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The Biographer's Craft 
A Montly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
June 2007
Vol. 1, No. 4
Isaacson's Einstein: A Relative Success
IsaacsonSales of Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster) took off in bookstores this spring at, um, dare we say, the speed of light. In its first week out, 48,000 copies of Einstein were sold in bookstores, according to industry sources. It held the first, second, or third position on the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times best-sellers lists for the month of May. By presstime, it had sold more than 167,500 copies.
     One author of a distinguished new book ran into Isaacson on the stock-signing circuit. Like many authors, this one was being shuttled to various New York stores to autograph books on the shelves in hopes of increasing their sales. After signing the dozen of so copies of his book in stock at one store, the author looked over and spied Isaacson, off to the side, signing books. In his case, the store employees were lining up and opening cases of Einstein.
     But by mid-May, however, sales of Einstein were cooling off to 22,000 copies a week. As a result, it will probably not  match Simon & Schuster's success with David McCullough's Johns Adams, which sold more than 500,000 copies in  2002, and 1776, which sold more than 1 million copies in 2005.
     However, Einstein's solid sales and publicity are certain to fuel demand for Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, which will be released in paperback this month. Simon and Schuster was planning a 150,000 copy first printing.
     Other major biographical releases this spring have not fared as well. The most dramatic disappointment was Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton (Knopf). Despite its many reviews and wide acclaim, it had sold only 7,500 copies by mid-May.
Rappleye Wins $50,000 Washington Prize

Charles Rappleye's The Brown Brothers: The Slave Trade, and the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster) won the third annual George Washington Book Prize. Rappleye's book, a kind of prosopography, portrays John and Moses Brown, brothers who were partners in business, politics, and the founding of Brown University, yet who passionately opposed one another on one of the most divisive issues of the day--the slave trade.

     The award, which is accompanied by a $50,000 prize, is sponsored by Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City, and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

      The two other finalists were Catherine Allgor for A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (Holt) and François Furstenberg for In the Name of the Father: Washington's Legacy, Slavery and the Making of a Nation (Penguin).

