*Biography and the Essay
Biography and the Essay
Biography is difficult to define succinctly or convincingly. As a genre, its boundaries are elusive, its subject slippery; it is expressive of a human need rather than the answer to that need. In its widest application, the term “biography” describes any attempt to tell the story of what it is to be human; broadly speaking, whatever artifacts, monuments, pictures, or writings people have left behind to mark the spaces they once occupied are kinds of biography. Cave paintings, petroglyphs, hieroglyphs, pyramids, and stone circles are life writings in this sense. Biography is a reflexive human gesture that points to others and says: “You are and, therefore, I am.” It is the process by which individuals and cultures codify their consciousness of what it feels like to live a life of significance in time and space. That is the import of Samuel Johnson’s much-quoted and deeply felt explanation of how biography works upon the reader: “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of others is produced by an act of the imagination, that realises the event however fictitious, or approximates it however remote, by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate; so that we feel, while the deception lasts, whatever motions would be excited by the same good or evil happening to ourselves” (Rambler no. 60). What Johnson describes is not necessarily a literary activity but an imaginative and emotional one, predicated upon the human capacity for empathy. Perhaps this is the closest we can come to a workable definition of biography: the imagining that another life is like our own.
Perhaps the first biographer to meet Johnson’s standard in life writing was Plato, whose exploration of the character and mind of Socrates in the dialogues is compellingly intimate. In a similar way the life of Christ is evoked in narrative and dramatic snatches by the Apostles who, like Socrates, achieve their biographical portraits through emphasizing the language of their subject. Recording speeches was one of the more
common forms of biography before the advent of the essay in Renaissance Europe; indeed, the best biographical accounts in classical Greek are the dramatic speeches recorded by Thucydides and Herodotus in their Histories. Xenophon’s portrayal of Socrates in his 4th-century Memorabilia, however, is the closest approximation to biography to be found before Plutarch’s Vitae parallelae (Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans), a compilation of 44 comparative life studies in which Plutarch sets Greek against Roman, as in his comparison of Alexander and Caesar as generals or Demosthenes and Cicero as orators. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Plutarch’s contemporary, produced two important works of biography, the Lives of the Caesars and Agricola, his memoir of his father-in-law.
Medieval biographers like the Venerable Bede in Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (c. 732; Ecclesiastical History of the English People), with its life of St. Cuthbert, and the monk Eadmer who wrote Vita Anselmi (c. 1124; The Life of St. Anselm) were producing encomia that lacked the sense of personality present in the best classical biographies. Their moral perspective is typical of the pattern we see in the lives of the saints throughout the Middle Ages, but it is their emphasis upon the life to come at the expense of the life lived that diminishes their literary significance as biography. It is only with the return to secular subjects in works like Giovanni Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium (The Fates of Illustrious Men) in the 14th century that life writing comes back to a focus on the shared humanity of the subject and the reader. In fact, before Boccaccio, only Einhard’s Vita Caroli Magni (c. 829–36; Life of Charlemagne) offered any sustained human interest as a biography. After Boccaccio, three biographical compilations are particularly important: Giorgio Vasari’s Vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori italiani (1550; Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), the biographies of Italian artists from Cimabue to Michelangelo; John Foxe’s The Acts and Monuments of the Church, also known as The Book of the Martyrs (1563), the collected lives of the English Reformers persecuted under Mary Tudor; and the eccentric Mirror for Magistrates (1563 and subsequent expanded editions), edited by George Ferrers, a sort of English imitation of Boccaccio’s work. These books are also among the first serious attempts to produce national biographies in the vernacular. The 16th century in England saw the greatest surge in life writing with Thomas More, William Roper, and George Cavendish establishing the return of secular and humanist biography and setting the stage for Francis Bacon’s The History of the Reign of Henry VII (1622). In France, Pierre de Bourdeille produced collections of brief lives which explored the social intimacy of court life in his Les Vies des dames illustres, Les Vies des dames galantes, Les Vies des hommes illustres et grands capitaines français, and Les Vies des hommes illustres et des grands capitaines étrangers (1665–66). However, it was
Izaak Walton and Roger North who moved biography closest to its modern expression.
Walton’s lives of John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, and Robert Sanderson published between 1640 and 1678 are portraits shaded with private and domestic details, while North’s narratives of the lives of his three brothers, accompanied by a prefatory essay on the art of biography and not published until 1742–44, are intimate and imaginatively engaging memoirs of the private lives of regular citizens.
Biography as Johnson described it is the creation of the European Enlightenment and finds its landmark achievements in 18th-century English literature. Notably, this great age of biographic writing was preceded by and coincident with the zenith of portrait painting in Europe. An increasingly secular emphasis in politics and art further emphasized the significance of the individual in his or her own life, but that cultural impulse required a philosophical and linguistic imperative which was provided, ultimately, by such works as Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621 and subsequent revised editions) and John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). The modern notion of private psychology expressed in works like these brought a new language and way of seeing to the practice of life writing, and biographers began to examine the emotional and motivational forces behind the actions of men and women. Rather than looking to an external impetus for actions in life, whether God or the public duty demanded by the state, which had provided the focus of classical, medieval, and Renaissance biographies, the Enlightenment explored the interior terrain of emotional and private motivation. Thus, in his best biography, An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744), Samuel Johnson undertakes to tell the story of a minor writer who was a total failure and died mad, not as an example of a life to be avoided, but as a study of depression and of those ways in which every life is more an experience of disappointment than of fulfillment. He is interested in psychological understanding, not moral allegory. Johnson’s own biography, arguably the greatest example of its kind, was written from a similar perspective by the Scot James Boswell. A compulsive diarist, Boswell’s exhaustive Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was based largely upon his extensive notes of Johnson’s conversations. Boswell treats Johnson’s early life with some abruptness, concentrating the bulk of his massive narration on those years he shared with Johnson. In this, the biography is also a kind of memoir evoking not one but two personalities, those of Johnson and Boswell. It is this impetus to give a psychologically compelling sense of the individual, to paint a personality in words, that is the hallmark of Enlightenment biographies and is a feature held in common with the novel which arose simultaneously with modern biography all across Europe. Biography
of this sort shares with the novel an emphasis on domesticity.
