Monday, March 19, 2007

The Nature of Biography by Robert Gittings

In 1977, Robert Gittings (1911-1992) presented a series of three lectures on the history and prospects for biography as a literary form. As a poet and the author of biographies about John Keats and Thomas Hardy, he was serving as a visiting professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. The essays were reprinted as The Nature of Biography.

Though thirty years have passed, much of what Gittings says in The Nature of Biography remains true. He cautions that while increased technology (at the time photocopiers and microfilm) has made records more accessible, writing contemporary biography is still difficult because there is so much the writer will never know. He also says that in an sophisticated world, biographical subjects are always working to protect their private thoughts and motivations. Documentary evidence should always be questioned, he warns, as its quality, reliability, and relevance are suspect in a stage-managed environment.

The form of the biography has changed much from the nineteenth century when a biographer was thought out of bounds for profiling the subject in the context of history, politics, the economy, psychology, and societal influences. Now the biographer is expected to understand and reflect a wide range of disciplines in summing up one life.

Gittings takes some biographers to task for needlessly reporting on biographical controversies in their texts. He says that readers want to read about people and not about about biographers who disagree among themselves on every piece of evidence.

The Nature of Biography is a small book that is a good introduction to the literary form. Many libraries still have it.

Gittings, Robert. The Nature of Biography. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978. ISBN 0295956046

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