials should be presented in a readable manner. Pure biography, thus, is the truthful and deliberate record of an individual’s life presented as a work of art.

      The 18th century was the great age of English biography, when Boswell’s Life of Johnson was written, but in the Victorian period it again broke down. The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell is frequently hyped as a perfect example of modern biography and all-time best example in English language. This masterpiece of James Boswell has covered the whole life of ubiquitous literary writer, Samuel Johnson, with whom James was well acquainted on account of his subject of study. The unique quality of this book is that it shows Johnson as a walking intellectual amongst us. The genre of biography is so popular that there is even a cable network originally devoted to telling the stories of famous people’s lives (fittingly called The Biography Channel). In the 19th century England it became a fashion to have biography as to have funeral. It was only in the 20th century that biography came to be considered as a separate art, distinct from other related modes of narration. Modern biography has freed itself from the shackles of hero-worship. It lays particular accent on truth, on a faithful representation of greatest men and women, with all their strength and weakness clearly revealed.

      The publication of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians in 1918 set a new fashion in biography writing. He brushes aside all unnecessary factual materials and he believes in concentrating on the major events so as to throw vivid light on his theme. The great Victorians who came into life in the page of this book are not shadowy beings, mere abstractions of vice and virtue, but real men and women, possessing both strength and weakness. Queen Victoria (1921) is Strachey’s best work and probably still the finest biography of this century. Some of the modern biographers, inspired by the example of Lytton Strachey, include Edith Sitwell, who produced another life of Queen Victoria. Recent experiments in biography are in the fields of romance and psychology. The psychological biography analyses human motives and dissects human personality. Its purpose is to examine the way in which our minds work, the nature of our impulses and the manner in which human beings react to their interior stresses and exterior circumstances. However, there are three types of biography in literature:

(i) Autobiography

      It tells the story of a person’s life, who writes it himself or herself. However, sometimes she may take guidance from a ghostwriter or collaborator.

(ii) Biography

      It narrates the life story of a person written by another person or writer. It is further divided into five categories:

Popular biography
Historical biography
Literary biography
Reference biography
Fictional biography

(iii) Memoir

      This is a more focused term than an autobiography or a biography. In a memoir, a writer himself herself narrates the details of a particular event or situation occurred in his/her lifetime.

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