Biography and Censorship Analysis

At Issue

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.

Political Biographies

Censorship involving political figures has tended to be far less prevalent because the law regards them as public figures, and it is much more difficult to sue biographers for invasion of privacy, libel, or copyright infringement. Powerful figures, such as urban planner Robert Moses, have tried to stop biographers. However, the realm of the politician is so much larger and harder to control that aggressive unauthorized biographers such as Robert Caro have been able to acquire access to the essential evidence. Pressure can, however, be brought to bear by powerful families. The Kennedy family, for example, attacked William Manchester’s biography of John F. Kennedy, making it difficult— but not impossible—for him to publish The Death of a President in 1967.

Recent court decisions and a congressional amendment clarifying that fair use applies to unpublished as well as published work has eased the problem of censorship for biographers. But wherever prominent persons’ papers are in the hands of estates holding power to give or withhold permission to quote from published and unpublished work, biographers may be in the position of negotiating the truth, of deciding what can be left in or out of their biographies to satisfy the keepers of the flame.


Ian Hamilton, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography from Shakespeare to Plath (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1994), and Michael Millgate, Testamentary Acts: Browning, Tennyson, James Hardy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), are key works for studying censorship in biography and the biographer’s relationship with literary estates. See also Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988), and Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). Steve Weinberg, Telling the Untold Story: How Investigative Reporters Are Changing the Craft of Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992), provides many examples of censorship in biography, including his own battle to publish a biography of magnate Armand Hammer.