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The Biographer's Craft 
An occasional newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
May 2007
Vol. 1, No. 3
Beta Version of LOC & NEH Digital Historical Newspapers Now on the Web

As libraries and private companies rush to digitize collections of newspapers, the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities have opened a web site featuring 226,000 pages of public-domain newspapers from the turn of the last century.
     The papers are from California, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Utah, Virginia, and the District of Columbia and were published between 1900 and 1910.
     This is only the beginning of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). Within twenty years the NDNP plans to scan a massive collection of newspapers from 1836 to 1922 from all states.
    Though the backers claim it is a fully-searchable site, early visits have shown that there are still a few minor technical kinks to be worked out.

Note: Next month The Biographer's Craft will be publishing a review  newspaper digitization projects.

Hamilton's Book on Biography is Lively and Thought Provoking

By Linda Lear

If you think a historiography of biography sounds arcaneHamilton & Griffin and irrelevant, you'd be wrong. Nigel Hamilton (shown to the right with his research assistant Katie Griffith) has written a short but lively, erudite, and provoking book. Hamilton is the author of a well-regarded biography of British field marshal Bernard Montgomery, one volume of a projected three on John F. Kennedy (Reckless Youth, 1992), and the determined author of a forthcoming examination of the Clinton presidency. He has thought long and hard about the nature of life depiction through history, and its controversial status. In the 1990s Hamilton even attempted to establish a national center for the study of biography in the UK.
     Happily Hamilton's well researched Biography: A Brief History (Harvard University Press) is not a rehash of worn debates, but widens and illuminates the discussion of what constitutes the bounds of biography and, at least infers, that in the Twenty-first century, with the definition of individuality a moving target, that life depiction is not the equivalent of literary fiction.
    Hamilton argues that the Western tradition of biography uniquely focuses on the individual and serves to further democracy. This latter contention is somewhat overblown. But  whether the biographer's motive is to praise or condemn, biography is ever employed as a means of translating intrinsic social and cultural values of the time.
    This small treatise has some unique accouterments, including illustrations from the Flood Tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh, 7AD, Simon de Passe's moving portrait of Walter Raleigh, a page from the Mishneh Torah, and a haunting oil portrait of Lytton Strachey. There are brief samples from some of the significant mile-stones in life depiction tucked into the narrative.
    Hamilton marks the turning points in his historiographical march at Plutarch, the "theorist of biography," Augustine's "Confessions", Shakespeare, and Samuel Johnson all who proclaimed the validity of describing individual human lives. The Victorian standards of decorum, however, straight-laced biography in all forms only to be liberated by Freud. But one gets the impression that Hamilton feels himself on congenial turf only after the collapse of deconstruction. His chapter on Victorian psychobiography is one of the most compelling in the book, as is his appreciation of Strachey. I applaud his astute pairing of Edmund Grosse's Father and Son with the Nicholson family's contribution to life depiction; a juxtaposition which he argues marks biography's "final coming of age."
    There follows an all too brief tour of such road-blocks to life writing as copyright law, libel, and censorship. If there is weakness in Hamilton's recitation, it is surely in the spare recital of these biographical mine-fields. But he considers the effects of film, television, the rise of the ubiquitous bio-pic, and the inherent tension between fact and fiction in all mediums.
    Hamilton's book is as timely as it is important. If contemporary lives are told in an amalgam of fiction and fact, the product is just another chapter in the history of human efforts to capture a life lived. The well being of the art and artifact "of human portraiture" is central to the health of a democracy. From Hamilton's perspective, one can only conclude its integrity and vitality is more critical now than ever before.

