Study Guide

Biography: A Brief History

by Nigel Hamilton

Biography: A Brief History Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

In Biography: A Brief History, Nigel Hamilton takes the reader from the ancient world of the Middle East with the Epic of Gilgamesh to the present state of biographical writing and the varied practices of biography in varied media in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. A historian and award-winning practicing biographer, Hamilton marshals this history in a clear, readable, and popularly accessible style that both informs and, at times, entertains. Throughout the work, he also makes a compelling case that biography transcends its usual definition as a written account of an individual life and encompasses many human endeavors such as painting, sculpture, film, video, poetry, and drama as they render individual lives.

Beginning with a notion of “evolutionary biography,” Hamilton deftly traces such disparate phenomena as the cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the clay tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh to buttress his claim that the commemorative instinct from which biography springs has many manifestations in storytelling. Tying these works to the classic biographies of Xenophon, Suetonius, Plutarch, and others, he demonstrates that their accounts give the modern reader a series of firsthand accounts of the ancient world while highlighting the deeds of individuals. That these deeds are selective, sometimes the subjects of encomium and sometimes the reverse, illustrates his point that even in the ancient world the biographer had an agenda in taking up the stylus.

The encomiastic branch of ancient biography gave birth to hagiography (literally, holy writing), which found its most popular expression in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as they chronicled events in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As elsewhere in the history of the biographical form, the authorized versions of the Evangelists prevailed over other Gospels (the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas and others), which were declared heretical and concealed for nearly all of the past two millennia. From Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400;Confessions, 1620) to the varied “lives of the saints” in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea(1265-1266; Golden Legend), the triumph of Christianity that proceeded from the biographies written by the Evangelists pervaded every segment of society in the Dark Ages, informing the conversion of pagans throughout Europe and their subsequent literary output commemorating their great men as embodiments of Christian virtue.

With the coming of the Renaissance and the spirit of humanistic inquiry, the monopoly of saintly biography began to shift, Hamilton explains, back to its classical models, then newly discovered and translated, and to the treatment of contemporary and historical “lives” with a freer hand. So, for example, Hamilton adduces the worldly autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (wr. 1558-1562), including an excerpt from his account of the plague years relating one of his sexual exploits with a frankness hitherto reserved for the fictional fabliaux of medieval European literature. Hamilton also includes the example of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose History of the World (1614), though it ended well before his own era, was accounted dangerous in that it presented frank portraits of monarchs and other elite persons as less than ideal. For his frankness, Raleigh was condemned to death, reprieved, and then ultimately executed, becoming biography’s first martyr, in Hamilton’s phrase. Hamilton also places William Shakespeare among his pantheon of biographers, adding that since playwrights blend history and fiction and since the Bard’s work was subject to official scrutiny and censorship, he...

(The entire section is 1538 words.)