Biographical criticism begins with the simple but central insight that literature is written by actual people and that understanding an author’s life can help readers more thoroughly comprehend the work. Anyone who reads the biography of a writer quickly sees how much an author’s experience shapes—both directly and indirectly—what he or she creates. Reading that biography will also change (and usually deepen) our response to the work. Sometimes even knowing a single important fact illuminates our reading of a poem or story. Learning, for example, that Josephine Miles was confined to a wheelchair or that Weldon Kees committed suicide at forty-one will certainly make us pay attention to certain aspects of their poems we might otherwise have missed or considered unimportant. A formalist critic might complain that we would also have noticed those things through careful textual analysis, but biographical information provided the practical assistance of underscoring subtle but important meanings in the poems. Though many literary theorists have assailed biographical criticism on philosophical grounds, the biographical approach to literature has never disappeared because of its obvious practical advantage in illuminating literary texts.
It may be helpful here to make a distinction between biography and biographical criticism. Biography is, strictly speaking, a branch of history; it provides a written account of a person’s life. To establish and interpret the facts of a poet’s life, for instance, a biographer would use all the available information—not just personal documents like letters and diaries, but also the poems for the possible light they might shed on the subject’s life. A biographical critic, however, is not concerned with recreating the record of an author’s life. Biographical criticism focuses on explicating the literary work by using the insight provided by knowledge of the author’s life. Quite often biographical critics, like Brett