An autobiography (awe-tow-bye-AWE-gruh-fee) is a self-written biography. The author writes about all or a portion of their own life to share their experience, frame it in a larger cultural or historical context, and/or inform and entertain the reader.
Autobiographies have been a popular literary genre for centuries, with the first Western autobiography attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo for his 13-book work titled Confessions, written between 397 and 400 CE. Some autobiographies are a straightforward narrative that recollects a linear chain of events as they unfolded, but the genre has expanded and evolved to include different approaches to the form.
The word autobiography comes from the Ancient Greek auto (“self”) + bios (“life”) + graphein (“to write”) = “a self-written life.”
The History of Autobiography
Scholars regard Augustine’s Confessions as the first Western autobiography. Other autobiographical works from antiquity include Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’s Vita (circa 99 CE) and Greek scholar Libanius’s Oration I (374 CE). Works of this kind were called apologias, which essentially means “in my defense.” Writers approached these works not as acts of self-documentation but as self-defense, a way to explain and provide rationale for their life, work, and escapades. There was also less focused on their emotional lives.
The Book of Margery Kempe, written in 1438 by an English Christian mystic, is the earliest known autobiography in English, though it didn’t see full publication until the 20th century. Other early English-language biographies of note include Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s 1764 memoirs, John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners in 1666, and Jarena Lee’s The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee (the first autobiography of an African American woman).
Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, published in 1782, paved the way for the more thoughtful, emotionally centered autobiographies seen today. Autobiography as a literary genre emerged a few years later, when British scholar William Taylor first used the term to describe a self-written biography—and he did so disparagingly, suggesting the form was pedantic. In 1809, English Romantic poet Robert Southey used the term more seriously to describe self-written biographies.
Starting in the 20th century, more young people started writing autobiographies. Perhaps the most famous example is Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, about her time hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic. The 21st century saw an increase in autobiographical essay collections and memoirs by younger celebrities, including Anna Kendrick, Mindy Kaling, Gabourey Sidibe, Mike Birbiglia, Lena Dunham, Kevin Hart, and Chelsea Handler.
Autobiographies are not immune to controversy. One notable scandal involved author James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Originally billed as a memoir, evidence later emerged that Frey invented key parts of the story. This example underscores how easily authors can cross over into autofiction—and how seriously readers take authors’ responsibility to accurately and honestly market their books.
Types of Autobiographies
There are a few different types of self-written works that qualify as autobiography.
In the most traditional form, authors recount their life or specific formative events from their life. This approach often utilizes a chronological format of events, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. An author’s approach might include a framing device such as flashbacks, in which they move from the present to the past as they remember their lives. For example, Broadway star Patti LuPone’s self-titled autobiography begins on the opening night of Gypsy in 2004 before moving back in time to LuPone’s childhood. An author could take a more stream-of-consciousness style, in which one memory links to another by a common theme; Irish writer Seán O’Casey narrates his six-volume Autobiographies in this manner.
This is a type of autobiography that is narrower in scope and focus, placing greater emphasis on particular memories, thoughts, and feelings. A standard autobiography can certainly cover some of this same ground—most do—but the memoir is more interested in individual events or defined portions of the author’s life and the emotions and lessons behind them.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is an example of a memoir; in it, he reflects on his time spent living in solitude in the woods of Massachusetts and what he learned about life and nature throughout this experience. Other examples include The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which relates the death of her husband and its impact on her life and work; and Wild by Cheryl Strayed, wherein Strayed remembers her time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail during a period of great change in her life.
The fictionalized autobiography, or autofiction, is another type of autobiography. The author presents their story not as fact but as fiction—a method that gives them considerable space to take creative license with events and characters, thereby blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The overall goal is less about the author wanting to obscure facts and make things up and more a matter of taking another tactic to delve into their experiences in service of self-discovery. Taipei by Tao Lin is a work of autofiction; the central character, Paul, mirrors Lin’s own life and experiences, from the literary world of New York City to his ancestral roots in Taiwan.
These autobiographies center on the author’s religious or spiritual awakening and the subsequent journey their faith has taken them on. Elements common to these works include struggles and doubt, a life-altering conversion, periods of regression, and sharing the “message,” all acting as an endorsement of the author’s faith. Augustine’s Confessions, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and Augusten Burroughs’s Toil & Trouble: A Memoir are all spiritual autobiographies.
Autobiography vs. Biography
Both autobiographies and biographies are records of real lives, but there is one major distinction: a person other than the book’s subject writes a biography, while the subject themselves writes an autobiography. The biographer’s job is typically more involved, entailing detailed research into the life of the subject. The autobiographer, however, is usually not burdened by this because they lived through the events they write about; they may need only to confirm dates and stories to accurately relate the pertinent details.
The Function of Autobiography
An autobiography allows the author to tell the true story of their own life. This is the reason why autobiographies have always been written by famous people. History tends to remember notable individuals for just one significant contribution or event and, even then, the public’s perception of it may be inaccurate. Writing an autobiography allows the author to share the real story and put it into the larger context of their life and times.
Most readers pick up an autobiography expecting some degree of subjectivity from the author. After all, the events chronicled happened to the author, so the writing will of course have a biased perspective. There are advantages to this subjectivity, though. The reader gets the real story directly from the person who lived it, unvarnished by others’ opinions or erroneous historical data.
One way this subjectivity is problematic is that the author may not possess the ability to see the story they’re telling from other perspectives. For example, they may not acknowledge any hurt they caused others, dangerous behaviors they engaged in, or the “other side” of a controversial event in which there are equally valid opposing viewpoints and experiences. Any of these deficiencies can result in a somewhat skewed narrative.
Writers Known for Autobiography
- Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name
- Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass
- Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking, Shockaholic
- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
- Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle
- Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
- Anaïs Nin, The Diaries of Anaïs Nin
- Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
- Patti Smith, Just Kids, M Train
Examples of Autobiographies
1. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Angelou’s autobiography is the first installment in a seven-volume series chronicling the life of the legendary poet, teacher, actress, director, dancer, and civil rights activist. Given all those roles, it’s easy to see why Angelou’s life story makes for interesting reading.
This volume centers primarily on her early life in Stamps, Arkansas, and the devastating effects of a childhood rape. It also explores racism in the American South, and the important role reading plays in helping young Maya deal with the sexual assault and pervasive prejudice in her environment.
2. Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
Keller’s autobiography details her first 20 years, starting with the childhood illness that caused her blindness and deafness. She discusses the obstacles she had to overcome and the life-changing relationship she shared with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who helped her learn to read and write. Keller also documents her friendships with several famous figures of her day, including Alexander Graham Bell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and First Lady Frances Cleveland.
3. Vinh Chung, Where the Wind Leads
Chung’s autobiography recalls the harrowing story of a Vietnamese refugee and his journey to make the American Dream his own. Born in South Vietnam, Chung comes of age in a changing political climate that eventually compels his family to flee the country. Their voyage takes them through the South China Sea, run-ins with pirates, resettlement in Arkansas, and Chung’s graduation from Harvard Medical School.
Further Resources on Autobiography
ThoughtCo. shares some important points to consider before writing an autobiography.
The Living Handbook of Narratology delves into the history of the autobiography.
MasterClass breaks autobiography writing down into eight basic steps.
Pen & the Pad looks at the advantages and disadvantages of the autobiography.
Lifehack has a list of 15 autobiographies everyone should read at least once.