50 Essential Literary Biographies

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Literary biography is a hugely significant, if often overlooked, enterprise. Today, much of what we know about the authors we admire is filtered through an ocean of online mini-biographies, nearly all of which are copies of copies. The original source of an enormous amount of this information is the literary biography, and in the case of most authors, there are precious few examples of such books. Even exceedingly famous authors are gifted only a handful of quality biographies.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with a list of 50 essential literary biographies. By no means am I arguing that these are the only essential biographies; I’m simply arguing that they are essential. I’ve tried, too, to strike a balance between quality, frequently groundbreaking books and the biographies that are the most enjoyable to read. I should also admit that in the course of researching this post, I found a regrettable dearth of literary biographies of Arab and Asian authors — this being largely a function of the myopia of American publishing, and the usual requirement that the author no longer be living. It’s a problem that I hope to help correct in a future post.

So here they are: 50 essential literary biographies. And if you have a preference for a different biography, please post it in the comments.