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An autobiography, from the Greek autos, 'self', bios, 'life' and graphein, 'write', is a biography written by the subject or composed conjointly with a collaborative writer (styled "as told to" or "with"). The term was first used by the poet Robert Southey in 1809 in the English periodical Quarterly Review, but the form is much older.

Biographers generally rely on a wide variety of documents and viewpoints; an autobiography may be based entirely on the writer's memory. A name for such a work in Antiquity was an apologia, essentially more self-justification than introspection. John Henry Newman's autobiography is his Apologia pro vita sua. Augustine applied the title Confessions to his autobiographical work (and Jean-Jacques Rousseau took up the same title). Probably the most famous German autobiography is still Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit.

A memoir is slightly different from an autobiography. Traditionally, an autobiography focuses on the "life and times" of the character, while a memoir has a narrower, more intimate focus on his or her own memories, feelings and emotions. Memoirs have often been written by politicians or military leaders as a way to record and publish an account of their public exploits. In the eighteenth century, "scandalous memoirs" were written (mostly anonymously) by prostitutes or libertines: these were widely read in France for their juicy gossip. But memoir has another meaning too. The pagan rhetor Libanius framed his life memoir as one of his orations, not the public kind, but the literary kind that would be read aloud in the privacy of one's study. This kind of memoir refers to the idea in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, that memoirs were like "memos," pieces of unfinished and unpublished writing which a writer might use as a memory aid to make a more finished document later on. In more recent times, memoirs are also life stories which can be about the writer and about another person at the

Until the last 21 years or so, few people without some degree of fame tried to write and publish a memoir. But with the critical and commercial success in the United States of such memoirs Angela's Ashes and The Color of Water more and more people have been encouraged to try their hand at this genre.

Paul Delaney has coined the term "ad hoc autobiography" to describe an autobiography motivated by the desire to exploit some temporary notoriety. Such autobiographies, often written by a ghostwriter, are routinely published on the lives of professional athletes and media celebrities—and to a lesser extent about politicians. Some celebrities admit to not having read their "autobiographies."


  • Barros, Carolyn A. "Autobiography: Narrative of Transformation". Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1998.
  • Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. "The Turning Key: Autobiography and the Subjective Impulse Since 1800". Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
  • Lejeune, Philippe, On autobiography, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
  • Mostern, Kenneth: "Autobiography and Black Identity Politics: Racialization in Twentieth-Century America", New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Nericcio, William A. "Autobiographies at La Frontera: The Quest for Mexican-American Narrative." The Americas Review 16.3-4 (1988): 165-87.
  • Olney, James: "Memory & Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing". Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Pascal, Roy. "Design and Truth in Autobiography". Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
  • Stover, Johnnie M., Rhetoric and resistance in black women's autobiography, Gainesville, Fla. [u.a.] : Univ. Press of Florida, 2003

See also

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