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The Nineteenth And Twentieth Centuries

Early-nineteenth-century biography was influenced by Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson as well as by the writers within the Romantic movement. The primary biographical form in this period was the Victorian "life and letters" (or "life and times"). It was characterized by relatively great length, sobriety, and concern with social propriety. Some biographies of this period were Thomas Moore's Life of Sheridan (1825) and his Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (1830), John Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837–1838), Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), G. O. Trevelyan's Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (1876), and David Mason's Life of John Milton: Narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of His Time (7 vols., London, 1859–1894). Popular literary genres of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that were influenced by biography included the realistic novel and the historical novel.

Biography in the twentieth century reflected the rise of modernism in the arts. There was a reaction against the Victorian style of biography that resulted in shorter, less studious lives. Works of modernist biography include Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921) and the numerous lives by André Maurois (1885–1967). Changes in style also were reflected in biographers' adoption of a scientific outlook. The influence of psychology (especially Freudian and Jungian) eventually led to the development of psychobiography. Experimental forms and methods were explored in works as diverse as Virginia Woolf's mock biography Orlando (1928), Lord David Cecil's two-volume work on Lord Melbourne (1939 and 1954), and A. J. A. Symon's The Quest for Corvo (1934). Postmodern forms of life writing emerged after World War II. Although more represented in autobiography than biography, postmodern lives have been characterized by further experimentation and the broad use of nontraditional methods. Postmodern biography in many ways reacts against modernist biography but is also an extension of it. It contains elements that are antiheroic, antihistorical, and absurd, or that consciously undermine conventional forms.

There were other major developments in the late twentieth century. One was the widespread appearance of biographies by and about women, and in particular, the establishment of feminist life writing as a literary form. Feminist biography had appeared in the fifteenth century, and feminists' writings had flourished at times, especially in the late eighteenth century (for example, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792). The late twentieth century, however, saw the rise of feminism as a major cultural movement and a rapid increase in feminist life writings. Late-twentieth-century feminist biographies were numerous and included several lives of Woolf. Feminist biographers have drawn inspiration from the works of earlier feminists, including the writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) and Woolf's essays A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). In addition to the establishment of feminist biography and the increase in biographies written by women (with women as subjects), lesbian and gay biography also became independent forms in the late twentieth century (such as Elizabeth Mavor's The Ladies of Llangollen, 1971).

The late twentieth century witnessed the emergence of traditionally underrepresented groups in biography, both as subjects and as biographers. In the United States, for example, subjects were increasingly African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and Native American (or were members of other underrepresented or immigrant groups). Some of these biographies built on earlier traditions (for example, African-American lives range from pre–Civil War slave narratives to Alex Haley's Roots, 1976). Biographers working in various postcolonial literatures also produced many lives of subjects from underrepresented groups.

Another major development has been the globalization of biography. As biographical forms have become diffused around the world, they have encompassed subjects from cultures in Africa, the Americas, East and Southeast Asia, Australia, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and other regions. It is notable that while biographical forms have spread worldwide, biographers have continued to draw on forms established in earlier times (both oral and written). In the early twenty-first century, as a result of these trends, biography is an increasingly global art, evidenced by the diversity in its subjects and forms.



Ban Gu (Pan Ku). The History of the Former Han Dynasty. 3 vols. Translated by Homer H. Dubs. Baltimore, Md.: Waverly Press; and Ithaca, N.Y.: Spoken Language Services, Inc., 1938–1955. Translation of the Han shu.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Life of Dante. 1354–1355. Translated by Vincenzo Zin Bollettino. New York: Garland, 1990. Translation of Trattatello in laude di Dante.

Boswell, James. The Life of Johnson. 1791. Reprint, edited by George Birbeck Hill and L. F. Powell, Oxford: Clarendon, 1971. 4 vols.

Christine de Pisan. The Book of the City of Ladies. 1405. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea, 1998. Translation of Le livre de la cité des dames.

Jerome, St. On Illustrious Men. c. 392. Translated by Thomas P. Halton. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999. Translation of De viris illustribus.

Nanamoll, Bhikku. The Life of the Buddha. Seattle: Buddhist Publication Society, 2001. Translated from the Pali Canon.

Plutarch. Lives. Edited by Arthur Hugh Clough and translated by John Dryden. New York: Modern Library, 2001. 2 vols. Clough's 1864 revision of Dryden's 1683 translation.

Sima Quan (Ssu-ma Ch'ien). The Records of the Grand Historian of China. 2 vols. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961. Translations from the Shih-chih.

Strachey, Lytton. The Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, General Gordon. 1918. Reprint, London: Continuum, 2002.

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. c. 110 C.E. Translated by Robert Graves. London: Penguin, 2003.

Sylvester, Richard S., and Davis P. Harding, eds. Two Early Tudor Lives: "The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey," by George Cavendish [and] "The Life of Sir Thomas More," by William Roper. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962.

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Rev. ed. 1568. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. New York: Knopf, 1996.


Edel, Leon. Literary Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Frederick Liers

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Bilateral symmetry to Boolean algebraBiography - Ancient Biography, Medieval And Renaissance Biography, The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, The Nineteenth And Twentieth Centuries