The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Biography

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BIOGRAPHY, in its general sense, literature treating of the lives of individuals; in its restricted meaning the history of a person's life. When composed by the subject of the narrative it is called an autobiography. Biography has existed in one form or another from the most ancient times. In the book of Genesis there are biographies, or at least memoirs, of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and others. Homer's ‘Odyssey’ may be considered as an extended biography of Ulysses, limited, however, to the most interesting period of his life, that of his wanderings. Though the ‘Iliad’ may be loosely called a history of the Trojan War, yet, accurately, it is a chapter from the biography of Achilles, describing calamities be brought upon the Greeks by the revenge which be took on Agamemnon for carrying off his female captive Briseis. The most elaborate Greek biography was Plutarch's ‘Parallel Lives’ (‘Bioi Paralleloi’), consisting of 46 memoirs of Greek, Roman and other celebrities; it was published about 80 A.D. In 44 B.C. Cornelius Nepos had sent forth a biographical work, his ‘Vitæ Imperatorum’ (‘Lives of Commanders’). Under the Greek and Roman civilization, however, the individual was absorbed in the state. When Cincinnatus or Coriolanus is mentioned, we recall rather an act than a person. The elder Cato wrote a history of the Roman republic, in which there was not found a single proper name. He said simply: “The consul proposed such a law, the general gained such a battle.”

Biography differs from history, properly so called, in considering public and national events, if at all, only in their relations to a single personage. It assumes various forms, being sometimes most interested in the circumstances and external career, the curriculum vitæ, of its subject; sometimes regarding chiefly intellectual and moral qualities and development; sometimes being hardly more than a catalogue of a man's positions and changes of position; and sometimes, like the autobiography of Goethe, fit to be entitled truth and poetry; sometimes being formally narrative throughout, but often presenting the hero also by his letters and notes of his conversation. A biography may be a panegyric or a diatribe, or the life of a man may be used as only a frame on which to attach moral reflections. Its true aim, however, is to reveal the personal significance of those men who have played a distinguished part in the world, either by action or by thought. History has reference to the development of principles, biography to that of character. To observe the growth of a nation or of any institution from the idea on which it was grounded, through its vicissitudes and conflicts, is the part of history. To trace a human life, to remark the manifold efforts, defeats, triumphs, perplexities, attainments, sorrows and joys which fill the space between the cradle and the grave is the province of biography. In history, Scipio at the head of the Roman legions subdued Africa, and Agesilaus struggled against the misfortunes of his country; in biography, the former is seen not only gaining victories, but also gathering cockle-shells on the shore, and the latter not only fighting after defeat, but also riding on a hobby-horse among his children. Plutarch says it does not follow because an action is great that it therefore manifests the greatness and virtue of him who did it, but, on the contrary, sometimes a word or a casual jest betrays a man more to our knowledge of him than a battle fought wherein 10,000 men were slain, or sacking of cities, or a course of victories. Xenophon remarks that the sayings of great men in their familiar discourses and amid their wine have somewhat in them which is worthy to be transmitted to posterity.

Modern biographical literature may be considered to date from the 17th century since which time individual biographies have multiplied enormously. Dictionaries of biography have proved extremely useful, Moreri's ‘Historical and Critical Dictionary’ (1671) being, perhaps, the first of this class. During the 19th century there were published the ‘Universal Biography’ (85 vols., 1811-62); ‘New General Biography’ (46 vols. 1852-66); Chalmer's ‘General Biographical Dictionary’ (32 vols., 1812-17); Rose's ‘Biographical Dictionary’ (12 vols., 1848-50); Leslie Stephen's ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ (completed in 63 volumes, the first of which appeared in January 1885 and the last in September 1901); Appleton's ‘Cyclopædia of American Biography’ (7 vols., 1887-1900); White's ‘National Cyclopædia of American Biography’ (New York); ‘Men and Women of the Time’ (London); ‘Who's Who’ (London); ‘Who's Who in America’ (Chicago); Adams' ‘Dictionary of American Authors’ (1901); Vapereau's ‘Universal Dictionary of Contemporaries’ (Paris); ‘Lamb's Biographical Dictionary of the United States’ (8 vols., 1897 et seq.); and ‘Canadian Men and Women of the Time.’ Among works of more limited aim may be noted various ‘Lives of the Saints’; Fox's ‘Book of Martyrs’; various ‘Lives of the Poets’; Boswell's ‘Life of Johnson’ (1791), the most noted of all English biographies; Lockhart's ‘Scott’ (1836-38); Forster's ‘Dickens’ (1872-74); Gaskell's ‘Charlotte Brontë’; Cross' ‘George Eliot’ (1884); Lonsdale's ‘Sister Dorothea’ (1878); ‘Life of Tennyson,’ by his son (1897); ‘Life of Huxley,’ by his son (1901); ‘The Life of Gladstone,’ by John (afterward Lord) Morley (1903); ‘The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield,’ by E. Monypenny' (1910-16). Among notable autobiographies are the first Lord Herbert of Cherbury's ‘Autobiography’; Benvenuto Cellini's ‘Vita da lui medesimo scritta’; Pepys' ‘Diary’; Rousseau's ‘Confessions’; Gibbon's ‘Memoirs’; Franklin's ‘Autobiography’; Newman's ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua’ (1864; new ed., New York 1913); Bismarck's ‘Autobiography’ (2 vols., trans. by Butler, New York 1899).