Why Biography and Memoir?

From Plutarch’s Lives through Augustine’s Confessions, Mark Twain’s Autobiography through Anne Frank’s Diaries (pictured), biographies and memoirs have shaped history and recovered voices—for example women’s voices—traditionally overlooked. Biographies and memoirs can be an imaginative art form as well, as evidenced by masterpieces such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory or W.G. Sebald’s autobiographical and biographical meditations on memory and history. Virginia Woolf, whose father was editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, wrote of the spaces that biographies inhabit, between factual evidence and the more ambiguous terrain of human character, or between the life that is lived and the narratives (or for Freud, lies) that are told to frame one’s experiences. But this hybridity also accounts for the very richness of biography and memoir, making the forms all the more worthy of study.

In addition to resting between empirical history and “creative non-fiction,” or revolutionizing our understanding of individuals in the past, biography and memoir can also straddle the divide between the scholarly and the popular, which the M.A. program in Biography and Memoir recognizes and embraces. While the program would offer an excellent step into a Ph.D. in History or English, it would also provide the tools in which to pursue a career in journalism and media, professional writing and publishing, oral history studies, documentary filmmaking, digital communications (such as podcasting), archival work, and other rewarding professions.

In short, this is a golden age for biography and memoir. Many leading publishers have series that focus on biography and memoir, while agents are keen to consider those who write more creative non-fiction. The four-volume Oxford History of Life-Writing has just been published, while the digital age has further extended the auto/biographical purview by means of social media, blogging and podcasting. Many of the best documentaries assume biographical approaches, while oral history has flourished as a field in the last three decades. An M.A. in Biography and Memoir, one of the first of its kind, will only add to this efflorescence, providing students with the academic rigor and creative fulfillment that can lead to a diverse range of careers.