An autobiography is a written account of the life of the writer. Autobiographical accounts are written in first person and may include important public life events as well as private affairs, personal reflections, and emotional reactions.

What is an Autobiography?

An autobiography is a written account of the life of the writer. Of necessity, autobiographies do not span the entire life of the writer, but generally cover from birth until the time of writing. These accounts may include important public life events as well as private affairs, personal reflections, and emotional reactions. A subset of the autobiography is the memoir, which is smaller in scope than an autobiography and often captures only a particular portion of a writer’s experience. A memoir may be more artistic in style and focus on events that relate to a particular theme, historical time span, or period of public relevance. Elie Wiesel's memoir Night, for instance, focuses only on the years he spent in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Both autobiographies and memoirs are naturally subjective. They are written in first person and include the reactions and opinions of the writer. At times, autobiographies of notable figures are created through collaboration with a professional writer or through the sole efforts of a ghost writer. Ghost writers and collaborators generally interview a subject at length before writing, and thus attempt to convey the opinions and style of the subject as if he or she was actually writing the account.

Biographies have become quite common in the present day, but historically the genre developed slowly. St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the late fourth century, is widely considered to be the first Western autobiography. Throughout the Renaissance a few educated citizens recorded their lives; notable among them was Benvenuto Cellini, a 16th century artist who believed that all great men should leave a record of their accomplishments in their own words. This model changed as time went on, and many began to see the autobiography as an agent for social change. The 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries saw the rise of the captivity and slave narratives, most of which promulgated a particular religious, political, or social message. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for example, shed light on the cruelties of slavery and played an important role in the American abolitionist movement.

Increasingly, modern readers have found that a life does not need to be highly accomplished or long to merit an autobiography. The famous Diary of Anne Frank is a simple account of an ordinary girl living under extraordinary circumstances, yet her story has been read by millions the world over. All manner of athletes, actors, writers, and singers publish their autobiographies each year. Even memoirs of YouTubers are making solid sales in today’s market. The broad origins of these autobiographies has helped to expose readers to a wider variety of experience and cultural awareness.

Autobiographies can be highly influential, given the fact that those who tell history are often those who shape it. In other words, much of what we know today about particular historical figures is derived from the pictures they painted in their own autobiographies. Today’s biographies continue to shape the narrative of our times. These autobiographical records bring renown to their subjects and capture their stories for generations of readers to come.

Literature in the Autobiography Genre

  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi
  • A Writer's Diary by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
  • I am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

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