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The art of biography

Created date

November 25th, 2014
Plutarch's Parallel Lives
Plutarch's Parallel Lives

On any given week, you can find two or three of them on the New York Times bestsellers list. Readers around the world are enamored with biographies—the stories of men and women who have accomplished magnificent feats, participated in extraordinary events, and, in some cases, were responsible for ghastly deeds.

Audiences have long been fascinated with the lives and times of other people. And herein rests the fundamental attraction of biography as a genre.

Ancient roots

As early as the first century A.D., the Greek historian Plutarch wrote 23 pairs of biographies about Greeks and Romans collectively entitled Parallel Lives. In it, he chronicled the exploits of rulers the likes of Alexander the Great and Numa Pompilius. 

These historical biographies, though sparse and factually questionable by today’s standards, reached across generations. By the first quarter of the eighteenth century, there were at least five English editions of Plutarch’s work in print. 

Many similar books followed—a few of them, no doubt written with a specific purpose, namely Piotr Skarga’s hagiographic Lives of the Saints (1577). 

Not until 1791, did readers get their first taste of a modern biography with James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, which showed all of its subject’s warts and blemishes. In fact, Boswell, who knew Johnson, was the first biographer to weave archival documentation, interviews, and eyewitness accounts into a seamless, flowing narrative of someone’s life. 

In the coming years, the biographical genre ebbed and flowed. Occasionally, a worthy book emerged in a sea of so-called biographies that were in reality little more than eulogies.

A new era

But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, biography began to come into its own with writers such as John Hay, John Nicolay, and Douglas Southall Freeman producing multivolume chronicles of historical figures ranging from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Even now, many historians consider these books valuable sources of research.

One hundred years later, the list of bestselling biographers who are known quantities among avid readers is endless: David McCullough, Stacy Schiff, Antonia Fraser, Michael Korda, Fred Kaplan, Walter Isaacson, and myriad others who routinely bring to life the people, places, and events about which they write.

For author Fred Kaplan, the art of biography is all about getting to know one’s subject.

“Whenever I start a new book, it’s always the same thing; I feel as though I’m actually meeting that person, and over the course of my research, I become intimately involved in the many aspects of his life,” explains Kaplan, whom legendary writer Gore Vidal personally selected to craft his authorized biography. “Of course, I really did meet Gore, and I told him that I prefer that my subjects be dead.

“Naturally, I didn’t expect him to oblige me on that,” he adds with a chuckle.

Kaplan’s bibliography is varied and his selection of topics based mainly on sheer curiosity and interest. He’s written books on the writing of Abraham Lincoln; the lives of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Henry James; and, most recently, a biography of President John Quincy Adams.

The human element

“A good biography must have that human element, which is often easier said than done,” Kaplan notes. “The writer has to immerse himself in his subject’s life to get a clear sense of his or her personality, character, and the times in which he or she lived.

“These are the things that shape people and, consequently, they drive the story in a biography.”

It is for this reason that audiences so dearly love the genre. Each page in a biography is a window into another world, someone else’s life. 

There is a degree of comfort in knowing that history’s great men and women were indeed great not in the absence of trials but in spite of them. John Quincy Adams, for instance, had three sons, one of whom succumbed to drink and another to depression and, ultimately, suicide. 

Yet in the face of tragedy, Adams still turned out to be one of our country’s greatest leaders—not only as president, but also as a congressman, senator, lawyer, abolitionist, husband, and son. 

As the classic books demonstrate, biographies aren’t just about people; they’re about living. And we the readers can find a little bit of ourselves on every page.


Biographers’ favorite bios

Michael Korda

New York Times bestselling author of Ike: An American Hero (Harper Perennial, 2008) and Clouds of Glory (HarperCollins, 2014).

1. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro

2. Marlborough: His Life and Times by Winston Churchill

3. Gladstone by Roy Jenkins

4. Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford

5. Marie-Antoinette by Antonia Fraser


Michael Hill

Lead researcher on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning John Adams (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and author of Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris (Simon & Schuster, 2012).

1. Walter Lippmann and the American Century by Ronald Steel

2. Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre  

3. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

4. The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner 

5. The Last Lion by William Manchester 


Fred Kaplan 

Author of John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (HarperCollins, 2014).

1. The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

2. Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph by Edgar Johnson

3. James Joyce by Richard Ellmann

4. Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis

5. All on Fire: William Loyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery by Henry Mayer