The Best Literary Biographies

The Books I Picked & Why

The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Translated By J. Cohen)

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J. Cohen

The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Translated By J. Cohen)

Why this book?

The granddaddy of literary autobiography and biography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions was written in 1769 but published posthumously in 1782. Rousseau, whose pioneering Romantic political philosophy was by then already influential, was setting out to do something equally new when he decided to study human nature, taking as his experimental model the human he knew best – himself. The rollicking result, sometimes self-flagellating, occasionally exhibitionist, deviates from its own model, St Augustine’s fourth-century religious-philosophical Confessions, in being chock-full of what nowadays we call emotional intelligence.


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Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Translated By James Kirkup)

By James Kirkup, Beauvoir Simone De

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Translated By James Kirkup)

Why this book?

Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is a classic. First published in France in 1958, it’s the opening volume of an autobiographical trilogy. This exploration of the childhood and young womanhood that created the world-famous writer and intellectual is compendious, descriptive – and alert at every turn, as befits the mother of existentialism, to how the emerging psyche understands the world around it.


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Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement

By Mary Gabriel

Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement

Why this book?

Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women is the best group biography I’ve read. Her protagonists are the women who made up half of Abstract Expressionism, and theirs is a careering, headlong story about how to revolutionise a tradition, the courage to create – and the life of the artist in mid-twentieth century ‘straight’ American society. Gabriel writes with extraordinary charm and – vitally – she’s consummate at keeping the lives of her multiple protagonists both clear and intertwined.


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Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

By Richard Holmes

Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Why this book?

By the time Richard Holmes published Footsteps, in 1985, he’d already written critically acclaimed biographies of a number of Romantic ‘greats’: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Théophile Gautier, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Gérard de Nerval. Here he turns the same sympathetic attention to what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of other writers, even recreating Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.


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Stravinsky's Lunch

By Drusilla Modjeska

Stravinsky's Lunch

Why this book?

Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch is an absolutely original study of art and life. Its starting and finishing points are the contrasting lives of two major Australian artists, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington, born twelve months apart in the 1890s. Don’t be put off if you’ve never heard of them (though their work is wonderful). This brilliant book involves its author – and even the reader – in an untricksy but radical look at the self who makes.


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