A biography is an account of someone’s life story that is written by an author who is not the subject of the nook. An autobiography, on the other hand, involves an individual narrating their own life experiences.
The differences between biographies and autobiographies relate most prominently to the authorhship:
- Autobiography: When you read an autobiography, you’re getting the author’s own interpretation of their life.
- Biography: When you read a biography, you experience the subject’s life through someone else’s lens (Schiffrin & Brockmeier, 2012).
Biography vs Autobiography
A biography is a detailed account of a person’s life, scripted by an author who is not the person who is featured in the text itself.
This type of life story focuses both on factual events in the person’s life, such as birth, education, work, and death, but often also delves into personal aspects like experiences, relationships, and significant achievements.
Origins of Biographies
The concept of biography as a literary genre dates back to antiquity. Such works were primarily used to capture the lives of dignified individuals, mainly rulers and war heroes.
Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are landmark examples from this ancient period (Sweet, 2010).
The popularity of biographical works only grew in the ensuing centuries, and they became a prominent part of many cultures’ literary traditions.
Into the 18th century and during the Enlightenment, biographies began to present a more balanced portrayal of the subject. They would present both their strengths and flaws, providing a holistic perspective on the subject.
Dr. Samuel Johnson’s compilation of English poets biographies, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-1781) ushered in a new era of biography writing by focusing on examining human nature (Ditchfield, 2018).
In the modern era, the genre has evolved and broadened, encompassing a diverse range of figures from all walks of life – there’s a biography in every niche imaginable, with each offering readers an in-depth exploration of their lives, their struggles, and their triumphs.
This demonstrates the enduring appeal of biographies and their value in providing snapshots of history through individual lenses.
Key Characteristics of Biographies
|1. Written by a third party||The author of the biography is not the person who the story is about. The writer is an observer who collects, verifies, and narrates the life story of the person in focus (Smith et al., 2012).|
|2. Third-party perspective||A biography doesn’t have the self-serving incentive of an autobiography. So, a biography is often more trustworthy, but we still need to examine the incentives of the actual author (Jones, 2015).|
|3. Comprehensive account of an individual’s life||A biography covers all the significant aspects of the person’s life. From birth to death, or their most noteworthy accomplishments, it encompasses a wide array of life events (Johnson & Johnson, 2017).|
|4. Focuses on facts and major life events||A biography prioritizes facts and major milestones in an individual’s life, such as academic achievements, careers, relationships, and more. It does not delve into trivial details unless they are relevant to the person’s life story (Williams, 2019).|
Examples of Biographies
Title: The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets
Author: Dr. Samuel Johnson
Description: Dr. Johnson’s work profiles the lives of 52 poets from the 17th and 18th centuries, including John Milton and Alexander Pope. He critiques not just the works, but also explores their personal lives and the sociopolitical contexts of their times (Johnson, 1781). Johnson’s study is invaluable for its integrated historic and biographic approach.
Title: The Life of Samuel Johnson
Author: James Boswell
Description: This work by Boswell explores, in great depth, the life of his friend and mentor, Dr. Samuel Johnson. The biography offers a compelling portrayal of Dr. Johnson’s life, character, eccentricities, and intellectual prowess (Boswell, 1791). Boswell’s vivid account creates a near-physical presence of Johnson to the readers, making it one of the greatest biographies in English literature.
Title: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Author: Edmund Morris
Description: In this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Morris chronicles the early life of Theodore Roosevelt until his ascension to the U.S presidency. The work brilliantly captures Roosevelt’s extraordinary career and his transformation from a frail asthmatic boy into a robust and vigorous leader (Morris, 1979). Morris accurately represents Roosevelt’s indomitable spirit, making it an engaging and educational read.
Title: Steve Jobs
Author: Walter Isaacson
Description: This comprehensive biography provides a deep-dive into the life and career of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple. Isaacson had unparalleled access to Jobs and those closest to him, thus presenting an intimate and detailed account. He explores Jobs’ professional endeavors as well as his personal life, revealing his ambition, intensity, and visionary mind that revolutionized several high-tech industries (Isaacson, 2011).
