How new is the new biography? Some remarks on the misleading term’s past and present
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The article discusses the issue of the so-called “new biography” by underscoring ambiguity of the term and presenting the different variants of “new biography” it encompasses. In order to do that, an introduction is made where the tenets of the classical biography are outlined. The inquiry focuses chiefly on England and the USA, although remarks are also made with respect to biographical writing in other countries. It appears that the term is contemporarily mainly associated with Lytton Strachey’s model of biography which, having been formulated in 1918, proved a breakthrough in life writing, since it operated with ironic detachment from the protagonist. Strachey perceived biography as an art and was determined to speak openly about all spheres of the biographee’s life. The article proves that although other attempts at creating a “new biography” were made after Strachey (by Leon Edel and Jo Burr Margadant), their newness is either derivative and supplementary to Strachey’s achievement, or advances a wholly new notion of biography, with the concept of multiplicity of the protagonist’s self. As the Stracheyan biographical model is almost a century old, one can assume that what is understood as “new biography” is not so new after all. In the meantime, though, biographical practice has taken a turn and a novelistic mode of writing, i.e. biofiction, has become the current paradigm. The author therefore suggests that the present-day understanding of “new biography” be reconsidered by recognizing biofiction as one of the figures of biographical “newness”.
The aim of the paper is to outline the phenomena which tend to be subsumed under the term of “new biography”, especially in the English-speaking discourse in the British Isles and the USA. This is due to the fact that, as it turns out, theorists and practitioners of biographical writing apply the designation to several different phenomena. In order to characterize the tenets of new biographical writing, the paper introduces the essence of the classical biography, which constitute a natural point of reference for the “new biography”. The latter emerged in 1918 with the English modernist Lytton Strachey, who opposed the fossilized Victorian tradition and its flagship model of panegyrical biography. Strachey effected a breakthrough in European biographical writing, by creating biographies which demythicized their protagonists, approaching them with an ironic distance and highlighting the biographer within the narrative. His model would soon become a new standard in biographical writing. Another “new biography” discussed in the paper is the set of biography rules presented by Leon Edel in 1984, to which the originator refers as “New Biography”, a term he also applies to the biographies he authored. Still, Edel drew to a large extent on Strachey, attaching particular importance to the predisposition and talent of the biographer themselves. The latter’s contribution to a “new biography” consists chiefly in identifying and relating the “most profound” truths about the life of the protagonists, which provide a key to the understanding and narrative portrayal of their character and personality. The last of the biographical scholars discussed in the paper, Jo Burr Margadant, does not continue in the Stracheyan or Edelian spirit in her 2000 The New Biography but unfolds a novel, feminist perspective on biography, founded on the concept of multiple selves. She argues that that one’s identity is a kind of performance, and seeks that “new biography” in the narratives of life of eight eminent French female figures of the 18th century. Still, in the contemporary scholarly discourse relating to biographical writing, “new biography” is most often used as reference to the Stracheyan model, even though a century has passed since it was conceived. At the same, time, biofiction gains ever greater popularity in biographical writing today, being in my opinion the “new biography” of the postmodern era, which I demonstrate using a number of examples.
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