Even Biographies Get Banned!

By Mary Bartling | Categories: Banned Books

B
iography is one of the oldest forms of literary expression. This literary genre features an account of a person’s life by someone other than the subject of the work.[1] When the biography of a person’s life is narrated by that person, it’s called an autobiography. And both forms of this literary genre have been banned.

Biographical literature is said to begin in the Western world during the 5th century BCE, with the poet Ion of Chios. He wrote sketches of his famous contemporaries – most notably, Pericles and Sophocles. [2]

The first Western autobiography is The Life of first-century Romano-Jewish hagiographer and historian Titus Flavius Josephus (in approximately 94-99CE).[3]
In toto, Josephus’ works are one of the most important sources for all the history of this period.[4]

During the 2nd century CE, biographies grew in length. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (also known as Plutarch’s Lives) is a multi-volume series, consisting of 48 paired biographies of famous Greeks and Romans who shared similar destinies.[5]

The Middle Ages, on the other hand, was a period of biographical darkness – one dominated by the priest and the knight. Not surprisingly, the priest typically shaped biography into tales emphasizing a moral, or to illustrate a point of doctrine. While the knight, found escape from routine daily brutishness in allegory, broad satire and chivalric romances.

Glimmerings can nevertheless be seen in the literary genre during this period. A number of the saints’ lives contain anecdotal material that gives their subjects a sense of humanness. Most remarkable, is the 9th-century biography The Life of Charlemagne, written by a cleric of his court named Einhard, who said he composed the work to ensure that Charlemagne’s life would not be “wrapped in the darkness of oblivion.”[6]

By modern standards, Einhard’s biography lacks sustained development. But, it skillfully reveals the chief patterns of Charlemagne’s character. As such, it is far closer to modern biography than the drama and rudimentary poetry of his age are to their modern counterparts.[7]

even biographies get banned

It was also during the Middle Ages that the earliest autobiography written in English was produced, The Book of Margery Kempe.[8] Consistent with the era, this book was not only dictated by Kempe to a priest, the manuscript tells of her pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Santiago de Compostela.[9]

Biographical writings are often regarded as a branch of history. The 15th-century Mémoires of the French councellor of state, Philippe de Commynes, or the 16th-century Life and Death of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, for example, are frequently treated as historical material rather than as literary works.

Be that as it may, biography remains a branch of literature. Because… while a biographer does indeed have a responsibility to truth, a tension exists between the search for facts and an effort to transform plain information into the illumination of a life lived.[10]

What is generally agreed to be the world’s supreme biography was written in 1791 – Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell. And, National Biographer’s Day commemorates the day Samuel Johnson met with James Boswell, a meeting that resulted in one of the most celebrated biographies in English literature.[11]

 Not only did Boswell’s research and narrative style set the standard for biographers ever since, Life of Johnson also constitutes a representative psychological expression of The Age of Enlightenment.[12]

 Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography was also published in 1791. It was the first autobiography to achieve widespread popularity. Franklin’s literary work not only functions as an important historical document, it remains one of the most enduringly popular examples of the genre ever written.[13]

The period of modern biography was ushered in by World War 1, at which time the stature of biography was enlarged and enhanced. The year 1929 saw a biographical boom. And by World War II, biography became an established form of literature, winning their share of literary prizes as well as a considerable degree of literary notability for their authors.[14]

But, as mentioned above, both forms of this literary genre have been banned. Here are a few examples:

 

even biographies get banned - I am Malala

.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb was banned by Eagle Mountain-Saginaw Independent School District in Texas for language and religious references. Though it has been removed from reading lists, there is an edited version available to students.[15]

even biographies get banned

.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass. This groundbreaking work recounts Douglass’s life as a slave and his ambition to become a free man. It was banned in Oklahoma because it’s purported to teach Critical Race Theory. [16]

.
.

Michelle Obama: Political Icon,  by Heather E. Schwartz. A mother from Katy, Texas, reportedly requested that this book be banned at every grade level because it “unfairly” makes Trump out to be “a bully.”[17]

.
My Beloved World,
by Sonia Sotomayor. Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. Act makes it illegal to teach affirmative action in Florida schools. It is therefore illegal to teach supreme court justice Sonia Sotomayor’s biography, because she expresses her gratitude for affirmative action – as noted in the court case challenging the Stop W.O.K.E. Act (Leroy Pernell V. Florida Board Of Governors Of The State University System & Adriana Novoa v. Manny Diaz Jr.). [18]

even biographies get banned

I am Rosa Parks and I am Martin Luther King Jr. by Brad Meltzer & illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos. These children’s biographies were both banned by Central York School District in Pennsylvania. Thankfully, after students and local activists mobilized and teamed up with author Brad Meltzer, the board backed down. Because, according to Meltzer, “they screwed up.  They picked a fight against Rosa Parks and Dr. King, prompting universal outrage. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all were aghast, and when those three agree, you know you went too far.”[19]

even biographies get banned

.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X with Alex Haley.  Malcolm X is a singular figure in Black history. And, his autobiography is part of  The Library of Congress’ “Books that Shaped America” exhibit. It was published merely nine months after his assassination, and has been banned somewhere ever since. Typically, because the Black pride he promoted was labeled “anti-white racism,” with the book being described as a “guide to crime and chaos.” [20]