Linda Lear is the author of Beatrix Potter:Lear A Life in Nature that was published simultaneously in the United States and the United Kingdom in January 2007.  Lear is also the author of the prize-winning biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. To read more about Lear's work, visit the following web sites:

Beatrix Potter
Rachel Carson

Linda Lear

Einstein v. Einstein: A Title Bout

By James McGrath Morris

When my wife Patty finished reading Michael Dirda's
review of the two new Einstein biographies in the Washington Post Book World , she said she expected readers would flock to the one by Jurgen Neffe that Dirda described as "exhilarating" and "lots of fun." I told her she was wrong.
    Not having read a line from the review or even a page from either book, I predicted the sales of the Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson would dwarf those of Neffe. Issacson is well-known writer whose publisher will use its marketing power to make sure the book lands with splash (or should that be a thud?) on the tables of bookstores.
    Later that week I had occasion to stop in on
KramerBooks and Afterwords, one of the few independent bookstores still alive in Washington, DC. I asked if they had the Neffe biography in stock. No, they replied, but they had four copies on order. The Isaacson one? A large stack stood on the table near the entrance. The book is now number one on most best sellers lists.
    While it's fun to prove one's spouse wrong, this was not hard. The problem is an all too common one for biographers. Not to take anything away from Isaacson's work, which may be well deserving of terrific sales, the case of the dueling Einsteins is a sharp reminder that research and writing alone do not determine the fate of a biography. One also must be well published. The most important task for a biographer may not be finding those unknown diaries or honing one's writing craft. It may be finding the right publisher.
    Two biographies of equal quality will not receive equal treatment in the marketplace, or even on library shelves. Those of us who do a lot of research discover this all the time. We will pull down some obscure biography collecting dust on a shelf and discover it to be a gem that was ignored. Then we will look at the spine and find that it was published by a university or an independent press.
    I have since gone back to read what Dirda wrote. It turns out he, too, knew the fate of these two competing biographies. He began his review thusly:
"In the wonderland realm described by Einstein's theory of special relativity, simultaneity generally proves to be an illusion, but in the world of publishing, two good studies of the same subject will often appear at roughly the same time. Then, alas, a variant of another scientific doctrine--Gresham's  law--typically goes into effect: One book tends to drive out the other."
Write a Fake Biography and They'll Make a Movie
The HoaxIt's not often that the craft of biography becomes the topic of a movie, perhaps because so much of our work is as dull to watch as, say, grass growing. But the story of Clifford Irving's exploits in fooling McGraw-Hill to pay $750,000 for a fake authorized biography of Howard Hughes is now playing in the movie theaters. It is based on Irving's own account of the fraud called The Hoax.
    "I can't tell you whether I liked the movie of
The Hoax because I haven't seen it yet," said Irving on his web site. "I've read the final shooting script,though, so I can make the following comments."
Robert Dallek Remembers Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Dallek When historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. died this spring, National Public Radio turned to historian and biographer Robert Dallek to discuss Schlesinger's contributions to the canon of 20th-century American history. In discussing Schlesinger's work on the President Kennedy, Dallek made the following interesting remark.
    "It's a rare that you a find a biographer or a historian who spends five years, seven years, maybe longer, working on a big biographical figure without some passion about that person, without some feelings of attraction or repulsion. And I think, then, the impulse is to, on the one hand, yes, tell the truth as best you can but also being influenced by your impulse to raise the man's stature or diminish it. And, I think Arthur very much played that role in writing about John Kennedy. But he also understood that it was well for later historians to come along, go back, reread the record, he was fond of quoting Dutch historian Peter Gayle who said, "history is argument without end and that none of us, none of us, produce definitive work."
     Dallek's new book Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (HarperCollins) was published on April 24.
Gabler Wins LA Times Biography Prize

Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination ( Knopf) took the the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography. Other finalists included Debby Applegate's The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday), which won the Pulitzer Prize last month; Rodney Bolt's The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America (Bloomsbury); Jeffrey Goldberg's Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide (Knopf); and Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (HarperCollins).

The award for history went to Lawrence Wright'sThe Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf); his book also won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Finalists included Taylor Branch's biography of Martin Luther King At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster); Niall Ferguson's The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (Penguin); Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Viking); and John Tayman's The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai (Lisa Drew/Scribner).

