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English Language & Literature

Resources for conducting literary research on English & American Literatures.

The Significance of Biographical Information

silhouette of man and woman

To understand the values, characters, or themes of a literary work, sometimes it is important to understand the author. Biographical information provides insights into authors' lives and achievements.

  • Where did the author grow up?  Are there values or cultural traditions associated with that region that may be seen in the author's work?
  • In what time period did the author live? Were there social issues or historial events that may have shaped the author's perspective?
  • What was the author's family life like? Are there psychological issues the author may have faced due to the structure of the author's childhood?
  • Where was the author educated? What kind of jobs did the author hold? Did the author travel extensively? Did the author have a spouse or children?

How to Find Biographies on Living & Deceased Authors

Snapshot Biographies

Book-length Biographies

Book-length biographies often examine an author's life in greater detail, offering exhaustive perspectives on the influence of youth, the effect of education and reading, family and literary relationships, etc. As with all biographical information, book-length biographies warrant continued examination and re-examination as insights on an author frequently change over time.

What Forms can Biographical Info Take?

Biographical information may be found in the following forms:

  • Autobiography -- a narrative of a person's life by that person
  • Biography -- the narrative of one person's life written by another person
  • Diary -- a day-by-day account of a person's life written as it happened by that person
  • Letters -- written communication between two or more people that discuss people, events, or ideas
  • Memoirs -- an account of an individual's personal experiences usually written toward the end of that person's life

Where is Biographical Info Published?

Biographical information may appear in different kinds of publications:

  • Books -- Individual biographies (i.e. a whole book written about one person) are usually the most comprehensive biographical sources available.
  • Biographical Dictionaries -- Entries or essays offer basic information about the life, career, and accomplishments of individuals.
  • Encyclopedias -- Encyclopedia entries or essays usually contains a brief summary of an individual's life and major accomplishment(s). Subject-specific encyclopedias may include longer essays with more in-depth information, including bibliographies for further research.
  • Indexes -- Indexes identify biographical articles and entries in other reference sources. Useful for obscure and less known individuals.
  • Magazine or Journal Articles -- Articles that contain biographical information generally report on a "newsworthy" event: an important discovery, a notable achievement, an award presentation, etc. Retrospective articles tend to appear on anniversaries (10th, 25th, etc.) of important events, such as births/deaths, publications of works, etc.
  • Obituaries -- Obituaries appear soon after the event.

Tips for Evaluating Biographies

Tipped scalesBiographies, like any piece of information, need to be evaluated carefully.  Below are a few checkpoints for evaluating biographies.

  • Is the biography complete or partial? Does the biography span the entire life of the individual, or does it focus on one aspect of the individual's life (e.g. early years, family, later years, etc.)? Note that while one kind is not better than the other, depth and complexity can differ.
  • Is there evidence of careful research? Look for a bibliography, sources for further research, end notes, or author's notes to explain what sources the biographer used.
  • When was the biography published? What is the copyright or update date? Older biographies can be excellent and telling (for their brevity or perspective), but newer biographies may include new information based on recent research.
  • Is the author of the biography qualified to write on this individual and topic? Is the biographer a noted scholar of the individual or the historical period? 
  • Is there balance between the individual's achievements and strengths and their weaknesses? Is the biographer overly favorable or overly critical of the individual? Does the biography seem to deviate from reality?
  • Are there any available reviews of the biography? For book-length biographies, look for book reviews that may mention whether the book might be biased or the content lacking in factual documentation.
  • Consider why some individuals have many biographies written about them while others have few or none. If there are several biographies about an individual, compare any available book reviews of different biographies to see which one is considered the best or is identified as the "definitive source."