As a literary genre biography is largely the product of the eighteenth century and of one seminal work in particular: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Biographies had appeared earlier, however, including several by Samuel Johnson himself, and the idea of biography extends back to the writing of the lives of medieval saints and to the second century Roman writer Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives exerted an enormous influence on the later development of biography writing. However, it was Boswell’s innovations that revolutionized the genre and made it the target of suppression and censorship. He sought not only to memorialize the greatness of his subject, but to reveal his flaws. Boswell reported long passages from Johnson’s actual conversations, noted his mannerisms, and in general presented an intimate picture such as no biography had ever before dared to attempt.
Because Boswell was Johnson’s friend, and because Johnson had sanctioned this minute attention to his life and believed in the superiority of biography as a genre, Boswell escaped becoming the target of censorship himself. However, biographers since Boswell’s time have confronted many efforts to discourage, censor, and even legally ban their books. Biographers themselves have colluded in censorship, and their subjects have often destroyed papers and mobilized friends and families to thwart their biographers’ investigations.