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Nigel Hamilton
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    For what purpose and for whom has biographical pursuit endured, and how does it play such a contested, popular role in contemporary Western culture, from biopics to blogs, memoirs to docudramas? Award-winning biographer Hamilton addresses these questions in an incisive and vivid narrative that will appeal to students of human nature and self-representation across the arts and sciences.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-03822-6
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents (pp. [vii]-[xii])
  3. Prologue (pp. 1-5)

    Biography—that is to say, our creative and nonfictional output devoted to recording and interpreting real lives—has enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in recent years. Not only has it become, in the West, the dominant area of nonfiction broadcasting and publishing, from television to the Internet, but it is now one of the embattled front lines in the struggle between society’s notions of truth and imagination.

    Why, then, has so little been written about the nature, history, interdisciplinary pursuit, cross-media expansion, and ethics of biography? Why is there in print no single, accessible introduction to the subject, either for the...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Evolutionary Biography (pp. 6-32)

    Depictions of the animal world by human beings go back tens of thousands of years, to the time when the speciesHomo sapiensfirst began to record its own existence. Vast, vivid cave-wall renderings of the great beasts of nature, on which and beside which early humans lived: these still have the power to awe us, yet they are puzzling, too.

    Whydidour early forebears paint themselves so unrealistically—as matchstick men—in comparison to their eerily impressive representations of wildlife? What was the purpose of such paintings, applied deep inside their cavernous quarters? André Leroi-Gourhan, the great paleontologist,...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Hagiography (pp. 33-59)

    Commemoration versus critical depiction: this was a biographical rift that would never go away. Indeed, we all know, in the recent past, the story of Clementine Churchill’s decision to destroy the brilliantly modern but unflattering portrait of her husband, Sir Winston Churchill, which loyal members of Parliament had commissioned from Graham Sutherland following World War II.

    Such an outraged response to biographical portraiture by an aggrieved family member who is hurt in her idealized identity (living as an adjunct to greatness) has been common for thousands of years. Biography is, in this sense, not simply human record but debate—debate...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Renaissance of Biography (pp. 60-99)

    The power of religious authorities to contain life depiction within set parameters continues to this day in a variety of nations—most notably Islamic countries. The rise of the secular state in Europe, however, and what Jacob Burckhardt, in hisCivilization of the Renaissance in Italy, called “the development of the individual,” changed the face and fate of Western history—and biography. Hitherto man had been, according to Burckhardt, “conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation.” With the onset of the Renaissance he became a “spiritualindividualand recognized himself as such.”¹...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Victorian Pseudobiography (pp. 100-128)

    With the British yoke undone in the American Revolution of 1776 and the overthrow of theancien régimein the French Revolution of 1789, it was perhaps small wonder that the newly labeled art of autobiography was at the literary forefront of life depiction. Not only were revolutionaries of interest to the world, but they could even paint their own life stories without waiting for posthumous biographers to do so.

    In a New World of autodidacts and articulate personal witnesses to world-altering events, autobiographers led the biographical way, quickly establishing autobiography as a challenging, populist field of belles lettres, incorporating...

  8. CHAPTER 5 The Early Twentieth Century (pp. 129-167)

    Evolution proceeds as a struggle of survival and mutation against invading pathogens and environmental pressures—indeed, humans are often depicted by evolutionary biologists as similar to Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: constantly running just to be able to stay in the same place.

    Certainly the Victorian era’s writers of biographies, authors of biographical plays, and painters and sculptors of portraits, for all their energy, industry, and moral conviction, did not run hard enough or fast enough. It’s true that many of them—like the editors of theDictionary of National Biography(Sir Leslie Stephen and his successor, Sir Sidney Lee)—were,...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Rise of Film (pp. 168-185)

    Film would, by the end of the twentieth century, transform biography, so a brief survey of its history is in order—especially since, in the 1930s, film became the medium in which the veryraison d’êtreof biography was most vividly contested.

    From its invention, at the end of the nineteenth century, cinema had proven violent, subversive—and intimate. In his classic account of its emergence, the film historian Charles Musser noted how, through control of its actuality and documentary content, the new medium of cinema was initially intended to appeal to conservative white males: it offered nonfiction films “made...

