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The Biographer's Craft 
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
July 2007
Vol. 1, No. 5
After a Life of Telling Lives,  Secrest Turns the Table: A Biographer's Memoir



After nine well-regarded biographies, Meryle Secrest (to the left) has discovered how to write an engaging biographer's memoir. The answer was to populate the book with the subjects of her prodigious work.  The result, Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of her Subject (Knopf), is a collection of charming tales that will fascinate anyone interested in biography.

     "It's the first book I have written where I knew there would be no competition," said Secrest while on tour in Washington, D.C.

     For readers with a strong interest in the craft of biography, Secrest has distributed some thought-provoking reflections among the stories of her adventures. While this is not a book about the art of biography, rather about the life of a biographer, it still speaks to several of the central issues of the business.

     For example, Secrest chose, in several instances, to write about living subjects who would be eventually among her readers. She found this fundamentally changed her approach. "The problem about writing the life of someone who is still alive," writes Secrest, "is the pall it casts over the narrative, since you are well aware that every word will be analyzed and searched for hidden meaning.  This puts paid to the fine, flowing spontaneity with which you hope to write, and is necessary if the reader is to gain confidence in you as an observer."

    (For those of you, like me, who are rushing to their copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the expression "puts paid to" is not there. Instead the UK web site phrases.org provides an answer. "Paid to' probably derives from the practice of book-keepers of writing or stamping "Paid" on bills when the paperwork for a sale was completed. The term isn't especially old and I can't find any examples of it in print prior to the 20th century. An early citation comes from the Winnipeg newspaper The Manitoba Morning Free Press, October 1905. This appeared in a listing of English football results, which were presumably printed in a Canadian paper for the benefit of the many English immigrants." Interestingly, Secrest is a Canadian immigrant from the UK.)

     Even when dead, her subjects managed to create unforeseen problems. Secrest relates how, after the death of Kenneth Clark, his literary executor and a whole cabal of relatives sought veto power over her manuscript of her soon to be published biography of Clark. She eventually "told them to go to hell."

     "I was reminded of what Justin Kaplan, Mark Twain's biographer, called the first rule of biography: 'Shoot the widow.' Along with his literary executor, his publisher, his agent, his offspring and anyone else you can think of," said Secrest.

     In addition to such amusing rules of thumb, Secrest also steers readers to an overlooked, or maybe now forgotten, gem of the biographical arts. When Secrest was working on her biography of Bernard Berenson, a BBC producer recommended she read A.J. Symons The Quest for Corvo, published in 1934.The book is an odd portrayal of Frederick Rolfe, an artist and writer who calls himself Baron Corvo. Subtitled "an experiment in biography," it turned out to be a reflection more on the craft and the pursuit of subject than on Corvo.

     Secrest was quite taken by the book and studied it at length until she came to, what she called, the heart of the matter. "Like him, I must see the purpose of biography as not just to record but to reveal. Like him, I must balance my subject's weakness against his strengths; to emphasize one at the expense of the other seemed to deny the very essence of human nature in all its contradictory complexity."

     Need one say more?

Preview of Fall Biographies
The fall, considered the "serious season" in publishing, will bring yet another large crop of biographies. Among the political figures in print will be Richard Nixon and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Alice Roosevelt Longworth; artists and writers will include Picasso, Henry James, and Ezra Pound; singers and actors, Ethel Merman and Bette Davis. Even comics artist Charles Schulz and cartoonist Bill Mauldin are the subject of fall biographies.

     PetersonOf the many biographies coming out this fall, one of the most promising books for biographers may be The President and His Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker by Merrill D. Peterson (to the right). The book is not only a biography of Wilson but provides a detailed story of Wilson's relationship with his idealistic biographer.  Look for an article on the book in a forthcoming issue of The Biographer's Craft.

     Not all subjects are as famous. Basic Books, for instance, will publish Camille Forbes' Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt-Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star. Williams, who apparently got his start in traveling troupes of the Wild West broke through the color barrier of Broadway. He was the subject of a book published by Duke University Press a few years back, but this will be his first traditional biography in more than fifteen years.

     The lineup from the major houses will include, among others:

  • Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (HarperCollins)
  • Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Aida Donald (Basic Books) [A smaller publishing firm, Brick Tower Books will be publishing The Namesake: The Biography of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. by Robert W. Walker]
  • Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by Edward J. Renehan (Basic Books)
  • A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 by John Richardson (Knopf ), this is the  second  of a planned four volumes.
  • Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full by Conrad Black (Public Affairs)
  • Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker
    by Stacy A. Cordery (Viking)
  • Ethel Merman: A Life by Brian Kellow (Viking)
  • Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov (Henry Holt)
  • The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. Macarthur -- Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary by Nancy Kriplen (Amacon)
  • Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front by Todd DePastino (W.W. Norton)
  • Henry James: The Mature Master by Sheldon M. Novick (Random House)
  • Ezra Pound: Poet I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 by A. David Moody (Oxford University)
  • The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Andrew Lycett (Free Press)

     At the end of the season, many readers will eagerly rush to get Philip Fradkin's biography of Wallace Stegner, called Searching for the Angle of Repose, which Knopf will publish in February 2008.

