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Biography: A Brief History Hardcover – March 20, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This zesty romp through millennia of biographical portraits comes from the pen of a master biographer (JFK: Reckless Youth). Hamilton's a friendly spectator to his own art, undaunted by its age, variety or the number and skill of the practitioners who've gone before him. Starting with the ancient Gilgamesh epic, he speeds us through the forms—writing, theater, painting and film—in which biographers have portrayed and interpreted individual lives. No shrinking violet, he wrestles with every major figure who's tried a hand at biography or criticized biographers' work. While his own strong convictions are clear, he's fair in his assessment of others and the ideal referee. Not surprisingly, Hamilton uses the most ink on recent decades, when the protections to privacy have fallen away and every dimension of a subject's life has become fair game. That doesn't much bother him, although it deeply troubles others. He also leans to the risky view that our age has brought biographical art to its maturity. Perhaps it has. But even if time proves Hamilton wrong, no one will fail to find his brief, interpretive history of life stories compelling. It's hard to think of a better introduction to one of the most popular genres of literature and art today. B&w illus. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Hamilton, biographer of JFK and Bill Clinton, is a knowledgeable and personable guide to a craft that is thousands of years old. His expansive definition of biography encompasses cave paintings, oil paintings, television documentaries, and Internet content in addition to books, a perspective that leads to numerous surprises while supporting his contention that biography should be granted the status of a scholarly discipline. Every time Hamilton ventures from generalizations about the craft to explications of specific biographers and scholars of biography, he scores high marks. The pithy sections on Plutarch, Virgina Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Ian Hamilton (frustrated biographer of J. D. Salinger) are especially strong. However, Hamilton offers two debatable conclusions. He writes that in contemporary Western culture, biography has become "the dominant area of nonfiction broadcasting and publishing," and he says that before his book, "there has been no single accessible introduction to the subject," an assertion his own bibliography suggests is mistaken, even as it omits relevant books. Fortunately, these claims do not greatly diminish the value of his fascinating history. Steve Weinberg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (March 20, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674024664
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674024663
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,359,472 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on April 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
We live in a time in which we are overwhelmed by biographical information. The 'Internet' now has millions of people frantically posting the most intimate and even more often the most trivial details of their lives. The barriers which once made it impossible to invade the privacy of public figures have been legally torn down. Scandal, gossip, and the real inside stuff are now provided to an ever more hungry public in tons. There are also more respectable developments in this flourishing area including more responsible, detailed scholarly work.

It wasn't always this way. And Nigel Hamilton tells the story of the liberalization, tracing the history of Biography as a literary - genre beginning with 'Gilgamesh' and hitting milestones along the way towards the twentieth century. Great turning - point works such as those of Augustine, Samuel Johnson (Boswell) Rousseau, Lytton - Strachey are interpreted for their contribution to the overall development of the genre

One central question considered is whether it is the task of the biographer to tell an ideal story of a model figure, an example for imitation or to provide the whole truth about the figure in question. Our world of course has it all , from niche publisher hagiographies to mass- market 'tell - it-alls' and the direction has been in opening up more and more areas of the person's life for investigation and consideration. Another major trend is toward the 'fictionalization' of biography and the using speculative, imaginative means. Peter Ackroyd does this with his 'Dickens' and Edmund Morris becomes a character in 'Reagan'.

Hamilton maintains that 'biography' is now the most popular form of non- fiction writing today. He too is peeved that the academic world does not give enough respect to the Genre.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By JLuiz Alquéres on October 26, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Few times an extensive subject like this was adressed in such a compact , deep and elegant prose making us wonder , from now on , how to really look for the subjects portraited.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Elaine Mendelow on July 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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9 of 27 people found the following review helpful By G. D. Edwards on April 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
How can one take this book seriously when one reads the following on Page 124? "Another commissioned but then contested work was that of James Anthony Froude, who was asked by the great Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle to be his posthumous official biographer. Froude subsequently fell afoul of Carlyle's surviving daughter, Mary, who considered his four-volume biography (beginning in 1884) to be defamatory - even though Froude had nobly omitted much telling evidence of spousal abuse and impotence. There followed a three-decade-long war between the party of the official biographer and the daughter - one that was never resolved."

Carlyle probably was impotent and his marriage had never been consummated - he certainly had no children! Mary was a niece, not a "surviving daughter." Readers interested in the history of biography would be much better served by reading A.O.J. Cockshut's "Truth To Life:The Art of Biography in the Nineteenth Century" (1974) or "The Art of Autobiography in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Cenutry England" (1984).
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