Biography pp 1-12 | Cite as


  • Ira Bruce Nadel


How biographies are written and what form they have assumed in the last century and a half are the general subjects of this book, which developed out of my concern over the lack of critical discussion of biography among readers at the same time as the importance and publication of biography has dramatically increased. The need to understand the literary techniques and strategies of biography parallels its emergence today as perhaps the most popular, widely-read body of non-fiction writing. But for too long criticism has centred on the content rather than the form of biographical writing, undermining its literary properties. This study attempts to redress that emphasis by focusing on a series of compositional problems and their solutions in the writing of biography. It concentrates on such topics as biographical portraiture, experimentation and poetics. The goal is to show that biography is a complex narrative as well as a record of an individual’s life, a literary process as well as a historical product.


Literary Form Figurative Language Creative Writer Literary Property Compositional Problem 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. Alan Shelston (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977) ch. VII, p. 155. This is a reprint of the 1857 first edition.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy. On the Interpretation of Narrative (Harvard University Press, 1979) p. 117.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    David Novarr, The Making of Walton’s Lives (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958) p. 495. Nearly thirty years ago Novarr modestly noted the disregard of form in the study of biography. More aggressively,Google Scholar
  4. Leon Edel presses the case for the formal analysis of biography in ‘Biography: The Question of Form’, Friendship’s Garland, Essays Presented to Mario Praz, ed. Vittorio Gabrieli (Rome: Edizioni de Storia e Letteratura, 1966) pp. 343–60, and more recently in ‘Biography: A Manifesto’, biography, 1:1 (1978) 1–3.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Edward Gibbon, An Essay on the Study of Literature (1761, French; New York: Garland Publishing, 1970) pp. 99–100. Gibbon adds that the rarest quality is meeting ‘a genius who knows how to distinguish them [the types of facts] amidst the vast chaos of events, wherein they are jumbled and deduce them, pure and unmixed, from the rest’ (p. 100).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    On Donne, see Novarr, The Making of Walton’s Lives, p. 56; on Boswell, Robert Gittings, The Nature of Biography (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978) p. 32;Google Scholar
  7. Thomas Carlyle, History of Frederick II of Prussia Called Frederick the Great, ed. John Clive (University of Chicago Press, 1969) pp. 5–6;Google Scholar
  8. Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (1918; New York: Capricorn Books, 1963) pp. 6, 184;Google Scholar
  9. Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973) p. 281;Google Scholar
  10. Gore Vidal, ‘French Letters: Theories of the New Novel’, Matters of Fact and Fiction (New York: Vintage Books, 1978) p. 75.Google Scholar
  11. 6.
    Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, ed. C. F. Harrold (New York: Odyssey Press, 1937) p. 203;Google Scholar
  12. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, tr. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollindale, ed. Walter J. Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967) p. 301. In the same work Nietzsche also declares there are no facts, ‘only interpretations’ (p. 267).Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters, An Historical Comedy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968) p. 61.Google Scholar
  14. 9.
    On Lockhart’s departure from fact in his biography of Scott see Francis R. Hart, Lockhart as Romantic Biographer (Edinburgh University Press, 1971) pp. 41–3 and passim.Google Scholar
  15. Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’, Collected Essays (London: Hogarth Press, 1967) IV: 228.Google Scholar
  16. Phyllis Rose, Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. viii.Google Scholar
  17. Helene Moglen in Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976) calls for a new biography that ‘places chronology at the service of causality, that risks partiality in the interest of emphasis’ (p. 14).Google Scholar
  18. 10.
    Hayden White, ‘The Historical Text as Literary Artifact’, Tropics of Discourse, Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1978) pp. 84, 91–2. All further references are to this edition. White outlines his notion of emplotment in the ‘Introduction’ to Metahistory, The Historical Imagination in 19th Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1973) pp. 5–13. On narrative, fact and story also seeGoogle Scholar
  19. Cushing Strout, ‘The Fortunes of Telling’, The Veracious Imagination (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981) pp. 3–28. On basic plot structures seeGoogle Scholar
  20. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1957) pp. 158–238.Google Scholar
  21. 11.
    See Ina Schabert, ‘Fictional Biography, Factual Biography and Their Contaminations’, biography, 5:1 (Winter 1982) 1–16, for an important discussion of fact, fiction and biography related to aesthetic integrity.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 12.
    Pirandello in Lester G. Crocker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Quest (New York: Macmillan, 1968) I:X.Google Scholar
  23. 13.
    Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 2nd edn (New York: Basic Books, 1965) p. 46. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  24. David Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies (New York: Harper & Row, 1970) andGoogle Scholar
  25. Ralph Rader, ‘Fact, Theory and Literary Explanations’, Critical Inquiry, I (December 1974) 254–72. Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, p. vii. My italics.Google Scholar
  26. 14.
    Emil Ludwig, ‘Introduction: On the Writing of History’, Genius and Character, tr. Kenneth Burke (1927; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1928) p. 5.Google Scholar
  27. James L. Clifford, From Puzzles to Portraits, Problems of a Literary Biographer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970) p. 111.Google Scholar
  28. Robert Bernard Martin author of Tennyson (1980), echoes Johnson in a 1982 interview: ‘S.C.: “What proportion of the biography would be educated guess or extrapolation?” R.B.M.: “Very, very little that is unsupported by fact. No, what I think you have to do is to guess and then verify it.”’Google Scholar
  29. Stephen Cahan, ‘Interview-Review: Robert B. Martin’, biography, 5:1 (Winter 1982) 78. Martin added that perhaps the greatest danger ‘to the academic in writing biography is that he’s too often the victim of fact’ (p. 85). For a similar view expressed by a literary historian, see David Novarr, The Making of Walton’s Lives, p. 486: ‘every biographer has in his mind, if not a character-image, a sense of character images, a pattern, a sense of a certain unity, a sort of musical tone which explains or clarifies his subject’.Google Scholar
  30. 15.
    Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1927) pp. 154–5.Google Scholar
  31. 16.
    Leon Edel, Henry James, the Master (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1972) p. 20. Edgar Johnson modifies this view when he states that the role of the imagination in biography is ‘not so much in inventing as in perceiving relationships between different areas of fact and relationships between different degrees of relationship’.Google Scholar
  32. Edgar Johnson, ‘The Art of Biography’, Dickens Studies Annual, 8 (New York: AMS Press, 1980) p. 3.Google Scholar
  33. 17.
    Robert Louis Stevenson, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Sidney Colvin (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899) II: 350–1. Dated 18 June 1893 from Samoa.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ira Bruce Nadel 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ira Bruce Nadel
    • 1
  1. 1.VancouverCanada

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