The term “autobiography” first appeared in European languages at the turn of the XVIII-XIX centuries. The autobiography as a literature genre is the story of the person about himself and the events during his life. This is a kind of the historical evidence, the main distinctive feature of which is a personal exposition.
In historiography, large groups of autobiographies are distinguished by their relation to the periods of the world history (Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, New and Latest Time). Historians usually pay special attention to the early autobiographical texts: the autobiographies of the Newest Times are often the subject of attention of literary critics. From the Antiquity time, there are few personal testimonies, which are attributed to autobiographies. However, some researchers believe that the antiquity developed a number of highly significant autobiographical and biographical forms that had a big impact on the subsequent historical development. Historians find the autobiographical content in such autobiography examples, as Plato’s Dialogues and Apology of Socrates, in Antidosis by Isocrates, in poetic ironic writings of Horace, in the poetry of Ovid and Propertius, in Notes by Julius Caesar, in letters of Cicero to Attica and in Reflections by Marcus Aurelius. The phenomenon of the autobiography in medieval culture is associated with the emergence of the Christian personalism. The Christianity placed the man in a new existential situation: mindful of the attainment of eternal bliss, he had to constantly turn to his own ego, measuring his deeds and thoughts by the evangelical commandments. The first and most famous Christian autobiography is considered written in the form of the Confession, a theological treatise by St. Augustine. The medieval autobiography also included works of instructive literature, as Extracts from the Confessional Dialogue by Rather of Verona, The Book of Visions and The Book of Instructions by Otloh of Sankt Emmeram, Monodiae by Guibert de Nogent, The Chronicle by Salimbene de Adam da Parma and The Story of My Disasters by Peter Abelard. During the Renaissance and early Modern Times, the number of autobiographies sharply increased. In the 15th and 16th centuries, a whole series of texts appear in Renaissance Italy, in which humanists, artists, and scientists used to tell about their lives. These are such works as Letter to Posterity and the My Secret by Francesco Petrarch, Pope Pius II’s Notes, Leon Battista Alberti’s Biography, Benvenuto Cellini’s My Life, The Book of My Life by Girolamo Cardano and many others. Meanwhile, Italian merchants and “business people” created the autobiographical evidence, associated with the tradition of making business records – memos, home chronicles, books “not for strangers’ eyes”, and diaries (Donato Velluti, Goro Dati, Giovanni Morelli, Bonaccorso Pitti). In the 16-17th centuries, the spiritual autobiography appeared, like The Book of Life by Teresa of Avila, A Pilgrim’s Journey by Ignacio Loyola and so on. The concept of the autobiography in modern times is often correlated with the assertion of a new European individualistic culture of the 18-19th centuries. Its most expressive example is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confession, in which the author affirmed to be a unique creature. The new self-perception is associated with the intimacy of the inner world of the individual that appeared in the Age of Enlightenment.
The idea about the autobiography as a historical source began to evolve in the middle of the 19th century in connection with the discussion of how authentically the autobiography displayed the reality. Defenders of the autobiography pointed to its uniqueness, its ability to convey the spirit of the time, the ability to penetrate the depths of the human personality by its means. One of the first ideas of the original truthfulness of the autobiography was proclaimed by A. Schopenhauer and later it was developed in the “science of the spirit” by W. Dilthey. Most historians of the 19th century, however, challenged the value of the autobiography as an information source about the past, stressing attention on its subjectivity and inaccuracy, generated by the imperfection of the human memory. L. Ranke considered the autobiography a useful type of the historical evidence, which makes it possible to understand people’s personal relations, but warned that historians should not allow the author to entice himself with the personal side of the life described. In the 1960s-1970s, the return to the discussion of the topic was connected with the publication of the Design and Truth in Autobiography work (1960) by R. Pascal. Like Dilthey, Pascal admitted the “truthfulness” of the autobiography and included in this concept, apart from the actual and moral sides, also the psychological dimension. Pascal stressed that the autobiography was not only the author’s reconstruction of his past, but it was also his interpretation at the same time, ultimately caused by the task of the self-knowledge. In the course of this interpretation, while exposing the facts and connections hidden from others, the author demonstrates the system of his life values and the ideal image of his own self. At this point of view, the scientist believed that the autobiography is able to disclose to historians the “single truth of the life”, which is visible only “from inside.”
