Biography: A Brief History by Nigel Hamilton - review by David Ellis

David Ellis

Chronicles of A Life Story

Biography: A Brief History


Harvard University Press 354pp £

Biography is a difficult genre to define. Some have tried to simplify matters by excluding from it any autobiographical writing, on the loosely Freudian ground that the accounts which people give of themselves can never be accurate. Others have insisted that texts such as the often cited but rarely read Lives of the Saints should not be regarded as biographies because almost all the details they contain are invented and the aim of a biographer should be historical truth, however hard or even impossible that may be to attain. A third limitation comes from those who say that no genuine biography is possible until its subject is dead. One reason here is that only at the moment of death does the pattern of a life become clear. ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’, a Greek once insisted, but, when there is always a chance of impoverished eighty-year-olds winning the lottery, he presumably meant that we ought to call no man unhappy either.

This last method for restricting the definition of biography is one of which Nigel Hamilton has deprived himself by recently publishing the first volume of a life of Bill Clinton, a biographical subject whose life journey would seem to reserve many more twists and turns (especially if his wife is

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