Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America / Edition 1

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Nineteenth-century American authors, critics, and readers believed that biography had the power to shape individuals' characters and to help define the nation's identity. In an age predating radio and television, biography was not simply a genre of writing, says Scott Casper; it was the medium that allowed people to learn about public figures and peer into the lives of strangers. In this pioneering study, Casper examines how Americans wrote, published, and read biographies and how their conceptions of the genre changed over the course of a century.
Campaign biographies, memoirs of pious women, patriotic narratives of eminent statesmen, "mug books" that collected the lives of ordinary midwestern farmers—all were labeled "biography," however disparate their contents and the contexts of their creation, publication, and dissemination. Analyzing debates over how these diverse biographies should be written and read, Casper reveals larger disputes over the meaning of character, the definition of American history, and the place of American literary practices in a transatlantic world of letters. As much a personal experience as a literary genre, biography helped Americans imagine their own lives as well as the ones about which they wrote and read.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Casper's excellent Consturcting American Lives defines a new way of conceiving and writing literary history .

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Casper's ambition and accomplishment are clearly worthy of both our admiration and our applause.

American Historical Review

Anyone interested in nineteenth-century American cultural production will need to read [Casper's] book.

Journal of American History

Casper has made a sweeping and encyclopedic survey of the cultural work of an important genre.

Reviews in American History

An excellent study linking the biographical genre within the context of the 19th-century culture.


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807847657
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 4/26/1999
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 456
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Scott E. Casper is associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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Table of Contents


Introduction. Biographical Mania: Toward a Cultural History of Genre
Chapter 1. Didactic Nationalism versus Johnsonian Theory, 1790-1830
Fables of Parson Weems
Chapter 2. Representative Men and Women, 1820-1860
Two Readers' Worlds
Chapter 3. Truth and Tradition, Nation and Section, 1820-1860
Hawthorne, Sparks, and Biography at Midcentury
Chapter 4. The Inner Man in the Literary Market, 1850-1880
James A. Garfield, Biography Reader and Biographical Subject
Chapter 5. Publishers, Pantheons, and the Public, 1880-1900
Conclusion. The Dawn of Biography Is Breaking


Charles Bird King, William Wirt
Grant Wood, Parson Weems' Fable
William Makepeace Thayer, The Bobbin Boy and The Printer Boy
Thomas Sully, Jared Sparks
Elizabeth F. Ellet
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Life of Franklin Pierce
James Parton
James Parton, The Life of Horace Greeley (frontispiece)
Orville J. Victor, Life and Military and Civic Services of Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott
"From the Cradle to the Grave: Scenes and Incidents in the Life of Gen. James A. Garfield"
James S. Brisbin, From the Tow-Path to the White House
Houghton, Mifflin and Company, "Our Special Offer Beginning the Twentieth Century"
Portrait and Biographical Album of Midland County, Michigan
Two faces of today's Biography

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