New approaches of understanding the autobiographical evidence, which appeared at the end of the 20th century, called into question the truth/fiction dichotomy of this form of the historical document. In the postmodern theory, the phenomenon of the autobiography itself was interpreted in a fundamentally different way: from the historical evidence about the author’s personality and his time, it turned into one of the “discursive types”, and the personality of its author with the story of his life acted solely as a linguistic convention. In the postmodern interpretation, the emphasis was shifted to the study of characteristics of the autobiographical discourse or to studying the reader’s perception of the text. With such approach, the notions of “truthfulness” or “historical authenticity” of the autobiographical evidence simply had no place in the traditional interpretation of it. Despite the challenges of the postmodern theory, historians, however, did not cease to learn about people of other epochs with the help of the autobiographical evidence, formulating new questions and finding new approaches to their studies. In particular, for many of them, it became obvious today that it was inadvisable to consider the autobiography as a historical source either from the theoretical or from the practical points of view. Historians do not deal with abstract categories, but when they study the quite specific texts, they can find the common formal traits.
The last decades of the 20th century were marked by an increase in attention to the theoretical problems of the autobiography. In 1975, F. Lejeune, a French historian and theoretician of the literature, proposed a formal definition that is widely known. According to him, the autobiography is a retrospective narration in prose, which is done by the real person about his own being, with a special emphasis on his individual life. Such definition was later criticized more than once, including by its author. The particular objections were raised by the part in which he told about the “real person” and about his description of “his own being”. Critical remarks were also caused by the “Western-centrism” of Lejeune, who formalized the concept of the autobiography based solely on Western European texts, and he did not consider the texts, created before the New Time. The matter of what status and shape had the autobiography in traditional cultures, not rekated to the concept of the individualistic “I”, was completely ignored. Despite the criticism, the contribution of the French researcher in the study of the autobiography was extremely in demand in the history and other humanitarian disciplines. The concept of the “autobiographical agreement”, developed by him, suggested the active participation of the reader in the creation of autobiographical evidence.
Another French scientist, G. Gusdorf, offered to consider the autobiography not as a literary genre, but as a phenomenon of the history of the European culture. In 1956, he published Conditions and Boundaries of the Autobiography program article, containing the main ideas of his concept of the historical variability of the autobiography. Gusdorf suggested that the phenomenon of the autobiography is eternal and omnipresent, is an illusion. The appearance of the autobiography is historically and culturally conditioned and is associated with the birth of the Western civilization of a certain way of perceiving an individual’s own life – awareness of its singularity. Gusdorf connected this particular individual perception of his own with the Copernican revolution, the invention of the Venetian mirror, and the Christian tradition of the introspection. Gusdorf categorically opposed other scientists’ assertion that the autobiography as a genre of the European literature is a phenomenon of the New Time. To his opinion, this point of view actually made us ignoring stories of people, lived in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
A new generation of researchers in the 1980-1990s, under the ieffect of poststructuralist ideas, finally broke many fundamental principles of the traditional interpretation of the autobiography, including the notion of the author’s self as a reality, existing outside the language conventions. Despite a considerable share of skepticism about the autobiography as the historical evidence, there was a noticeable revival of interest in it and other documents of a personal nature in the modern historiography. The result of this interest was the growth in the number of studies, based on autobiographical documents and the creation of research teams in several European countries (the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy), collecting, publishing and interpreting personal documents in the cadre of national and international projects. Another important feature of modern approaches to the study the autobiography is a rejection of the traditional view of it as a product of the exclusively Western civilization. The postcolonial research, as well as the discovery of many expressive personal testimonies by scientists in the Arab, Japanese, Byzantine and other written traditions, revealed the limited West-centric perspective. The model of the line development of the autobiography, which originated from the West European texts of the Renaissance time, became unsuitable for the multifaceted comprehension of the whole variety of autobiographical texts. Modern researchers are insisting on the need to consider the autobiography as a specific social and cultural practice that exists in specific historical contexts.
With all the diversity of the existing theoretical and methodological approaches to study the autobiography, modern scientists are unanimous in the opinion that the disclosure of the historical wealth of autobiographical texts is possible only within the framework of interdisciplinary studies that imply methods of the historical anthropology and hermeneutics, comparativistics, and gender analysis.