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Ancient Biography, Medieval And Renaissance Biography, The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, The Nineteenth And Twentieth Centuries

One of the oldest genres of literature, biography is a written account of a person's life. It is also known as "life writing," a broader term that encompasses autobiography and other narrative forms such as letters, memoirs, journals, and diaries. The term biography derives from the Greek bios (life) and graphein (to write). Latin and Greek terms for biography were used in antiquity. Before the adoption of the word biography into English in the seventeenth century, common terms for biography were life and the Latin biographia.

Many of the earliest "histories" were biographical accounts of the lives of important historical figures. Biography often has been associated with the field of history (and at times has been considered a branch of it), but distinctions between them were drawn beginning in ancient times. Whereas the writers of histories always have purported to present the truth accurately, biographers more obviously have praised their subjects or have presented them as exemplars for moral or didactic (educational) purposes.

Although formal definitions of biography vary, biographical literature includes such forms as character sketches, single biography, serial biography, literary biography, ethical (or didactic) biography, critical biography, and hagiography (sacred biography). In addition, biography shares many features with other literary genres, including travel writing and epistolary literature (that is, literature based on letters), and certain novelistic forms, such as the biographical novel and the bildungsroman that follows the development of a young character. The mixture of fiction with fact in biography means that it has much in common with imaginative literature. For example, the emergence of the novel as a genre paralleled developments in biography. Many early novels adopted a biographical form. In contemporary literature, a novelized biography may be nearly indistinguishable from a biographical novel.

Some commentators have indicated that biography, as an independent form, has been predominantly a product of Western civilization. In particular, they have pointed to the comparatively greater focus on the individual personality in Western biographical literature. If one follows a narrowly construed definition of biography, and adopts Western forms as standards, then this conclusion may seem plausible. Yet while the development of biography in the West has followed a unique trajectory, the production of biographical literature (and likely the biographical impulse witnessed in oral cultures) appears to be universal. Nevertheless, some differences between Western and non-Western traditions must be considered. In China, for example, biographical literature has been largely contained within a historiographic tradition and has been primarily related to the literature of the art of government. In India, biographical writings (such as fragments regarding the Buddha) have been contained within a larger body of spiritual literature.

Just as it is difficult to find an unbiased historical narrative (and many histories have been written for political purposes), biography long has been written for political, moral, or didactic purposes. The origins of biography in epideictic rhetoric (panegyric, or elaborate praise) means that biographers (whether of kings or revolutionaries) have been more interested in praising their subjects' actions or characters than in presenting historically accurate accounts. For this reason, the genre has lent itself to politicized narratives (including political histories or political romances) and narratives that define personal identity. Although biography traditionally has centered on rulers, philosophers, or literati, modern biographers have taken a wide variety of persons for their subjects, including women and individuals from underrepresented or persecuted groups.

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