     These and other biographies from the major houses will not slip by anyone's radar screen, considering the kinds of promotional budgets backing these books. But there is also a good number of interesting biographies deserving attention from reviewers and readers. So, instead of spending more time on the well-known forthcoming books, here is some information on their lesser-but equally interesting-brethren.

     applegateChelsea Green is bringing out a biography of labor leader Tony Mazzocchi with what is certainly one of the best book titles of the season. The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor by Les Leopold, tells the life story of the leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union and his efforts to end the toxic exposure of tens of thousands of workers.

     Another unusual leader is the subject of James L. Jorence's A Hard Journey: The Life of Don West, to be published by University of Illinois Press. West was a poet, minister, labor organizer, education and activist in southern Appalachia. The press is also publishing Dianeapplegate  Diekman's Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story. One of the best-known honky tonkers, Young was a popular Nashville singer for more than four decades with a remarkably wide following that continues since his death more than a decade ago.

     Another musical great is the subject of David Buckley's Elton: The Biography. It will be published by Chicago Review Press, which just acquired a Buck Owens biography (see "Sold to Publishers.")

     University of North Carolina Press will bring out Karl E. Campbell's biography of Senator Sam Ervin, whom many remember as the affable country lawyer who chaired the Senate Watergate hearings. Called Senator Sam Ervin: Last of the Founding Fathers, the biography tries to answer the puzzle of how this champion of civil liberties was, for so long, an opponent of civil rights. To do the job, Campbell draws on newly opened archival materials.

     Conrad Black, a biographer himself (see the Nixon bio above), will the subject of an unauthorized biography by George Tombs and published by ECW. Called Baron Black of Crossharbour, it details the life of media baron who is now facing criminal charges in Chicago for alleged fraud, money laundering, and racketeering.

     Yale University Press, which has strong commitment to biographies, has a biography of Henry Morton Stanley by Tim Jeal, and the second volume of one on Abraham Joshua Herschel by Edward K. Kaplan. One of the most interesting books on the Yale list is Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. Malcolm tries to sort out the famous but mystifying relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

     For Jazz fans, Oxford University Press is publishing British critic Dave Gelly's Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young. Film goers will want Larry Ceplair's The Marxist and the Movies: A Biography of Paul Jarrico, published by Kentucky University Press.

     Science fiction readers will be excited to learn that the University of Mississippi Press will publish Robin Roberts' Anne McCaffrey: A Life with Dragons. As the author of the Dragonriders of Pern series, McCaffrey is considered one of the leading authors of science fiction and fantasy.

     Albert Shanker, the famed teachers union president, is the subject of a biography by Richard D. Kahlenberg. More than a union president, Shanker was one of the most important voices in public education, a controversial figure, and a cultural icon.  In Woody Allen's film "Sleeper", one of the characters wakes up in the future and learns that civilization ended because "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Kahlenberg's book is titled Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battle over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy and will be published by Columbia University Press.

Electronic Frontiers
LoC Digital Newspapers Up and Running; State Collections Offer Access to Regional Papers; and HarpWeek Changes Hands
by James McGrath Morris

The Chronicling America web site is now officially open on the Library of Congress web site.

     The Biographer's Craft had previously included an article about this project and published a link to its Beta version. The new site still says it's a Beta version, but researchers will be glad to learn the new version runs smoothly, no longer requires Adobe Flash Player, and has 80,000 additional pages. Even more impressive is that a "persistent link" is featured on every page view, allowing one to return to the same place on the site and can be used for citations and hyperlinking.

     The site is a project of the National Digital Newspaper Program, which is a partnership between the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In about two decades, the project hopes to build a national digital research of historically significant newspapers published between 1836 and 1922 from all the states and territories of the United States.

     In June the Endowment awarded more than $2 million in grants to eight institutions to expand the program.  The institutions are:

  • Library of Virginia
  • New York Public Library
  • Minnesota Historical Society
  • University of California-Riverside
  • University of Kentucky
  • University of Utah
  • University of Nebraska
  • University of North Texas

State Collections

     Scott Martelle, author of  Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers) coming out in August, wrote that the Electronic Frontier series did not mention the collections of digital newspapers available at the state level. He cites specifically the Colorado's Historic Newspaper Collection which he used to complete his recent book.

     "Like others, it's incomplete," said Martelle, "but because it is heavy on the small local and regional papers it is a great resource for the wire reports they carried on events outside their coverage areas, which were great pointers to better sources. They also contain stray facts about historical figures related to my book, which were too small to merit mention in the larger papers."

     Several other states have similar projects underway. The Northern New York Historical Newspapers, for instance, currently consists of more than 630,000 pages from twenty-five newspapers.