Electronic Frontiers
Text Searchable Historical Newspapers Abound
by James McGrath Morris
When I was completing the research for a previous biography, Travis Westy in the Newspaper Division of Library of Congress introduced me to ProQuest Historical Newspapers, then a new text-searchable database comprising the New York Times and the Washington Post. I was thrilled and panicked simultaneously. I immediately knew this would revolutionize historical research but also meant that it might reveal how much I had missed using the old volumes of New York Times index. Luckily, I did find some new material, but none of caused me to make major revisions to my manuscript.
     Now, six years later, ProQuest and other text-searchable data bases have become commonplace tools of the biographer. But, because this is such a rapidly developing aspect of archival research, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide an overview of what is currently available. It will also be a regular feature of The Biographer's Craft to report on other new electronic resources as we did last month with the article on the beta testing of a new batch of digitized historical newspapers at the Library of Congress.
     ProQuest is the best known of these resources. It is the 
outgrowth of UMI, the Michigan microfilming corporation founded in the 1930s. ProQuest Information and Learning provides access to more than 5.5 billion pages from periodicals, newspapers, out-of-print books, dissertations, and other publications. ProQuest Historical Newspapers is only one of the programs maintained by the firm.
     Currently full runs of nine newspapers have been digitized. They are the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Christian Science Monitor, and the Chicago Defender.  Each newspaper may be searched alone or in conjunction with others for names, phrases, places, or other search terms. ProQuest features both a basic search and an advanced search window. So one can, for instance, look for any article in which both Joseph Pulitzer and J.P. Morgan are mentioned. (I used these two men as examples because of the fun I have had finding these two sworn enemies on a list of an ocean liner's first class passengers and imagining the unrecorded moments that might have occurred during the voyage.)  You can, of course, restrict the search to a particular date or period of time.
     The system, however, is not infallible. An ink smudge or a crease can prevent the search engine from picking up a reference. On the other hand, the amount of material that is now easily retrievable is remarkable. For instance, the famous New York Times indexers chose not to index everything. Valuable mentions of a subject in gossip columns, legal notices, hotel and passenger lists, and many other parts of the newspaper were previously almost impossible to find.
     ProQuest is only available through institutions such as research libraries and major public libraries. This is also the case with America's Historical Newspapers, produced by Readex. It features five series of 18th, 19th, and 20th century (prior to 1923) newspapers. While the firm is constantly adding newspapers, the current holes in its coverage can be frustrating. But that problem will cure itself over time and is more the reflection of our impatience because what is now on line is, indeed, so good.
     There are other similar databases that are available outside the library community. Newspaperarchive.com is available to anyone for a modest subscription fee. It does not feature many of the biggest newspapers but is incredibly rich in its collection of small town newspapers. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to their collections. In fact, it almost seems as if they are feeding their scanner with whatever newspapers they lay their hands on. But many profitable finds can be made using their service. This is especially true for people conducting research after the development of wire services. Often small town papers carried unabridged versions of stories that appeared in abbreviated form elsewhere.
     The Brooklyn Eagle (1841-1902) is available free of charge through the auspices of the Brooklyn Public Library. It is a newspaper rich with articles about leading events and persons around New York.
     There are many otherr historical newspaper web sites. A good listing of them may be found at a web site maintained by the Genealogy Roots Newsletter. Beginning this summer, the Biographer's Craft web site will also list links to historical newspapers.
     One final note of caution for those first using ProQuest, or Readex, Newspaperarchive.com, or other such resources. One must be careful in conducting searches. For instance, you may decided to put your subject's name in quotations to limit the number of hits, but by doing so you may miss other ways by which your subject appeared. For instance, "Charles Chapin" as a search term meant that I missed all the "C.E. Chapin" references. This is especially true with women's names. Often they were published using their husband's name as in, for example, as "Mrs. Russell Sage" or "Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer."
Alabama High School Students Inspired by Harper Lee's Biographer
ShieldsCharles J. Shields, whose best-selling biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee was released in a paperback edition this spring, spent time in April with English students at Bob Jones High School in Huntsville. Shields was on tour with NEA's Big Read campaign.
     Students were thrilled to spend time with him. Stephanie Cashin told the Huntsville Times that she was most interested in learning about Shield's journey to becoming a writer. Shields had been a teacher and school administrator before publishing his biography of Harper Lee.  "Oftentimes, it is difficult to take a risk like he did," Cashin said. "I think it's important to hear from an adult that sometimes it's okay to color outside the lines."
Cache of Diplomatic Remembrances now on the Web

Transcripts of interviews with 1,301 American diplomats are now available on line from the Library of Congress. The Frontline Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training is filled with thousands of anecdotes from eyewitnesses to many of the most important international event of the last century.

     "Diplomats are trained to be, you know, diplomatic, but somehow Stu Kennedy gets them to say what they really think," wrote Peter Carlson in the Washington Post. "He waits until they retire, then he sits them down in front of his tape recorder and pretty soon they're telling him great stories about wars and revolutions and coups -- lots of coups! -- and about the Berlin Airlift and the fall of Saigon and drug lords and dictators and how it feels to get stabbed and bombed and shot."

The Literary Widow: Headache or Help?
Biographer Peter Stanford has written a thought-provoking article reflecting on his experiences working with the surviving family members in "The Literary Wife: Working with the Widow" published in The Independent.
     "Biographers divide roughly down the middle over whether the involvement of the surviving family of their subject is a blessing or a curse on their efforts. Some argue in favor of being left alone with the archive to come to their own judgment with no outside 'interference,'" Stanford wrote. "I come down on the other side of the argument."
Subjects are no Heroes to their Valets, nor Should They be to Their Biographers

An interesting interview by Paul Morton with Pulitzer-prize winning historian James M. McPherson is featured on bookslut.com. Among the questions Morton posed was "How much should a historian resist the temptation to heroize any particular figure?"

