Biography is a type of nonfictional literature in which the subject of the storey is a person’s life. It is one of the oldest forms of literary expression, attempting to re-create in words the life of a human being—as understood from the author’s historical or personal perspective—by drawing on all available evidence, including memory as well as written, oral, and pictorial material.
Early biographical writings, such as Philippe de Commynes’ 15th-century Mémoires or George Cavendish’s 16th-century life of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, have often been treated as historical material rather than literary works in their own right. The most famous biography of the emperor Tiberius is embedded in the Roman historian Tacitus’ Annals; on the other hand, Sir Winston Churchill’s magnificent life of his ancestor John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough, can be read as a history (written from a special point of view) of Britain and much of Europe during the War of Independence. Despite this, historians and biographers are now widely recognised as distinct genres of literature. Generalizations about a period of time (for example, the Renaissance), a group of people in time (for example, the English colonies in North America), and an institution are common in history. Biography usually focuses on a single person and deals with the details of that person’s life.
Both biography and history, on the other hand, are frequently concerned with the past, and they are similar in terms of locating, evaluating, and selecting sources. In this sense, biography can be considered a craft rather than an art: research techniques and general rules for testing evidence can be learned by anyone, requiring only a fraction of the personal commitment required by art.
Putting a series of facts in chronological order does not constitute a person’s life; it merely provides a timeline of events. As a result, the biographer seeks to elicit from his sources the motivations for his subject’s actions as well as the shape of his personality. The biographer who has known his subject in life has the benefit of his own direct impressions, which are often bolstered by what the subject has revealed in conversations, as well as the benefit of having lived in the same era as his subject. On the downside, such a biographer’s perspective is skewed by the emotional factor that is almost always present in a living relationship. Conversely, the biographer who knows his subject only from written evidence, and perhaps from the report of witnesses, lacks the insight generated by a personal relationship but can generally command a greater objectivity in his effort to probe his subject’s inner life.