Title: Alexander Hamilton
Author: Ron Chernow
Description: Ron Chernow provides a sweeping narrative of one of America’s most compelling founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Chernow combines extensive research with a flair for storytelling, charting Hamilton’s evolution from an orphan into a political genius. The book sheds light on Hamilton’s crucial role in the formation of the United States’ financial system and his political ideologies (Chernow, 2004).
An autobiography is a self-written record of someone’s own life. It is a personal narrative in which the author writes about their life from their own perspective.
Autobiographies are usually centered around the author’s personal experiences, including key milestones, challenges, and achievements (Eakin, 2015).
They’re also often a defense of the person’s perspective (especially in political autobiographies) or insight into their thought processes, which can make them very intimate.
Origins of Autobiographies
The term ‘autobiography’ was first used deprecatingly by William Taylor in 1797 in the English periodical The Monthly Review, when he suggested the word as a hybrid but condemned it as ‘pedantic’.
Pioneering examples of the genre form include Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) and the memoirs by veterans of the Napoleonic Wars (Lejeune, 2016).
However, apart from these early instances, autobiographies have been composed by a wide array of individuals from history.
In the early 20th century, the genre witnessed major transformations, and autobiographies started to cover a broader spectrum of experiences, including trauma, struggles, and successes.
‘Black Boy’ by Richard Wright, for instance, shares the author’s experiences with racism and his journey towards developing a literary career (Wright, 1945).
This was followed by a host of autobiographies by public figures sharing their diverse stories, such as Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’, depicting his days as a struggling young writer in Paris (Hemingway, 1964).
Autobiography as a genre has continued to evolve over the years, and a variety of forms have emerged to communicate individual experiences globally.
As history has progressed, we see more and more people with diverse perspectives sharing their stories, broadening our understanding of the human experience (Smith & Watson, 2010).
Key Characteristics of Autobiographies
|1. Written by the subject themselves||The author of the autobiography is the person the story is about. They are the principal actor and the primary source of the information (Miller, 2014). As a result, we can get a deeper ‘insider’ insight into their mentality and expereinces.|
|2. Subjective perspective||An autobiography emphasizes the personal viewpoint adopted by the author. The story is told from their own emotions, biases, and interpretations, providing a very personal perspective. However, we also need to be aware that it’s going to only present one self-serving perspective on the matter.|
|3. Often includes personal reflections and feelings||Autobiographies go beyond factual accounts and include the author’s internal thoughts, emotions, and introspections about their experiences (Baker et al., 2013).|
|4. May focus on specific themes or periods in the author’s life||Unlike a biography, an autobiography may not cover the entirety of the author’s life. Instead, they’re more likely to concentrate on specific themes (like resilience) or significant periods (like childhood or a specific career phase) (Brown & Brown, 2018).|
Examples of Autobiographies
Title: Long Walk to Freedom
Author: Nelson Mandela
Description: “Long Walk to Freedom” provides an in-depth exploration of ex-President Nelson Mandela, his political journey, and his stand against apartheid in South Africa. The biography offers a unique perspective into Mandela’s noble character, his indomitable spirit, and his commitment to justice when faced with grave adversities (Mandela, 1995). Mandela serves as one of our times’ great moral and political leaders through this biography.
Title: The Diary of a Young Girl
Author: Anne Frank
Description: This biography provides a startling firsthand account of a young Jewish girl named Anne Frank, who with her family, hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam during World War II. Her diary entries offer profound insights into the fear, hope, and resilience she demonstrated during her two years in hiding (Frank, 1947). Frank’s posthumous biographical record serves as a reminder of the injustices of the past and as a symbol of endurance in the face of oppression.
Title: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author: Maya Angelou
Description: This moving autobiography charts Maya Angelou’s early life, from experiencing racial discrimination in the South to becoming the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Angelou portrays her journey of self-discovery and overcoming traumatic experiences, including racial prejudice and personal trauma, with remarkable strength and grace. Her story is one of resilience, and it speaks powerfully about finding one’s voice (Angelou, 1969).
Author: Elie Wiesel
Description: “Night” is Wiesel’s personal account of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II with his father. This heartbreaking narrative describes not only physical hardship and cruel atrocities but also examines the loss of innocence and the struggle to maintain faith in humanity. It stands as a testament to human resilience in the face of unimaginable horror (Wiesel, 1960).
