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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Creative Americans

[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

Criticism | Character Sketch and Short Story | Biography and Biographical Fiction | Portraits | Drama

Biography and Biographical Fiction

Portraits of famous individuals in this collection provide starting points for projects related to biography. Students can choose a famous person from the collection and read a biography of that individual. Have them consider the relationship between history and biography with the following questions:

  • What did you learn about history by reading this biography? This may include events, political, social, and artistic movements, and cultural trends.
  • To what extent is your subject and his or her life representative of common experiences and historical trends?
  • How did the person you read about contribute to American history and culture? How might American history and culture have been different without this person's contribution?
  • How did the time in which this person lived impact and influence him or her? Would you say that this person was a product of his or her time? If so, in what ways?

Students may write their own abbreviated biography of this person based on the biography they chose and any other additional resources. In this way, they may consider questions of authorship and representation such as What main ideas do I want to express about this person and his or her life? What information needs to be included? What can be left out? How can I be creative and interpretive while remaining objective? How can I express credibility? How does my selection and organization of information about my subject affect the way my reader may perceive that subject?

Biography has often provided the inspiration for creative works in fiction and film. Examples in film include Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman, Nixon, directed by Oliver North, Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur, The Miracle Worker directed by Penn Arthur, and Out of Africa, directed by Sydney Pollack. Students can compare one of these works with a correlative biography, or they can write their own piece of short fiction based upon biography. Students can imagine the details of an event or period in a person's life as described or alluded to in a biography. Points in a biography that are lacking in detail or information provide a natural starting point for this exercise.