The story of life stories, from cave paintings and Gilgamesh to
Michael Holroyd and James Frey.Hamilton may be the best friend
biography has ever had. A skilled laborer in the life-story
vineyard (Bill Clinton, 2003, etc.), he is also a fierce advocate
for the importance of the genre - with some axes to grind. He
wonders why the University of Hawaii at Manoa is the only one in
the world with a department devoted to the study of biography. He
rails against the OED, which he claims has insisted on limiting the
definition of biography to written accounts only. Hamilton's much
broader category includes portraits, sculpture, painting, plays,
films, TV shows, comic books and much of popular culture. Although
he does pause periodically to discuss unconventional forms
(Shakespeare's dramatic studies of kings, for example), he focuses
primarily on traditional biographies. Hamilton believes biography
serves significant cultural functions. It is a way we learn about
the past and (in the West at least) celebrate the primacy of the
individual. His text hopscotches through history, staying put now
and then to discuss great moments in biography and autobiography:
the Gospels, St. Augustine, Plutarch, Raleigh, Rousseau, Boswell,
Freud, Strachey and Woolf, who wrote Orlando because she decided
that "if print biography could not batter down the doors of English
decorum . . . it would have to mask itself as fiction." Hamilton
declares Citizen Kane the most powerful of all biographies, even
though fictionalized. He looks hard at forces that oppose the
biographer - religion, tradition, prudishness, libel laws,
totalitarianism - and casts particular opprobrium on copyright laws
that keep permission to publish in the hands of a subject's
surviving relatives. (He does not mention his own struggles with
the Kennedys after the 1992 publication of JFK: Reckless Youth.)
The author believes that democracy has been the propellant for
biography's rocket-like rise in the last half-century . . . and for
biographers' newfound freedom to write about their subjects' sex
lives. Many illuminating excerpts illustrate the text.A vast
subject confined in a small but well-illuminated room. (Kirkus
For thousands of years we have recorded real lives--the lives of
others, and of ourselves. For what purpose and for whom has this
universal and timeless pursuit endured? What obstacles have lain in
the path of biographers in the past, and what continues to confound
biographers today? Above all, how is it that biographies and
autobiographies play such a contested, popular role in contemporary
Western culture, from biopics to blogs, from memoir to docudrama?
Award-winning biographer and teacher Nigel 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. Tracing the remarkable and often ignored historical
evolution of biography from the ancient world to the present, this
brief and fascinating tour of the genre conveys the passionate
quest to capture the lives of individuals and the many difficulties
it has entailed through the centuries. From the "Epic of Gilgamesh"
to "American Splendor," from cuneiform to the Internet, from
commemoration to deconstruction, from fiction to fact--by way of
famous biographical artists such as Plutarch, Saint Augustine, Sir
Walter Raleigh, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lord Byron,
Sigmund Freud, Lytton Strachey, Abel Gance, Virginia Woolf, Leni
Riefenstahl, Orson Welles, Julian Barnes, Ted Hughes, Frank
McCourt, and many others--Nigel Hamilton's "Biography: A Brief
History" will change the way you think about biography and real
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