The sciences of psychology and sociology were ascendant at the turn of the 20th century, and would heavily influence the new century’s biographies. The demise of the “great man” theory of history was indicative of the emerging mindset. Human behavior would be explained through Darwinian theories. “Sociological” biographies conceived of their subjects’ actions as the result of the environment, and tended to downplay individuality. The development of psychoanalysis led to a more penetrating and comprehensive understanding of the biographical subject, and induced biographers to give more emphasis to childhood and adolescence. Clearly these psychological ideas were changing the way biographies were written, as a culture of autobiography developed in which the telling of one’s own story became a form of therapy. The conventional concept of heroes and narratives of success disappeared in the obsession with psychological explorations of personality.
British critic Lytton Strachey revolutionized the art of biographical writing with his 1918 work Eminent Victorians, consisting of biographies of four leading figures from the Victorian era, Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon. Strachey set out to breathe life into the Victorian era for future generations to read. Up until this point, as Strachey remarked in the preface, Victorian biographies had been “as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker”, and wore the same air of “slow, funereal barbarism.” Strachey defied the tradition of “two fat volumes….of undigested masses of material” and took aim at the four iconic figures. His narrative demolished the myths that had built up around these cherished national heroes, whom he regarded as no better than a “set of mouth bungled hypocrites”. The book achieved worldwide fame, due to its irreverent and witty style, its concise and factually accurate nature, and its artistic prose.
In the 1920s and ’30s, biographical writers sought to capitalize on Strachey’s popularity by imitating his style. This new school featured iconoclasts, scientific analysts, and fictional biographers and included Gamaliel Bradford, André Maurois, and Emil Ludwig, among others. Robert Graves (I, Claudius, 1934) stood out among those following Strachey’s model of “debunking biographies.” The trend in literary biography was accompanied in popular biography by a sort of “celebrity voyeurism”, in the early decades of the century. This latter form’s appeal to readers was based on curiosity more than morality or patriotism. By World War I, cheap hard-cover reprints had become popular. The decades of the 1920s witnessed a biographical “boom.”
The feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun observed that women’s biographies and autobiographies began to change character during the second wave of feminist activism. She cited Nancy Milford’s 1970 biography Zelda, as the “beginning of a new period of women’s biography, because “[only] in 1970 were we ready to read not that Zelda had destroyed Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald her: he had usurped her narrative.” Heilbrun named 1973 as the turning point in women’s autobiography, with the publication of May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, for that was the first instance where a woman told her life story, not as finding “beauty even in pain” and transforming “rage into spiritual acceptance,” but acknowledging what had previously been forbidden to women: their pain, their rage, and their “open admission of the desire for power and control over one’s life.”