This essay outlines the comprehensive theory of “modern” eighteenth-century biography that was articulated throughout the century in the often lengthy prefaces to collections of lives, disseminated in periodical essays, and applied in reviews to stand-alone lives. This theory addressed the proper selection, presentation, and treatment of both individual and collected “lives.” It gave biography national, historical, commercial, and educational functions; detailed the components of its life-historical narrative and of its critical portions; set standards for what constituted “a fair and full account” of a character, life, and works; and contained in embryo virtually all aspects of biography that would later be singled out as the primary or most valued characteristic of biographical writing. This essay describes the ways biographers and theorists confronted and resolved two ubiquitous difficulties arising from their consensus that “fame or celebrity among us in their generation” was “the grand principle” on which biography was founded: first, how to “do justice” to a person on the basis of sources and testimonials that reflected the partisanship of a country “rent by faction” since the Reformation; and second, how to represent people who had been celebrated in their own time, but not in the biographer's later generation.
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Research Article| April 01 2021
Eve Tavor Bannet; “Modern Biography”: Form, Function, and Celebrity in Eighteenth-Century Genre Theory. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 April 2021; 45 (2): 24–55. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-8902653
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