     "The historian should indeed resist that temptation," replied McPherson, "because it might blind him to potential negative aspects of the figure in question, the wrong decisions that figure might make, the possible defects of character, and so on. No man is a hero to his valet, nor should he be to his historian."

Hollywood Biographer Axel Madsen Dies

Axel Madsen, the author of more than a dozen biographies, mostly of Hollywood stars, died in his Los Angeles home on April 23. Born in Denmark of a Danish father and French mother, Madsen was 76.

     A former film reporter, Madsen began his career as a biographer with a book on Billy Wilder in 1968. He subsequently wrote biographies of stars William Wyler, John Huston, and Barbara Stanwyck; French figures Yves St. Laurent, Andre Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; and, businessmen John Jacob Astor and William C. Durant
     "I've been lucky because I've been able to get these assignments and publishers will pay me to do these types of books. They know that celebrities sell," he told a friend once, according to the Los Angeles Times.
     His most famous works were Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy and The Sewing Circle: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women.
Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
Unaffliated? Low Research Budget? No Big Advance?

Biographers without academic affliation or lots of money to spend may feel like they are cut off from all the new electronic research tools such as ProQuest (described above),  Ancestry.com, Nexis, or First Search.

It turns out that most of these resources are only a car, bus, or subway ride away.

These services charge large fees to libraries and restrict their use to the library's "community."  In practice, what this means is that a member of a university must use a password to access the database from home or office. But, in most cases, no password is required when you use a terminal in the institution's library.
Many, many university libraries are open to the public. And, even those that aren't often permit a researcher to use the facility with proper identification. So hop into your car and start taking advantage of all these tools. I know one major university library where the wireless signal inside the library is open to all, permitting a researcher to download as many ProQuest articles as one's hard disk will hold.

Have a great tip?

Send it to editor@the biographerscraft.com

In This Issue
Einstein's Relative Success
Rappleye Wins GW Prize
Searchable Historic Newspapers
Shield Inspires Students
Diplomatic Interviews on line
The Literary Widow
Subjects not Heroes
Biographer Sunstein Dies
Tips Corner
 "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,

This last month alone our circulation grew by more than 20 percent. Thank you new readers for joining. If you like what you see, please tell others about the newsletter.

I am planning some future articles for which I need your help:

First, I want to do a roundup on university courses on biography. I have found several but hope you will let me know of others.

Second, I want to do an article on choosing a subject. I would love to hear from biographers about how they made their selections.

Even if you can't help with either topic, please keep those letters coming.

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

P.S. Please forward this newsletter to your friends so they can sign up!
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Sold to Publishers

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

  • Seth Rogovoy, Bob Dylan: Jewish Prophet, Mystic, Poet, Scribner.

  • Peter Ames Carlin, yet-untitled biography of Paul McCartney, Touchstone Fireside.

  • Lily Tuck, Woman of Rome: A life of Elsa Morante, HarperCollins.

  • Lisa Rogak, An Extremely Dangerous Person: The Life and Times of Stephen King, Thomas Dunne.

Coming to Stores 


Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector
by Mick Brown (Knopf)


When I Was White: The Story of Sandra Laing

by Judith Stone (Miramax)

The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart by John Clayton (Bison Books)


Kerouac: The Definitive Biography by Paul Maher (Taylor)


Thach Weave: The Life of Jimmie Thach by Steve Ewing (Naval Institute Press)


Anchored In Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash by John Carter Cash (Thomas Nelson)


Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power by Ross Kink (Eminent Lives)


Joachim Peiper: A New Biography of Himmler's SS Commander by Jens Westemeier (Schiffer Publishing)


Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero by Lucy Riall  (Yale University Press)


15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century by Stanley Weintraub (Free Press)


Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace
by Mark Perry (Penguin Press)


Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr (Little, Brown and Company)


A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Carl Bernstein (Knopf)