(from the Greek
life + γράφειν-graphein
to write) is a
book about the life of a person, written by that person.
Origin of the term
The word autobiography
was first used by
the poet Robert Southey
in the English
, the Quarterly Review
, but the form goes
back to antiquity. Biographers generally rely on a wide variety of
documents and viewpoints; an autobiography however may be based
entirely on the writer's memory. Closely associated with
autobiography (and sometimes difficult to precisely distinguish
from it) is the form of memoir
See List of
autobiographies and :Category:Autobiographies for
Autobiography through the ages
The classical period: Apologia, oration, confession
In antiquity such works were typically entitled apologia,
implying as an example of
much self-justification as self-documentation. John Henry Newman
's autobiography (first
published in 1864) is entitled Apologia Pro Vita Sua
reference to this tradition.
The pagan rhetor
(c. 314–394) framed his life
memoir (Oration I
begun in 374) as one of his oration
, not of a public kind, but of a
literary kind that could be read aloud in privacy.
(354–430) applied the
autobiographical work, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
used the same
title in the 18th century, initiating the chain of confessional and
sometimes racy and highly self-critical, autobiographies of the
era and beyond.
In the spirit of Augustine's Confessions
of Peter Abelard
outstanding as an autobiographical document of its period.
Zāhir ud-Dīn Mohammad Bābur
A scene from the Baburnama.
,who founded the
of South Asia
kept a journal Bāburnāma
/ ; literally: "Book
or "Letters of Babur"
) which was written
between 1493 and 1529.
One of the first great autobiographies of the Renaissance
is that of the sculptor and
goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini
(1500–1571), written between 1556 and 1558, and entitled by him
). He declares at the start: "No matter what sort he
is, everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great
achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write
the story of his own life in his own hand; but no one should
venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty."
These criteria for autobiography generally persisted until recent
times, and most serious autobiographies of the next three hundred
years conformed to them.
Another autobiography of the period is De vita propria
the Italian physician and astrologer Gerolamo Cardano
earliest known autobiography in English is the early 15th-century
Booke of Margery Kempe,
describing among other things her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visit to Rome.
book remained in manuscript and was not published until 1936.
Notable English autobiographies of the seventeenth century include
those of Lord Herbert of
(1643, published 1764) and John
(Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners
A memoir is slightly different in character from an autobiography.
While an autobiography typically focuses on the "life and times" of
the writer, a memoir has a narrower, more intimate focus on his or
her own memories, feelings and emotions. Memoirs have often been
written by politicians or military leaders as a way to record and
publish an account of their public exploits. One early example is
that of Leonor López
(1362–1420) who wrote what is supposed to be the
first autobiography in Spanish. The English Civil War
(1642–1651) provoked a
number of examples of this genre, including works by Sir Edmund Ludlow
and Sir John Reresby
. French examples
from the same period include the memoirs of Cardinal de
(1614–1679) and the Duc de Saint-Simon
18th and 19th centuries
Notable 18th-century autobiographies in English include those of
and Benjamin Franklin
. Following the trend of
, which greatly emphasised
the role and the nature of the individual, and in the footsteps of
, a more
intimate form of autobiography, exploring the subject's emotions,
came into fashion. An English example is William Hazlitt
's Liber Amoris
(1823), a painful examination of the writer's love-life.
With the rise of education, cheap newspapers and cheap printing,
modern concepts of fame and celebrity began to develop, and the
beneficiaries of this were not slow to cash in on this by producing
autobiographies. It became the expectation—rather than the
exception—that those in the public eye should write about
themselves—not only writers such as Charles Dickens
(who also incorporated
autobiographical elements in his novels) and Anthony Trollope
, but politicians (e.g.
Henry Brooks Adams
(e.g. John Stuart Mill
such as Cardinal Newman
entertainers such as P. T. Barnum
Increasingly, in accordance with romantic taste, these accounts
also began to deal, amongst other topics, with aspects of childhood
and upbringing—far removed from the principles of "Cellinian"
Nature of autobiography
Autobiographical works are by nature subjective. The inability—or
unwillingness—of the author to accurately recall memories has in
certain cases resulted in misleading or incorrect information. Some
sociologists and psychologists have noted that autobiography offers
the author the ability to recreate history.
Versions of the autobiography form
Autobiographies as critiques of totalitarianism
Victims and opponents of totalitarian
regimes have been able to
present striking critiques of these regimes through
autobiographical accounts of their oppression. Among the more
renowned of such works are the writings of Primo Levi
, one of many personal accounts of the
. Similarly, there are many works
detailing atrocities and malevolence of Communist
regimes (e.g., Nadezhda Mandelstam
's Hope against
Sensationalist and celebrity "autobiographies"
From the 17th century onwards, "scandalous memoirs" by supposed
, serving a public taste for
titillation, have been frequently published. Typically pseudonymous
, they were (and are) largely works of
fiction written by ghostwriters
So-called "autobiographies" of modern professional athletes and
media celebrities—and to a lesser extent about politicians,
generally written by a ghostwriter
routinely published. Some celebrities, such as Naomi Campbell
, admit to not having read
Autobiographies of the non-famous
Until recent years, few people without some genuine claim to fame
wrote or published autobiographies for the general public. With the
critical and commercial success in the United States of such
memoirs as Angela’s
and The Color of
, however, more and more people have been encouraged
to try their hand at this genre.
This trend has also encouraged fake
, particularly those associated with
,' where the writer
has allegedly suffered from being a part of a dysfunctional family
, or from social
problems, or political
The term "fictional autobiography" has been coined to define novels
about a fictional character written as though the character were
writing their own biography, of which Daniel Defoe
's Moll Flanders
, is an early example.
' David Copperfield
such classic, and J. D. Salinger
Catcher in the Rye
is a well-known modern example of fictional autobiography. Charlotte Bronte
's Jane Eyre
is yet another example of fictional
autobiography, as noted on the front page of the original version.
The term may also apply to works of fiction purporting to be
autobiographies of real characters, e.g., Stephen Marlowe
's The Death and Life of
Miguel de Cervantes