Work Title: Biography: A Brief History
Work Author(s): Nigel Hamilton
Harvard University Press
20 b/w illustrations, 316 pages, Softcover $21.95
Reviewer: Joe Taylor
"I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful," Samuel Johnson wrote in 1750.
Dr. Johnson's eighteenth century vision for biography was not merely that it should depict a wider range of subjects than male poets and princes. He also argued that biography should rise above "panegyrick" and include "the mistakes and miscarriages" of a life. Nigel Hamilton's study reveals that two hundred years would pass before Dr. Johnson's dream was to be realized. It wasn't until well after "the triumph of millions of individual's wills" in World War II that a multitude of intimate, imaginative, warts-and-all depictions of a wide variety of lives, male and female, would be published---in books, TV, film, radio, theater, and the Internet. Indeed, Hamilton's central thesis is that the proliferation of biography and autobiography is a function of the Western idea of individualism.
A Cambridge graduate, Hamilton has written several critically acclaimed biographies. His first was The Brothers Mann, followed by Monty, a three-volume, Whitbread Award-winning "official" life of Field Marshal Montgomery, JFK: Reckless Youth, and Bill Clinton: An American Journey. He has also directed the British Institute of Biography and has taught university-level biography courses in Britain and the United States. The writer claims in this study that, despite the current glut of biographies, and despite their importance to our notions of self, truth, and...