Understanding Biographies 

On Biographies in History and Stories in Biography 

Birgitte Possing

In modern and postmodern times, biography is one of the most popular genres of the day. All around the Western world, we are engaged in the lives of ordinary and well-known people, and biographies fly off the shelves. In Understanding Biographies, the Danish historian and biographer Birgitte Possing uncovers the essence of biography as a genre, spanning a number of radically different types of life-storytelling. She defines biography as a genre, a narrative form and an analytic field, providing guidelines to an understanding of gender, archetypes, narrative traditions, critique and ethics of the field.

 Understanding Biographies is not a cookery book with just one recipe for ‘how to write a biography’. It does not provide simple answers to questions on how, why or upon which sources biographies should be written or read. On the contrary, Understanding Biographies shows the numerous styles and wide-ranging conventions around the Western world in which biographies are accomplished.

Birgitte Possing interprets the biographical renaissance during the last thirty years as completely in keeping with the individualizing zeitgeist around the millennium shift. From a local to an international perspective, she identifies and reflects on the traditions in international writing and reading of biographies with examples from a wide range of Western and Nordic countries.

Birgitte Possing, dr.phil., professor at Rigsarkivet [Danish National Archives] in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 1992, her award-winning dissertation – a biography of Danish education pioneer Natalie Zahle – was the subject of much interest and discussion throughout the Nordic region for its fresh and humanising approach to history. The book has been translated into English (2001). Having worked as the director of several Danish cultural and research institutions, Possing then returned to her own research into the international history and methodology of the biographical genre. She has since published numerous articles on the subject, and a number of short biographical analyses of prominent figures in the fields of politics, the arts, scholarship and education.

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