Biography and Censorship Biography

Nineteenth Century Biography

After Boswell, there was a retreat from his bolder innovations which amounted to self-censorship on the biographers’ part. In his Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837-1838), for example, John Gibson Lockhart explicitly eschewed Boswell’s intimate focus. As Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law, Lockhart wanted to preserve both a relative’s and a great man’s dignity; he became, in Ian Hamilton’s words, a “keeper of the flame,” the one anointed to protect the hero’s reputation.

Nineteenth century biography is replete with examples of similar self-censorship. George Gordon, Lord Byron’s biographer, for example, burned Byron’s memoir lest it disgrace his subject. Henry James attempted to fix his own posthumous reputation by burning many of his papers and letters and writing fiction that denigrated the snooping biographer. Thomas Hardy tried to forestall other biographers by writing his own biography, while attributing it to the pen of his second wife, Florence Emily Hardy. Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë’s biographer, ruthlessly suppressed evidence that might show Brontë to be anything other than a conventional nineteenth century woman. Sir Richard Burton’s widow burned many of his unpublished translations of erotica and then wrote a bland biography of him herself. When Thomas Carlyle’s biographer, James Anthony Froude, braved this trend against truth and allowed his subject’s dark side to show, he was vilified in the press.

The preferred form of biography was not only sanitized, it allowed biographers virtually no leeway to interpret their subjects. Instead they presented documents with narratives that loosely linked them together, giving accounts of their subjects’ times. These multivolume life-and-times biographies encased their subjects in piety and euphemism. In 1912 Mark Twain’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, published a three-volume biography that carefully avoided unsavory episodes and dark issues in his subject’s life. Paine dedicated the biography to Mark Twain’s only surviving daughter with the ironic inscription: “To Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, Who steadily upheld the author’s purpose to write history rather than eulogy as the story of her father’s life.”

Twentieth Century Biography

In Eminent Victorians (1918) Lytton Strachey shattered the nineteenth century tradition of reverence, censorship, and suppression. Instead of the traditional lengthy tome, he wrote essays questioning the probity of public figures, such as Cardinal Manning and General Gordon. He skewered his subjects by pointing to telling psychological details. Above all, he offered his own interpretations, eschewing long quotations from documents or deference to any authority other than his own.

Since Strachey, twentieth century biographers have had to ask how much of their subjects’ private lives should be told. No self-respecting biographer could merely cede control to a subject’s friends and family. However access to a subject’s papers and the right to quote from published and unpublished work still resided with families, friends, and literary estates. If biographers want full cooperation from them, they can seek “authorization.” However, authorization may require a biographer to adhere to a view of the subject pleasing to a literary executor. Executors can help biographers get publishing contracts; they can also threaten publishers, refuse to make material available to a biographer, or even sue a biographer and publisher over matters of libel, invasion of privacy, and copyright infringement. Even when no legal action is taken, a literary estate can poison the atmosphere in which biographers work—a fact well documented in Janet Malcolm’s account...

(The entire section is 513 words.)