BIOGRAPHY by Nigel Hamilton


A Brief History
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The story of life stories, from cave paintings and Gilgamesh to Michael Holroyd and James Frey.

Hamilton may be the best friend biography has ever had. A skilled laborer in the life-story vineyard (Bill Clinton, 2003, etc.), he is also a fierce advocate for the importance of the genre—with some axes to grind. He wonders why the University of Hawaii at Manoa is the only one in the world with a department devoted to the study of biography. He rails against the OED, which he claims has insisted on limiting the definition of biography to written accounts only. Hamilton’s much broader category includes portraits, sculpture, painting, plays, films, TV shows, comic books and much of popular culture. Although he does pause periodically to discuss unconventional forms (Shakespeare’s dramatic studies of kings, for example), he focuses primarily on traditional biographies. Hamilton believes biography serves significant cultural functions. It is a way we learn about the past and (in the West at least) celebrate the primacy of the individual. His text hopscotches through history, staying put now and then to discuss great moments in biography and autobiography: the Gospels, St. Augustine, Plutarch, Raleigh, Rousseau, Boswell, Freud, Strachey and Woolf, who wrote Orlando because she decided that “if print biography could not batter down the doors of English decorum . . . it would have to mask itself as fiction.” Hamilton declares Citizen Kane the most powerful of all biographies, even though fictionalized. He looks hard at forces that oppose the biographer—religion, tradition, prudishness, libel laws, totalitarianism—and casts particular opprobrium on copyright laws that keep permission to publish in the hands of a subject’s surviving relatives. (He does not mention his own struggles with the Kennedys after the 1992 publication of JFK: Reckless Youth.) The author believes that democracy has been the propellant for biography’s rocket-like rise in the last half-century . . . and for biographers’ newfound freedom to write about their subjects’ sex lives. Many illuminating excerpts illustrate the text.

A vast subject confined in a small but well-illuminated room.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2007
ISBN: 0-674-02466-4
Page count: 316pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2006


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