In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biography and Autobiography

  • Introduction
  • General Theoretical Overviews and Textbooks
  • Biography
  • Autobiography and Memoir
  • Letters and Diaries
  • Audio/Visual Life Narrative
  • Digital Life Narrative
  • Fiction, Fact, and Life Narrative
  • Historical, Political, and Ethical Contexts
  • Religion, War, Migration and Travel, Family
  • Identity Interests and Claims

British and Irish Literature Biography and Autobiography
Margaretta Jolly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0006


The history of life writing reflects the history of selfhood itself, particularly as it has tracked the rise of individualism and, arguably, individuality. Biography, the interpretation of another’s life, is an ancient form with roots in religious and royal accounts and can be found in all civilizations, although its didactic and moral emphasis has slowly faded in favor of debunking approaches. Autobiography is generally argued to arise in modernizing societies where the individual’s perspective gains cultural value, and has been linked to deep questions of self-awareness, self-division, and self-performance. The romantic period crystallized this relationship as well as linked life writing to a new cult of the author. In the context of late modern culture, life narrative has become still more autobiographical than biographical, an everyday practice of confession and self-styling. However, biography and autobiography are not always distinct. Memoir can focus on another or oneself and has become the preferred term for literary autobiography in the early 21st century, arguably because current tastes are for stories of intimate relationship in which elements of biography and autobiography come together. Critics have therefore become interested in the inevitable dependency of one’s own story on another’s, a subject of ethical trouble but aesthetic, intellectual, and political fascination. Such “auto/biographies” express a range of relationships, from the ghostwriter’s service to a public figure’s memoir, to the ethnographer’s or doctor’s view of a person as case history. More often, family relations are the grounds on which the complexities of representational contracts are played out. This negotiation relates to a second defining aspect of life narrative: the reader’s expectation that it be true. “Memory is a great artist,” claimed a great autobiographical experimenter, André Malraux, and an enduring critical question has been whether life writing can be both artful and historically accurate. Increasingly, however, scholars broaden from such aesthetic debates to consider the social, political, and psychological work of life narrative. Readers will therefore find that this article pushes out from the literary to encompass a capacious field of inquiry that includes social scientists interested in narrative or biographical methods, and interdisciplinary studies of personal storytelling in the contexts of human rights activism or, conversely, of the late capitalist trade in celebrity or exotic lives and digital cultures of self-publication. For literary critics, therefore, biography and autobiography are now generally appreciated as two genres within a bigger field of life writing, life narrative, or life story about self-other relations, although they remain touchstones for those interested in how life experience can be aestheticized.

General Theoretical Overviews and Textbooks

Life narrative is found in all places and historical periods and encompasses many aspects of everyday speech as well as writing. It is therefore difficult to produce a definitive criticism, and the texts listed here divide between those with a more literary and a more sociological focus. From a literary or cultural-studies perspective, Smith and Watson 2010 provides the most condensed overview and builds on an important body of joint work by these North American scholars, particularly on the global, postcolonial, and feminist face of much life writing. Jolly 2001 remains the most internationally comprehensive guide, with analytical surveys and bibliographies of life narrative in all major continents and countries, from classical periods to the early 21st century. Broughton 2006, an anthology that provides a selection of key critical interventions, also features an excellent introduction in which the author interprets the shifting critical emphasis from the life to the self. Marcus 1994, written by another British critic, offers a more extended tracing of this “discourse” about auto/biography. The author’s brilliant thesis is that the genre has been the ground for fantasies about self-alienation in modernity and, conversely, for redemptive healing of its splits. Plummer 2001 approaches life stories from this redemptive point of view, as a sociologist in what the author defines as a radical humanist tradition, and also a gay man who has studied as well as lived the coming-out story. Harrison 2009, also written by a sociologist, is an edited collection that points out the growth in narrative and biographical research methods for social scientists. Life narrative is inherently suitable for teaching both as method and topic with unique pulling power and accessibility. Fuchs and Howes 2008, another edited collection of essays, is extremely useful for any would-be teachers, offering case studies, lesson plans, and syllabi, including from South Africa and Chad. Chansky and Hipchen 2016 offers carefully edited and organized selected essays tracing key debates in a one-stop volume that marks the multidisciplinary, multimediated direction of the field. Finally, the International Auto/Biography Association (IABA), launched in 1999 at Peking University by Zhao Baisheng, hosts a global network of scholars through biannual conferences around the world, a listserv managed by the Center for Biographical Research at the University of Hawai‘i, and a website hosted by Julie Rak at the University of Alberta. Zhao also edits a Chinese-language list of short biographies and has written a short book arguing that auto/biography is a field of literature that deserves to be an object of study in its own right. Limited bibliographic details for this show that, as of yet, such initiatives and English-language-based scholarship are not sufficiently integrated.

