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A Short History of Life Writing

Life writing encompasses a variety of personal narratives, from letters, diaries, and testimonies to biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. The term can be traced back to the 17th century, although it has only been used as a critical term since the 1970s.

Life writing

The novelist Virginia Woolf stressed that recording all the “invisible presences” in a person’s life guarded against the futility of life writing. More than stringing facts together in a chronological order, life writing has not only historical but also psychological, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions.

Emergence of the personal narrative

While written language was created in 3350 BCE, the personal narrative wouldn’t appear until 58 BCE in the form of Julius Caesar’s works written in Classical Latin, Commentaries on the Gallic Wars and Commentaries on the Civil War. Even then, they were somewhat prototypical as Caesar employs the third-person point of view in his account of the campaigns in Gaul and Britain and the Roman Civil War.

Near the end of the 2nd century BCE, Chinese historian Sima Qian published short anecdotal character sketches of “maligned statesmen,” “rash generals,” and “assassins.” Two centuries later, biographies emerged as a literary form in the Roman Empire with Greek philosopher Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Roman librarian Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars. These works were able to establish a mix of character sketch and chronological narrative that distinguishes life writing. Medieval Islamic literature also produced short biographies on famous personalities and historical figures; they were presented according to occupation (scholar, saint, ruler, etc.) and published as compendia.

The first autobiography ever written is arguably the 5th century work Confessions by theologian, philosopher, and bishop St. Augustine. Consisting of 13 books and written in Latin, it chronicles St. Augustine’s journey from a hedonistic youth to his embracement of Christianity. The first autobiography written in English also dealt with faith as it concerned the Christian life of one Margery Kempe. Written in 1438 and published in the early 16th century, The Book of Kempe was a dictation of the illiterate mystic’s life and religious experiences; scholars argue that it was less of an autobiography and more of a creed.

In the late 20th century, narratives that tell the story of a particular event or time rather than a life were differentiated as memoirs. An early example of a memoir is the Sarashina Nikki, which was written by a lady-in-waiting during the Heian period. It is considered to be the first instance of travel writing as it details the author’s travels and pilgrimages.

Proliferation and development of life writing

The 2nd century saw the rise of hagiographies, or biographies of saints and venerated persons, for the instruction and edification of laypersons. However, literature gradually became less faith-oriented as kings, tyrants, and knights became the subject of biographies. Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory serves as an exemplar of such works, even though its subject was legendary. Through the compilation, rearrangement, interpretation, and modification of various French and English sources, Sir Malory was able to depict the life of the fabled King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Merlin.

Life writing took another step towards modern sensibilities with Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III. Containing dramatized dialogue and conflicts, History of Richard III does not meet the standards of biographical truth but is nonetheless considered as a biographical landmark. As the first piece of modern English prose, it was the source and inspiration of the Shakespearean tragedy Richard III.

During the Romantic era of the 18th century, Swiss writer, philosopher, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the title of St. Augustine’s autobiography on his own confessional account of the experiences that molded his character and philosophies. As one of the first autobiographies to focus on worldly rather than religious experiences, Rousseau’s work spurred other writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, and Giacomo Casanova to create similarly constructed narratives.

The 18th century also produced what scholars regard as the world’s best English biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by Scottish diarist, biographer, and lawyer James Boswell. The work served as both autobiography and biography; Boswell set up scenes and conversations with his dear friend Dr. Johnson as well as utilized Dr. Johnson’s letters and personal papers, interviews with family and acquaintances, and his own observation of his subject’s behavior.

Modern life writing

At the turn of the 20th century, the development of psychoanalysis vanquished conventional heroes and shone the light on the personhood of individuals—a preoccupation which persists to this day. British critic Lytton Strachey transformed the biography genre with Eminent Victorians, an irreverent, factually accurate, and critical depiction of the lives of four cherished figures from the Victorian era: Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning, General Gordon, and Thomas Arnold. Other biographical writers sought to imitate Strachey’s style, resulting in a biographical boom in the 1920s.

Life writing changed again under the waves of feminism. Feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun cites Zelda by Nancy Milford as the start of a new period of women's biography, owing to the fact that “[only] in 1970 were we ready to read not that Zelda had destroyed Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald her: he had usurped her narrative."

Tragically, in the wake of two world wars, war memoirs emerged as a genre of their own, voiced not by generals but by victims. Elie Weisel’s Night follows Weisel’s life prior to and during his experiences in three concentration camps. The Diary of Anne Frank was published by the young author’s father after her death in a concentration camp; her story has since been published in 70 languages, turned into a play, adapted for the screen, and included in a handful of lists of top books of the 20th century.

A few decades later, research showed that genealogy served to help people find their place in the world and that life review can help people come to terms with the past. The 90s were dominated by memoirs of average lives as people sought to preserve their ancestors’ and their stories in the face of technological advances.

In the early 21st century onwards, life writing exploded in popularity; more and more people view written legacies as a personal and family responsibility.

If you’d like to read more about planning your book,
How to Plan Your Book: Taking Your Book from Idea to Manuscript is a comprehensive guide to pre-writing preparation.


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