What do you think the greatest challenges are when writing a biography of a person who has been dead for hundreads of years?Is it worth the trouble to go back that far to look at the lives of...

What do you think the greatest challenges are when writing a biography of a person who has been dead for hundreads of years?

Is it worth the trouble to go back that far to look at the lives of individuals who may or may not affect our lives today?

Expert Answers
Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Is it worth writing a biography about a person who lived hundreds of years ago who may or may not affect our lives today? Absolutely, if for no other reason than the writer would learn a great deal about a lot of subjects in addition to the life being researched. Gaining new information that relates to some of what we already know gives us a deeper understanding of the world now and in the past.

As for "affecting our lives today," does that refer to people whose accomplishments are reflected in modern life? They certainly should be studied, but what of the other lives? Is researching them valuable? Sure, it is. Knowledge that helps us understand another person, even one who lacked enduring influence, helps us understand ourselves--what we are, what we're not, and what we might want to become. There is much to learn from an obscure life, too, if it were well lived and even if it were a disaster!

The many challenges of researching and writing a biography of a person long gone have been well explained already in this discussion, but I would add this idea. One biography may be more historically accurate than another, but I don't think any biography is absolutely accurate since even biography writing is at least somewhat interpretive. Facts are facts, but what they mean in relation to each other is subjective. If complete knowledge of the subject and his or her activities and feelings were to guarantee accuracy, then autobiographies should be completely accurate since the writer was definitely there. But they're not. If a person is unable (even if willing) to tell his or her own story with 100% accuracy and objectivity, then biography writers--no matter how diligent--cannot achieve that standard either. So, biography writers should have at it, be as accurate and objective as possible, point out any discrepancies they find in their research, and add to our general body of knowledge.


M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The sources that you will use to get the information are the most important thing (I think) because secondary sources are sometimes biased.

I was writing a biography on, of course, Oscar Wilde, and I own over 25 different books on his life. Although the gist of the biography is almost similar (where he was born, went to school, etc) since it was gathered from signed documents, the other events became harder for me to focus on due to the biased way in which half of these biographers wrote.

Particularly on the topic of his homosexuality, and whether his wife knew it or not, there were 10 different arguments I collected from all these biographies. In the end, since the wife did not leave a journal, nor Oscar Wilde an autobiography, all was still up in the air, and then I had to employ other sources such as ettiquette books in Victorian society, housewife manuals,etc.  Not enough with that, I then had to get the gossip colums of the times dealing with hidden homosexuality and other crimes (for it was a crime, then) of that nature...In all, beware of those sources. Beware of those "goldmines" of information. Too good to be true, often is.

drgingerbear eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the greatest challenges in writing a biography stems from finding accurate data on the individual. If the individual made a significant impact on society, the data tends to be more accurate and "trustworty". If you are writing about an individual who impacted individual lives on a more personal level, finding actual facts about the person may be more difficult. If an individual has been dead for "hundreds of years", interviewing relatives may also be challenging.

Your second question regarding "is it worth it to go back that far to look into lives of indiviudals" is a personal one. Beforewritten "biographies", stories were told of individuals lives to help others through similar challenges or experiences. Careful examination of the life the individual lived, the current relatives of the deceased, and the facts that are readily found are all considerations to think about before writing a biography on an individual.


drgingerbear eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Response to Q#7:

Database searches (sometimes you have to pay a fee) can provide you with accurate, historical data. Also, there are some geneology sites that can also provide accurate data regarding a family's history. The public library or records department in the county courthouse of the person that you want to research are also great places to conduct fact finding research. The more written evidence you can find, the more accurate the biography can be. Depending on how far back you want to go, you might encounter a lack of written documentation or records. In that case, it is possible that all you have is second-hand knowledge. However, after interviewing many people and the information you gain is "running in circles" (i.e. you are hearing the same information over and over again), it is possible that there is a nugget of truth to the story. Best wishes!

alohaspirit eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The biggest challenge would be historical accuracy and making sure you have enough primary sources to really write an accurate biography.  The worst situation for the author would be to write a biography and then it come back later that certain information was fabricated or certain truths were stretched.  Also besides primary sources, all your information is secondary since you cannot interview that person, so it will be difficult for that biography to have a personal touch.  The most important aspect of a biography is that it tells a geniune story of that person's life, and that is difficult to tell with second-hand information.

joe30pl eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Agreed, trying to find accurate information can be difficult. People take for granted modern media today (movies, videos, photos, audio recordings). The further you go back, the more second hand the information becomes; even with kings and queens we can never be 100% positive. The Diary of Samuel Peeps and the autobiography of Dr. Samuel Johnson may be the exception.

Kit Marlowe, for example, is a hard one. How did he die? Was he even a real person? We do not know. Who are you writing about?

parkerlee eNotes educator| Certified Educator

historical fiability: Representing the person as closely as possible to his/her real personality and being.

representative credibility:  Making the person seem alive and believable today, with both individuality and universal appeal. For example, the manner in which the person faced and resolved conflicts could very well reflect problems of the present all people face and deal with at one time or another (ie,  jealousy,amibition,conflict of loyalties, betrayal, etc.)

kc4u | Student

When you are searching for a subject to write a biography, it is not that important that he/she died a long ago; much more important is how he/she lived or what he/she did. Of course it is difficult to collect biographical material, and it would be even more difficult to select & verify from available materials. You may find truths, half-truths, lies, over/under statements, eulogies, invectives and what not. Since the person belongs to some distant past, things may be extremely difficult to sort out a credibly truthful account. Writing a balanced & unprejudiced biographical account is always a challenging job. In case of a person distanced from the biographer in the time past, the job must be more challenging.

krishna-agrawala | Student

hey34 in her original topic and posts # 1 and 7 has raised several question regarding writing biography of a person who lived hundreds of years ago, These are, 1) What are the greatest challenges, 2) is it worthwhile doing it at all, and 3) how you establish the truth .

To some extent these issues are interrelated. To be of any value at all, the biography must represent true facts, and finding out the facts is a big challenge.

A biography of a person who lived many hundred years back is a part of past history, and can serve the same purpose that history serves. Here we should remember that the biography not only gives us information of the person whose biography but also about the related time period, place, people and events. How valuable such information will depend on the accuracy and detail of information  and its significance of for the person reading the biography. For example. I am am very much interested in biographies and autobiographies that give any information on any aspect of business and management in the past.

The reliability of information will definitely depend on the efforts put in to collect and check on the accuracy. It also depends on the person described in biography. It is easier to get information on important people who lives some king of public life. The difficulty of data collection is also related to the time and budget available for the same.

In addition to problem of collecting data, I see another personal difficulty in writing biographies of persons who lived long ago. This is the problem of understanding and appreciating the culture and environment of this time. I believe, if one wishes to write a really insightful biography, then he or should also devote sufficient attention to understanding the culture, environment and relevant issues of the time and place.

hey34 | Student

I am not writing on anyone in particular. But I was just wondering how you know what is true or not? I guess you could never know.

epollock | Student

The greatest challenge is to interpret their work correctly, if no other corroborating evidence is found.  Even with evidence, interpretation of historical documents and personal correspondence is a delicate matter.