Show The Graduate Center Menu


We are pleased to sponsor two courses in 2015-2016 through the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program for students interested in biography:

The Biographical Narrative: Approaches to Life Writing (MALS 70900)  
Fall 2015 - Tuesdays, 4:15 - 6:15
Prof. Brenda Wineapple

"Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied," Emily Dickinson once wrote. But biography and the biographical narrative are all around us, whether in books as dense as bricks or in the few, quick sentences of a daily obit.

What makes a good biography? Character, among other things, and to the extent that biography depends on character, this course looks closely at how such characters are created from real people How a living, breathing person seems to arise out of a mass of sometimes contradictory "facts"; how characters are made to change, that is, if they do; how characters can make a story move; and of course how or if traditional biography can be liberated from its brick-like borders. These are a few of the topics we'll investigate by investigating various biographical narrative, especially those that raise questions about the meaning, aims, ethics, pitfalls, and possibilities of the genre. Writers/books to include Lytton Strachey, Natalie Zemon Davis (The Return of Martin Guerre), Virginia Woolf (Orlando), Richard Holmes (Footsteps), Janet Malcolm (on Sylvia Plath biographies), Henry James, The Aspern Papers, Adam Phillips on Freud and biography, Julia Blackburn and her biographical inventions about Daisy Bates, Rebecca Solnit on Eadward Muybridge (River of Shadows).

Life Writing: The Art of Biography
Spring 2016, date / time TBD
Prof. Annalyn Swan

“Life Writing: The Art of Biography” will be a sustained analysis of what makes biography, at its best, a genre that combines the strengths of both non-fiction and fiction—the precision of historical and biographical scholarship with the insight and narrative thrust of a good novel. The course will explore the biographer’s (and autobiographer’s) craft through a range of subjects and styles. It will also provide students the opportunity to write a biographical introduction to, or chapter about, a person who fascinates them.

As literary genres go, biography has always been something of a stepchild—and understandably so. Far too many people approach writing biography as a nuts-and-bolts recitation of a person’s life. But the best biography is as different from this pedestrian approach as Jane Austen is to pulp fiction. Great biography tells the tale with panache, while never straying from scrupulous historical and biographical research. It contains, in short, the best of fact and fiction.

The genre can take a number of different forms, from group portraits, to autobiography and memoirs, to the classic tale of one central figure. The course will begin with excerpts from Telling Lives, a collection of essays about the biographer’s art that will serve as a foundation for the semester-long discussion to come. The seminar will then trace the crafting of the form through fourteen weeks of close intellectual and stylistic analysis of different biographies and autobiographies. Throughout the semester there will be oral presentations of c. 20 minutes on that week’s reading.   In week seven, students will submit a five- to seven-page book review that is a more sustained analysis of any one of the works on the reading list. For the main assignment, due the final week, students will choose a figure (or group of figures) to write about. They will research their subjects over the course of the semester and, at the end of the course, submit a 12- to 15-page “Introduction” to, or chapter from, the biography that they would write, in which many of the themes discussed in the course will be encapsulated.