Richardson Wins Bancroft

Robert D. Richardson was awarded the Bancroft Prize for 2007 for his biography of William James. The prize is awarded annually by Columbia University to authors of books in the fields of American history, biography, and diplomacy.
     Richardson's William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin) is "simultaneously an intellectual biography, and a biography tout court, of the James family, including William James's father, Henry James, Sr., and his brother Henry," according to a statement from the Bancroft Jury.  The book "is a virtual intellectual genealogy of American liberalism and, indeed, of American intellectual life in general, through and beyond the twentieth century...the story Richardson tells is engaging, his research deep, his writing graceful and appealing."
For an interesting interview with Richardson visit Bookslut.
Biographer Emily Sunstein Dies

Emily W. Sunstein, 82, who wrote a pair of biographies about Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, died April 21, 2007, in Phildalphia. A political activists who worked with Americans for Democratic Action, Sunstein turned to writing in the 1970s.
     Her first biography was published by Harper & Row in 1975. A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, chronicled the life of the British writer and early feminist who died a few days after giving birth to a daughter who would later become a famous author herself.
     Sunstein continued her passion for biography by following up this book with one on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Wollstonecraft's daughter. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality was published by Little, Brown and Co in 1989 and was widely praised. Sunstein's biography was the first to use letters that provided insights into Shelley's bouts of depresssion and the cause her death from a brain tumor at age 53.
     Sunstein was awarded the Modern Language Association Prize for independent scholars in 1989.
  Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers

Checking Your Sales on Amazon?

While this does not exactly qualify as a research tip, this tip may help those authors who are obsessively checking their ranking on Amazon.com.

Titlez.com promises to allow you to print reports, retrieve historic and current sales rankings, determine life time averages, spot trends, compare your book to the competition. Trust me, it's great fun to use.

Thanks to Sree Sreenivasan, at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He mentioned Titlez.com in an article posted at Poynter.com.

Have a great tip?

Send it to editor@the biographerscraft.com

In This Issue
More Digital Historic Newspapers
Hamilton's New Book Reviewed
Einstein v Einstein
Literary Hoax as a Movie
Dallek on Schlesinger
Gabler Wins LAT Prize
James Bio Wins Bancroft
Biographer Sunstein Dies
Tips Corner
WIW Biography Panel
 "Sold to Publishers" and "Coming to Store" are now located on the lower right-hand side of the newsletter.

From the Editor's Desk

Dear Readers,

Again my thanks. I have been overwhelmed by the letters of support I have received. And, it hasn't been letters alone that indicate support for this newsletter. In April, the circulation grew by 16 percent.

It turns out that doing this newsletter is not only fun, but folks are enjoying reading it.

Last month, our special edition reported the Pulitzer prize winners in biography and history three minutes before the New York Times!

This month we begin a new feature of reviewing books and articles that relate to the field of biography. Linda Lear inaugurates this series with her review of Nigel Hamilton's new book on biography. Often controversial, Hamilton seems to have produced a slim, intriguing volume that is winning praise from many reviewers.

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

P.S. Please forward this newsletter to your friends so they can sign up!
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The Writing Life
of Writing Lives

The 28th Washington Writers Conference, to be held June 9 on the George Washington University campus in Washington DC, will feature a panel discussion on biography. The panelists will include Kenneth Ackerman, author of the forthcoming Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, Kai Bird, Pulitzer-prize winning author of American Prometheus: The Triumph & Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Linda Lear (see article in this month issue.)
For details on the conference, visit Washington Independent Writers.


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Any book mentioned in this newsletter may be ordered from our official partner, Powell's Books, the legendary independent bookstore.
Sold to Publishers

The following are among the biographies sold to publishers in April as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources. 

  • Michelle-Irene Brudny, Hannah Arendt: An Intellectual Biography, Melville House.
  • Tracy Daugherty, Hiding Man (Donald Barthelme) St. Martin's.
  • Abigail Santamaria, Prayer Against Indifference: Joy Davidman and Her Epic Quest for Salavation, Harcourt.
  • Gerald Martin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez,  Bloomsbury.
  • Ged Carbone, Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, Palgrave.
  • Hazel Rowley, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage,  Farrar, Straus.
  • Rose Collis, Coral Brown: "This Effing Lady", Oberon Books.
Coming to Stores in May 


Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties by Kenneth D. Ackerman  (Carroll & Graff).

The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, by Heather Ewing (Bloomsbury).

A Lion in the White House: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Aida Donald (Basic Books).

W.E. B. Dubois: An American Prophet by Edward J. Blum (University of Pennsylvania Press)

April (not reported previously)

Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad (Knopf)

The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein by Martin Duberman (Knopf)