Harper's Weekly

     Michael Burlingame, at work on what promises to be the most encyclopedic biography of President Abraham Lincoln, also wrote to recommend Harper's Weekly 1857-1912, which is in digital form under the name HarpWeek.

        Library rights to the collection were acquired this spring by Alexander Street Press. HarpWeek was developed and published from 1997 through 2005.  It was one of the first archival newspapers to be put up in electronic form and has been supplemented with some thirty Web sites that provide contextual introductions and commentary for selected works within the file. This, along with the importance of the original publication, has led the database to be used heavily in more than 500 libraries around the world. 
Kerouac Biographer Charges Publisher with Censorship

Gerald Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, is accusing Viking Penguin of removing his name and all references to his work from its books about the late author.

     Nicosia, in a New York press conference, claimed that Viking Penguin is deleting the references at the request of the estate's executor. Nicosia was involved in a court fight among the Kerouac heirs.

     Viking Penguin is gearing up for the fiftieth anniversary of Kerouac's On the Road and is publishing the book in a new edition along with other books commemorating the author. A spokesman for the press denied Nicosia's charge, though he added, "Our authors are under no obligation to name him in their new books or use his book as a reference."

     That may be difficult to pull off. When Nicosia's biography was originally published, Library Journal said, "To call this book the definitive Kerouac biography is an understatement."

Hans Koning, Columbus Biographer, Dies
KoningHans Koning, author of a controversial biography of Christopher Columbus, died in early June at age 85 at his home in Easton, Conn.

     A prolific author of plays, screenplays, novels, travel books and even young adult books, Koning published Columbus: His Enterprise-Exploding the Myth in 1976, in time for the U.S. bicentennial and then it was reprinted in 1992, for the quincentennial of Columbus's voyage.

     Koning's portrait of Columbus was unflattering and contrary to that of the traditionally heroic version of his life. Instead, Koning described Columbus as having a consuming drive to find gold for Spain. When Indians failed to meet his quota, he had their hands cut off and their chiefs roasted on fires, according to Koning.

     The biography sold exceedingly well and is still in print.

     Koning was born on July 12, 1921 in Amsterdam under the name Hans Koningsberger, but shortened it as an adult.

Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
Can I use this? Or, is it still Copyrighted?

In the course of doing research, every biographer comes across unpublished works or old published works and can't figure out if they have fallen into the public domain.

The Cornell Copyright Information Center, at Cornell University, has produced an extremely convenient and easy-to-understand chart on copyright terms and public domain.  It answers almost every question one could have. In fact, the center produces a number of useful charts and forms related to copyright that make its web site worth bookmarking.
Here is a link to the chart.
Have a great tip?

Send it to editor@the biographerscraft.com

In This Issue
Secrest on a Biographer's Life
Fall Biographies
Electronic Frontiers
Kerouac Biographers Claims Censorship
Han Koning 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,

I continue to be amazed at the reception for this newsletter and quite overwhelmed by your kind and supportive letters.

Among my favorites was a very, very polite note from one reader who thought I might like to know I misspelled "monthly" on the masthead of the June issue. Yikes! In the interest of continually improving the newsletter, the word "monthly" appears correctly spelled this time. In the interest of history, I have left it misspelled on the archived copy of the June edition.

Since proofing is, shall I say, not one of my strengths, I suspect many more such errors will be forthcoming. So correct away, but please be as polite and as charitable as my one careful reader.

For a look at another, but different, newsletter on biography, see the new link, in "Useful Links" below, to biographer Dona Hunker's web site.
Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

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

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 June as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources 

  • Virginia Roundin, Alice and Nicky: A Russian Passion, St. Martins.

  • Paul Spicer, Alice de Janze, St. Martin's.

  • Jennifer Scanlon, Men are Not the Enemy: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, Oxford University Press.

  • Eileen Sisk, Acting Naturally: The Unauthorized Biography of Buck Owens, Chicago Review Press.

  • C. Carr, Some Kind Of Grace: A Biography of Artist David Wojnarowicz, Bloomsbury

  • David Yaffe, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, Sarah Crichton Books


Coming to Stores 

The Likeness of Venice: A Life of Doge Francesco Foscari by Dennis Romano (Yale University)


American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy by C. David Heymann (Atria)


Henry Kissinger and the American Century by Jeremi Suri (Belknap Press)


Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed by Michelle Morgan (Carroll & Graf*)


Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency by Nigel Hamilton (PublicAffairs)


Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A. B. Deakin (Prometheus Books)


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


The Rocket: Baseball Legend Roger Clemens by Joseph Janczak (Potomac Books)


C. Day Lewis by Peter Stanford (Continuum)


Lionel H. Pries, Architect, Artist, Educator: From Arts and Crafts to Modern Architecture by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (University of Washington Press)


*Carroll & Graf ceased operating recently and many of its titles have been picked up by other imprints of Perseus Books.



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