Still, 18th-century biography is distinguished by its reliance on the essay for its rhetorical structure. This is especially true in the French tradition where the eulogy (éloge) dominated the style of life writing until Marie-Jean Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet broke entirely with that convention in the biographies of Turgot (1786) and Voltaire (1789). Among other important examples of life writing in Enlightenment France were Voltaire’s at times satiric Histoire de Charles XII, roi de Suède (1731; The History of Charles XII, King of Sweden), Diderot’s Essai sur Sénèque (1778; Essay on Seneca), and La Beaumelle’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Madame de Maintenon (1756; Memoire for the History of Madame de Maintenon). But it is the early work of Pierre Bayle, the dictionary maker, that alone among French life writing has any long-reaching influence. His Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary) is arguably the first example of a modern biographical compilation, taking the tradition of the brief lives that originated with Suetonius and had its English expression in John Aubrey and Anthony Wood’s Athenae Oxoniensis (1691) and developing it into an encyclopedic form. Bayle’s innovation was introduced to England by Thomas Birch, a hack biographer, and eventually influenced William Oldys, the first editor of the Biography Britannica (1747–66), which was corrected and enlarged in a second edition by Andrew Kippis (1778–93). The biographical dictionary took a number of subsequent forms until biographical essays became a regular feature of the Encyclopedia Britannica in its third edition (1788–97). Among the many imitators of Bayle, William Owen and William Johnston were the first to attempt an internationally and historically inclusive compendium of biographical essays in their New and General Biographical Dictionary…of the Lives and Writings of the Most Eminent People of Every Nation (1761–67). All of these works point forward to the late 19th-century schemes for dictionaries of national biography, such as that edited by Leslie Stephen.
Where Locke’s theories tended to shape the idea of biography during the Enlightenment, Charles Darwin eventually dominated 19th-century and Sigmund Freud 20th-century concepts of life writing. In the early 19th century, politics began to displace the domestic as the fulcrum of biographical studies, a trend especially evident in Thomas Carlyle’s life of Frederick the Great, some 13 years in the writing and finally published in three massive volumes over a seven-year period (1858–65). David Masson, however, best illustrates the Victorian tendency toward historical inclusiveness with his seven-volume Life of Milton in Connection with the History of His Times, which appeared over a 35-year span (1859–94). While English biography was becoming more historically and politically obsessed, French life writing was taking an inward turn.
Introspection is the dominant feature of work like Étienne Pivert de Senancour’s Obermann (1804) and continues to be the theme in the biographical writing of Alphonse de Lamartine and Alfred de Musset.
Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) did more than any single work since Boswell to redirect and revive the art of biography. Strachey eschewed the 19th century’s respect for biographical subjects, whom he treated with irreverence and irony, writing in a highly individualistic style that harkened back to the elegance of Johnson’s essays.
Eminent Victorians shows utter disregard for historical veracity and never hesitates to embellish or invent where the events of the subject’s life are absent or dull. Here was the beginning of a biographical mode that sought to reveal human weaknesses and folly while setting identification and empathy at a problematic distance. Recognition of shared humanity between the reader and the subject of the biography is more an experience of humiliation than reassurance in Strachey. Biography in the 20th century has continued
and refined Strachey’s methods, developing a kind of life writing that treats the subject as an opponent to be exposed. Political biography in particular is so directed, among the best examples being William Manchester’s life of John F.Kennedy, Death of a President (1967).
Biography and the essay are closely tied for a number of reasons, but the most interesting is their shared inclination toward introspection. The essay after Montaigne offered a medium for intense self-examination that is autobiographical by nature. The most innovative of the early modern biographers, like Diderot, Johnson, and Boswell, were themselves outstanding essayists. But the essay is also essentially an empirical tool, designed to seek out, identify, and convey knowledge of the world as it relates to the self.
This dichotomy of the introspective and the empirical that defines the essay as a genre also well describes the activity of life writing where what can be ascertained about a life and what can only be intuited are brought together uneasily into a narrative that is ultimately more an art than a science.
Aaron, Daniel, editor, Studies in Biography, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978
Altick, Richard D., Lives and Letters: A History of Literary Biography in England and America, New York: Knopf, 1966
Clifford, James L., Biography as Art: Selected Criticism, 1560–1960, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1962
Garraty, John A., The Nature of Biography, New York: Knopf, 1957
Kendall, Paul M., The Art of Biography, New York: Norton, 1985 (original edition, 1965)
Meyers, Jeffrey, The Spirit of Biography, Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1989
Stauffer, Donald A., English Biography Before 1700, New York: Russell and Russell, 1964 (original edition, 1930)
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