Title: Dreams from My Father
Author: Barack Obama
Description: In this engaging memoir, the 44th President of the United States narrates the story of his diverse background and early life. The narrative extends from his birth in Hawaii to his first visit to Kenya, from dealing with racial identity to self-discovery. “Dreams from My Father” not only provides personal insights about Obama’s life and values but also discusses issues of race, identity, and purpose (Obama, 1995).
Similarities and Differences Between Biographies and Autobiographies
|1. Authorship||Written by a third party. The author and subject are different individuals (Smith et al., 2012).||Written by the subject themselves. The author is the person the story is about (Miller, 2014).|
|2. Perspective||Presents an objective perspective, offering a balanced view of the subject’s life (Jones, 2015).||Emphasizes a subjective perspective, providing a very personal view of the author’s life.|
|3. Content||Focuses on facts and major life events, offering a comprehensive account of an individual’s life (Johnson & Johnson, 2017).||Often includes personal reflections and feelings, may focus on specific themes or periods in the author’s life (Baker et al., 2013; Brown & Brown, 2018).|
|4. Personal Reflections||Contains limited personal reflections or emotions of the subject.||Contains an abundance of personal reflections and emotions from the author (Baker et al., 2013).|
|5. Subjectivity / Objectivity||More objective due to the distance between the author and the subject (Jones, 2015).||More subjective due to the close relationship between the author and the subject – they’re the same person.|
|6. Strengths||Provides an impartial and factual account of a person’s life, which can be helpful for historical or academic study (Williams, 2019).||Gives a deeper insight into a person’s thoughts and emotions, providing a unique perspective on their life experiences (Baker et al., 2013).|
|7. Weaknesses||May lack personal insight or emotional depth due to its objective approach (Williams, 2019).||May be biased or overly emotional due to its subjective approach, and may not cover the entirety of the author’s life (Brown & Brown, 2018).|
While both biographies and autobiographies are excellent sources of information and entertainment about significant figures in history (or the present!), they serve different purposes. By knowing the different purposes of each, we can develop stronger media literacy, understanding what the intention of the author is, and how we should approach the text.
Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House.
Baker, J., Davis, E., & Thompson, K. (2013). Reflection and Emotions in Autobiography. Chicago University Press.
Boswell, J. (1791). The Life of Samuel Johnson. J.R. Taylor.
Brown, J., & Brown, S. (2018). Thematic Focus in Autobiography Writing. Princeton University Press.
Chernow, R. (2004). Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books.
Ditchfield, S. (2018). Extracting the Domestic from the Didactic: Transmission and Translation of the Sacred in The Lives of the Ancient Fathers (1672–1675). Church History and Religious Culture, 98(1), 28-50.
Eakin, P. J. (2015). How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Cornell University Press.
Frank, A. (1947). The Diary of a Young Girl. Contact Publishing.
Hemingway, E. (1964). A Moveable Feast. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. Simon & Schuster.
Johnson, M., & Johnson, S. (2017). A Comprehensive Guide to Biography Writing. New York: Penguin.
Johnson, S. (1781). The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. Printed by C. Bathurst, J. Buckland [and 28 others in London].
Jones, B. (2015). The Art of Writing Biographies: An Objective Approach. Oxford University Press.
Lejeune, P. (2016). On Autobiography. University of Minnesota Press.
Mandela, N. (1995). Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Macdonald Purnell.
Miller, R. (2014). The Self as the Subject: Autobiography Writing. Stanford University Press.
Morris, E. (1979). The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan.
Obama, B. (1995). Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Crown Publishing Group.
Schiffrin D., & Brockmeier J. (2012). Narrative Identity and Autobiographical Recall. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 70, 113-144.
Smith, J., Davis, M., & Thompson, S. (2012). Third Party Narratives: An Exploration of Biography Writing. Cambridge University Press.
Smith, S., & Watson, J. (2010). Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. University of Minnesota Press.
Sweet, R. (2010). Biographical Dictionaries and Historiography. Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 72(2), 355–368.
Wiesel, E. (1960). Night. Hill & Wang.
Williams, T. (2019). The Importance of Facts in Biographies. HarperCollins.
Wright, R. (1945). Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. Harper & Brothers.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]