Abstract

The conventional description of biography as a form of nonfiction narrative begs questions about the stories biographies tell, the facts that constitute their raw material, and the language in which they are cast. These questions are seen as central for students of the arts and humanities and are addressed as three interrelated issues as exemplified in literary biography. First, it is argued that biographies have a cellular structure that derives from the imposition of a master narrative over the subject’s life, one that creates continuity and coherence from the heterogeneous accumulation of mininarratives found in the biographer’s sources. The factual status of these sources is shown to be complex due to the ambiguous nature of the subject’s literary works considered as data; to be unstable due to unavoidable features such as archival gaps, and the selectivity, speculation, and error that are inherent in the biographical process; and to be malleable because of the particular agenda that motivates every biography. Finally, the “literariness” of biographical language is shown to be fundamental in the rhetorical evocation of the subject. Art and artifice combine in a genre that provokes questions about the relationship between the life stories biographers construct and the narratives by which we make sense of life.

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