Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
The first written accounts of people’s lives appeared in the early Middle Ages. They were written by hermits, monks and priests, and they sang the praises of church fathers, martyrs, popes and saints. By the late Middle Ages, books about kings, knights and tyrants appeared. These were followed by Renaissance biographies of artists and poets. Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” (1550) turned its subjects into celebrities.
In the late 18th century, biographers were less likely to idealize the people they profiled but described them truthfully, without omitting their weaknesses. Classic examples are Samuel Johnson’s “Critical Lives of the Poets” (1779-81) and James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” (1791). Boswell followed Johnson around, learned facts about his life and compiled them chronologically. Johnson, who didn’t believe in chronology, concentrated his efforts on finding little-known anecdotes that revealed his subjects’ characters.
The Romantic biographers came up with a new approach. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions” (1781-88) revived the confessional mode first introduced in “The Confessions of St. Augustine” (397-398). This tradition was also adopted by American Puritans and Quakers, although the archetypal story of a self-made American man was Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography, 1706-1757.”
The 19th century brought a revolution to the publishing business and made books available to large audiences. It also produced a “great man theory,” according to which history could be explained by the impact of “great” individuals. Both trends led to publishing affordable paperback editions of popular biographies of “great men and women.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, the autobiography genre flourished, starting with Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” (1901) and Henry Adams’ “Education” (1907). Yet by the end of the century, “the great man theory” gave way to sociological explorations of personality, which emphasized the environment and tended to downplay individuality. The new school of biography featured iconoclasts, scientific analysts and fictional biographers, and its practitioners included Lytton Strachey, Gamaliel Bradford, Andre Maurois, Emil Ludwig and, later, Robert Graves.
Today, biography comes in all shades and colors. Iranian-Japanese author Roxana Saberi offers a critique of a totalitarian regime in “Between Two Worlds: My Life in Captivity in Iran” (Harper, 2010). Sierra Leonean Ishmael Beah and Rwandan Immaculée Ilibagiza reveal the horrors of civil war in “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007) and “Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide” (Hay House, 2008). “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced” (Three Rivers, 2010) by a Yemeni girl, Nujood Ali, exposes oppressive cultural customs.
Celebrity biographies are ever-popular. Recent releases include “Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney” by Howard Sounes (Da Capo, 2010), “Frank: The Voice” by James Kaplan (Doubleday, 2010) and “Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga” by Maureen Callahan (Hyperion, 2010).
Some biographies are dedicated to people of art and science or to intellectuals, past or present: “The Man Who Invented the Computer” by Jane Smiley (Doubleday, 2010), “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty” by Phoebe Hoban (St. Martin’s, 2010), “How to Live Or, A Life of Montaigne” by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press, 2010), “Galileo” by J.L. Heilbron (Oxford University, 2010) and page-turner “Cleopatra” by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown, 2010).
The nonchronological approach of Johnson was also adopted by Missouri’s own Mark Twain, whose “Autobiography of Mark Twain” (Vol. 1, University of California, 2010) is finally out, 100 years after it was written. The confessional tone of the Romantics is back, too. The market is flooded with memoirs confessing to multiple vices. Among them are “Fury” by Koren Zailckas (Viking, 2010), and “Portrait of An Addict as a Young Man” by Bill Clegg (Little, Brown, 2010).
Political biographies and autobiographies have been popular for a long time. Some recent ones are “Decision Points” (Crown, 2010) by President George W. Bush, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” (Crown, 2010) by Condoleezza Rice, “A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him” (Yale, 2010) by Michael Takiff, and the final volume of Edmund Morris’ biographical trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt, “Colonel Roosevelt” (Random House, 2010).
Until recently, only famous people wrote about their lives; “Angela’s Ashes” (Scribner, 1996) by Frank McCourt and “The Color of Water” (Riverhead, 1996) by James McBride changed that. Nowadays, memoirs are written by relatives of Alzheimer’s victims—Olivia Hoblitzelle, “Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows” (Penguin, 2010); cancer patients—Walter Wangerin, “Letters From the Land of Cancer” (Zondervan, 2010); or just strong-willed people such as Sarahlee Lawrence, “River House” (Tin House, 2010).
And if you’ve been thinking about writing your own memoirs, check out Steve Zousmer’s “You Don’t Have to Be Famous: How to Write Your Life Story” (Writer’s Digest Books, 2007) and get going. Happy writing!