Buck the bans! Check out these examples of this fabulous literary genre from your local library, or pick them up at your favorite bookseller. Get to know more about the incredible people whose lives these books illuminate, and how they helped shape our world.

Endnotes:

[1] “biography.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/biography-narrative-genre

[2] “Western Literature: Antiquity.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/biography-narrative-genre/Historical-development

[3] “Augustine Writes the Second Western Autobiography.” HistoryofInformation.com https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=2120

[4] White, L. Michael. “Josephus, Our Primary Source.” PBS.org
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/portrait/josephus.html#:
~:text=Josephus%20wrote%20mostly%20at%20the,profound%20changes%20were%20taking%20place
.

[5] “National Biographer’s Day Timeline.” National Today. https://nationaltoday.com/national-biographers-day/

[6] Einhard. “Preface.” The Life of Charlemagne. Translated by Samuel Epes Turner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880). Fordham.edu https://origin-rh.web.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/einhard.asp
“Western Literature: Antiquity.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/biography-narrative-genre/Historical-development

[7] “Western Literature: Middle Ages.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/biography-narrative-genre/Historical-development

[8] The Book of Margery Kempe. Editor W. Butler-Bowdon. Oxford: Alden Press, 1940)

[9] “’The Book of Margery Kempe,’ The First Autobiography Written in English.” HistoryofInformation.com
https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=4842

[10] “biography.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/biography-narrative-genre

[11] “National Biographer’s Day.” NationalToday.com  https://nationaltoday.com/national-biographers-day/

“Put pen to paper for National Biographers Day!” Yarra Plenty Regional Library.
https://www.yprl.vic.gov.au/blogs/put-pen-to-paper-for-national-biographers-day/#:~:text=That’s%20how%20National%20Biographer’s%20Day,editor%20and%20
lexicographer%2C%20Samuel%20Johnson
.

[12] “Western Literature: 19th century.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/biography-narrative-genre/19th-century

[13] “Finding Benjamin Franklin: A Resource Guide.” Library of Congress.
https://guides.loc.gov/finding-benjamin-franklin/autobiography#:~:text=Benjamin%20
Franklin’s%20Autobiography%20is%20both,of%20the%20genre%20ever%20written
.

[14] Western Literature: Biographical literature today.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/biography-narrative-genre/Biographical-literature-today

[15] Kate Griffiths and Alexa Bu. “Banned books to read over winter break.” ThreePennyPress.org   https://threepennypress.org/ae/2021/12/23/banned-books-to-read-over-winter-break/

[16] “The Media’s Role in the Era of Book Bans.” PEN America.https://pen.org/event/black-book-bans/

[17] Linly, Zack. “Texas Mom Wants To Ban Michelle Obama Book Because It Depicts Donald Trump As A Bully.” February 4, 2022. Newsone. https://newsone.com/4285729/michelle-obama-book-ban-texas/

[18] Pernell PI Order. American Civil Liberties Union.
https://www.aclu.org/wp-content/plugins/pdfjs-viewer-shortcode/pdfjs/web/viewer.php?file=https://www.aclu.org/wp-content/uploads/legal-documents/Pernell_PI_Order.pdf&attachment_id=0&dButton=true
&pButton=true&oButton=false&sButton=true

[19] Meltzer, Brad. “My book was banned. Here’s how we fought back.” March 7, 2022. CNN.com  https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/07/opinions/books-ban-in-the-us-meltzer/index.html

[20] “This Day in  History.” History.com https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-autobiography-of-malcolm-x-is-published

Study.com https://homework.study.com/explanation/when-was-the-autobiography-of-malcolm-x-banned.html

Shane Austrie, John Lyons, Anthony Chawki. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” November 15, 2016. TheCensorshipFiles.com  https://thecensorshipfiles.wordpress.com/the-autobiography-of-malcolm-x/ 

Images:

Even Biographies Get Banned: Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash  Cropped.

The Book of Margery Kempe: British Library MS 61823, dated c. 1440. The only known copy of the mystic, Margery Kempe’s autobiography. f. 1r.

Modern Biographies: Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash  Cropped.

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