Biographies and Autobiographies

Biographies and Autobiographies
James Boswell and “The Life of Samuel Johnson”

A biography is a detailed description of someone’s life. It will include more than basic facts and will look at the person’s personality, recalling stories to give a true picture of the subject. If the person has agreed to the book then it is an authorised biography, and if the person writes about themselves then it is an autobiography. A ghost writer will often assist an autobiography as the person writing it may not have the necessary skills to complete the book on their own. Every book shop, or library, or publisher’s catalogue will have a section on biographies and autobiographies. These are popular purchases as they give so much information on people who may have done so much in a particular field of life. Very early biographies were written BC as writers, such as Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch and Suetonius wrote about famous Greek and Roman generals in particular. During the middle-ages book writing was not popular and there were very few examples of biographies. In 1485 Sir Thomas Malory wrote about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in “Le Morte d’Arthur”. The first modern biography appeared in 1791 when James Boswell wrote “The Life of Samuel Johnson”. The biography of the man who wrote the first dictionary required extensive research and it is claimed to be the best biography ever.

Up until the start of the 20th century the subjects of the biographies were seen as “gods” having few character flaws. Lytton Starchey thought these books were dull and in 1917 wrote his own “Eminent Victorians” in which he wrote about Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon. Starchey wrote about his subjects in a rather critical style and from this point forward the style of the biography changed. The publishing of autobiographies by this period had also gathered momentum. Many thought that some of Charles Dickens novels were based on life experience, but the closest to a full biography came with the release of David Copperfield. The suffering, struggles and achievements of Copperfield can be traced to those of Dickens himself.

“The Diary of a Young Girl” more than just an autobiography

The 20th century saw the production of biographies and autobiographies gather pace. As communications improved the general population wanted to read more about the people who were making headlines in the public eye. However, not all biographical writings were about well-known people.  “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank recorded her existence while hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands during the Second World War. She and her family were captured in 1944 and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she later died of typhus. The diaries were later found and published into an autobiography.

The popularity of this piece of work came as a result of it recording an individual’s existence during a critical part of history and the same can be said about “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent 26 years in prison for fighting against Apartheid in South Africa. He was a member of the ANC and when released from prison was instrumental in the new Rainbow Nation being formed. He was the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. So, few biographies have been mentioned but the ones that have demonstrate the huge characters that have been written about. It is hardly surprising that the autobiography and biography sections in libraries and book stores take up such a lot of shelf space.