  10. CHAPTER 7 The People’s War (pp. 186-205)

    Once again, a world war was to change the parameters of Western biography and autobiography. The grotesque waste of human life in the First World War had spurred Lytton Strachey into mockery of public figures in its final year, and Robert Graves into an unforgettable account of his own life in the trenches—and its gruesomereality—a decade after the “war to end all wars” was over. But could the democratic world wait that long, in the face of new forms of blitzkrieg and bombing, with wholesale extermination of civilians as well as combatants?

    Fortunately, ordinary individuals outside Germany...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Death of the Author (pp. 206-212)

    Biography had never taken root very deeply in France; the works of André Maurois and even imaginative practitioners such as Henri Troyat sold more books in English translation than in French. Hence, the end of biography seemed to French academics almost logical, once existentialism and structuralism gave way, in the 1960s and 1970s, to poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism.

    The new movement was prompted by a group of intellectuals who disliked the notion of grand narratives in history, biography, or science. Most of all, they resented the authors of such narratives. Critics, notauthors, were the truly creative force in the...

  12. CHAPTER 9 New Directions (pp. 213-221)

    We have seen, in our survey, how the biographical imperative evolved over the centuries in the West, and how it burst into fresh flower in the 1960s, after two world wars. But if the Victorian notions of propriety and privacy in biography were finally overthrown, and poststructuralists like Barthes and Derrida were exposed and derided, what—ethically, socially, historically, psychotherapeutically—was theroleof biography in the affluent capitalist society of the late twentieth century? Was it the age-old ritual of commemoration? Deeper insight into personality, identity, and the self ? Factual record? The raising of individuals and groups from...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Biography Comes of Age (pp. 222-241)

    Fueling the late twentieth-century boom in Western biography were new technologies, as well as ever-proliferating electronic media. Indeed “the media” was now the official designation of what had once been called “the press.” Print remained big, for traditional reasons— but television got bigger and bigger, especially with the development of satellite and cable transmission.

    Inevitably the new forms of mass communication influenced thebusinessof biography—a business that catered to the growing audience for real-life reporting and depiction. Responding to this, the young Turks of living (rather than past) history began to feel empowered in a wholly new way....

  14. CHAPTER 11 Biography on Trial (pp. 242-250)

    As so often in the history of art and culture, not everyone was aware of what was happening to biography, or pleased about the direction it seemed to be taking in the final decades of the twentieth century. Many individuals in positions of power upheld attitudes of decorum and rigid rules of genre: rules that preserved libel law in Britain, for example, and stringent copyright law in America—the latter resulting in the famous trial of British poet and biographer Ian Hamilton, who in 1986 attempted to publish a new print biography of the poet and novelist J. D. Salinger....

  15. CHAPTER 12 The Miner’s Canary (pp. 251-278)

    A mid discussions of the myriad forms of biographical output in the latter part of the twentieth century, a major aspect of modern biographical history that has gone virtually unexplored is the way in which biography was forced to adapt—or be adapted. After World War II, biography began to travel—to migrate across genres in a way that had not happened since early Christian times, when the life of Jesus and his disciples was interpreted and reinterpreted in every medium known to man, from Greek and Latin text to stained-glass windows.

    The work of Michael Holroyd is a prime...

  16. CHAPTER 13 Biography Today (pp. 279-291)

    In its historic role as record-keeper of the individual, biography thus moved to the forefront of Western culture at the end of the twentieth century. By 2000 it was represented in almost every field of human inquiry, of communications, and of academic study. Samuel Johnson’s vision had been fulfilled; in fact, as the third millennium got under way it was clear to all but the most myopic that biography had become the most popular, and in many ways the most controversial and contested, area of nonfiction broadcasting and publishing in the Western world¹—epitomized by today’s burgeoning weblogs, online diaries...

  17. Epilogue (pp. 292-294)

    Today, biography is in the ascendant. But before we leave the subject, let’s look briefly into the future of life depiction, however misty our lens.

    So massively popular an outflow of works reflecting society’s fascination with the individual is likely to continue to grow exponentially in the West. Yet just as biographers in the 1920s wondered whether dictatorship would lead to renewed hagiography (which it did), one wonders what might happen ifindividualityitself is superseded—as the result, say, of a political or religious ideology (communism or Islam), or of scientific advances that alter the biological nature of human...

  18. Notes (pp. 297-314)
  19. Bibliography (pp. 315-321)
  20. Acknowledgments (pp. 322-328)
  21. Index (pp. 329-345)