In a sense, autobiography is a form of biography, the writing of a life story. The difference, of course, is point of view: an autobiography is from the viewpoint of its subject. Biographers generally rely on a wide variety of documents and viewpoints; an autobiography may be based entirely on the writer's memory. A name for such a work in Antiquity was an apologia, essentially more self-justification than introspection. John Henry Newman's autobiography is his Apologia pro vita sua. Augustine applied the title Confessions to his autobiographical work (and Jean-Jacques Rousseau took up the same title). The pagan rhetor Libanius framed his life memoir as one of his orations, not the public kind, but the literary kind that would be read aloud in the privacy of one's study.
A memoir is slightly different from an autobiography. Where an autobiography focuses on the "life and times" of the character, a memoir has a narrower, more intimate focus on his or her own memories, feelings and emotions.
For example, the autobiography of an American Civil War general might include sections on the nature of slavery, the origins of the Civil War, and the political career of Abraham Lincoln. But the memoir of a Civil War general would focus on his personal reasons for joining the battle, the effect of the war on his mind and soul, and the joy and fear he felt on the battlefield.
Modern memoirs are often based on old diaries, letters, and photographs.
Until the last 20 years or so, few people without some degree of fame tried to write and publish a memoir. But with the critical and commercial success of such memoirs as "Angela's Ashes" and "The Color of Water," more and more people have been encouraged to try their hand at this genre.
The first known biographies were written by scribes commissioned by the
various rulers of antiquity: ancient Assyria, ancient Babylonia, ancient
Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, among others. Such biographies tended to be
chiseled into stone or clay tablets, a method called cuneiform. These
biographies only detailed accomplishments. The Jewish holy scripture is
an anthology of some of the earliest biographies in existence, detailing
the lives of chiefs, kings, tribes, patriarchs and prophets.
Ancient Greece developed biographies that tended not to be objective.
Rather, these biographies were defenses of controversial people of the
era they were living. The best known of the classical biographies include
Memorabilia by Xenophone, Parallel Lives by Plutarch and Lives of Caesars
by Suetonius. During the reign of the Roman Empire, the Gospels attributed
to John, Luke, Mark and Matthew in the Old Testament of the Bible were
biographies about Jesus.
Dark and Middle Ages
Middle Ages (AD 350 to 1450) followed the Dark Ages, a period of mass loss of information and knowledge. During this time, the only repositories of knowledge and records of early history was the Roman Catholic Church. Hermits, monks and priests used this historic period to write the first modern biographies. Their subjects were usually restricted to church fathers, martyrs, popes and saints. Their works were meant to be inspirational to people, vehicles for conversion to Christianity.
By the late Middle Ages, biographies became less church-oriented as biographies
of kings, knights and tyrants began to appear. The most famous of these
such biographies was Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. The book
was an account of the life of the fabled King Arthur and his Knights of
the Round Table. After Malory's work, the Renaissance period conceived
biographies of lesser people of society like artists and poets.
In 1640, Izaak Walton published Life of Donne, a biography about the poet John Donne. The book was the first to take on the complex style of biographical writing used today. In 1683, the first English language biography appeared in history with the publication of a biography of Plutarch by John Dryden. Interestingly enough, Dryden's work delved in great detail about Plutarch's popularization of the word biography.
By the late 20th century, biographies were more focused on the lives
of celebrities and politicians. These works relied much more on correspondence,
diaries, first hand interviews, letters, journals and other sources directly
related to the subject.
With the technological advancements created in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, multi-media forms of biography became much more popular than literary forms. Visual and film images were able to elaborate new dimensions of personality that written forms could not. The popularity of these forms of biography culminated in the creation of such cable and satellite television networks as: A&E, Biography Channel, History Channel and International History Channel.