  • Broughton, Trev Lynn ed. Autobiography: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. 4 vols. London: Routledge, 2006.

    Four-volume anthology of important critical texts from the 18th century onward, with an incisive introduction. Organized in eight parts within four volumes: Part 1, “Founding Statements”; Part 2, “Beyond Truth versus Fiction”; Part 3, “Discovering Difference”; Part 4, “Personal Stories, Hidden Histories”; Part 5, “Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and the Narrability of Lives”; Part 6, “Autobiography as Critique”; Part 7, “Personal Texts as Autobiography”; and Part 8, “Cultures of Life Writing.”

  • Chansky, Ricia Anne, and Emily Hipchen, eds. The Routledge Auto|Biography Studies Reader. Routledge Literature Readers. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

    One-volume anthology principally selected from the archives of the a/b: Auto/Biography Studies journal. Organized by school of thought, from debates about genre/canon to those of political identity and representation to early-21st-century concerns with medical humanities, postmemory, animalographies, graphic narrative, celebrity lives, and digital biography.

  • Fuchs, Miriam, and Craig Howes, eds. Teaching Life Writing Texts. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008.

    Commissioned by the Modern Language Association of America’s prestigious teaching text series; signifies the academic integration of life-writing studies. Containing over forty-four short articles on teaching specific texts or genres, some with lesson plans, this work is a practical and inspiring teaching resource. Internationally focused.

  • Harrison, Barbara, ed. Life Story Research. 4 vols. London: SAGE, 2009.

    Four volumes on methodological approaches within the social sciences in which research foregrounds the individual. Useful for related fields (nursing, criminology, cultural studies). Organized as five parts within four volumes: Part 1, “Historical Origins and Trajectories”; Part 2, “Theoretical and Conceptual Issues in Life Story Research”; Part 3, “Types of Life Story Research: Traditional and New Sources of Life Story Data”; Part 4, “Doing Life Story Research”; and Part 5, “Research Contexts and Life Stories.”

  • International Auto/Biography Association.

    Founded in 1999 as a multidisciplinary network of auto/biographers, scholars, and readers to pursue global dialogues on life writing. IABA’s first conference took place at Peking University; it has met biannually since then in China, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany, Hawaii, England, Cyprus, and Brazil.

  • Jolly, Margaretta, ed. The Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. 2 vols. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

    First and still only encyclopedia in English on life writing and life narrative. Two large volumes include entries on important writers, genres, and subgenres. Entries encompass, for example, confession, obituary, and gossip; portraits; surveys of national and regional traditions from all continents and periods; and themes such as shame, adolescence, time, and self.

  • Marcus, Laura. Auto/Biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994.

    Brilliant intellectual and literary history of the ways that life writing from the 18th century to the 1990s has been conceptualized by writers, critics, philosophers, and journalists. Marcus rejects the idea that there is a stable genre of autobiography, but she proposes that there is, instead, a distinct genre of autobiographical criticism.

  • Plummer, Kenneth. Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism. 2d ed. London: SAGE, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781849208888

    A highly readable guide to life writing and life story as objects and methods of analysis from a sociological but also literary perspective, with a particularly useful section on interviewing. This edition substantially revises and improves Plummer’s original publication in 1983 while continuing to argue that radical humanism is life writing’s appropriate philosophical framework.

  • Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. 2d ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

    Authoritative, accessible guide to the cultural study of life narrative across genre, period, and place, with good attention to non-Western texts. Includes chapters on early-21st-century life narrative and visual-verbal-virtual forms, as well as a “tool kit” consisting of twenty-four strategies for reading life narratives, classroom projects, and a list of Internet resources.

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