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The Biographer's Craft 
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
August 2007
Vol. 1, No. 6
A Poet's Life Inspires Daring Experiment in Biography

by James McGrath Morris

At some point, every biographer asks if there is not another way to write a biography. Start at the end. Skip the boring genealogy. Or even, as one major writer tried, add a fictitious character to explain the unexplainable. But in the end, most biographers come back to the same formula. One tries to tell the life of the subject as it was lived and in that order.

     Not Ann Wroe, an accomplished writer and biographer. She has courageously engaged in a daring experiment in her new biography of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself, published last month in the UK by Jonathan Cape and this month in the United States by Pantheon Books (See article below). Wroe abandoned chronology and, instead, turned the traditional formula on its head. "Rather than writing the life of a man into which poetry erupts occasionally," Wroe writes in her introduction, "my hope is to reconstruct the world of a poet into which earthly life keeps intruding."

     Wroe, an Economist editor who holds a degree in Medieval History from Oxford, seized upon this idea while sitting in a tiny grassy courtyard, in the sunlight under some apple trees, at Glynde in Sussex. "It was the summer of 2002, and I had just delivered a book to my publisher; after which I'm always left rather weak, restless and vulnerable, as after a real birth. I was reading a book about Devon, and suddenly in it came the words:


                    If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

                    If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

                    A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share


                    The impulse of thy strength, only less free

                    That thou, O, uncontrollable!   


     "I remember exactly a feeling, like a knife in the chest. I looked up at the trees and the high brow of the South Downs just above me, as if struggling to cling on to something, struggling to breath. That very wind seemed to be sweeping through me, practically grabbing me off the garden chair. I thought, Who is this? And then I thought, Shelley; this is Shelley, and I have never really noticed him before. It has taken 50 years and suddenly, like a clap of thunder, here he is."

     Wroe drove into Brighton and found an aging, yellowing edition of Shelley's collected poems, pages falling out, in a second-hand bookshop. "I carried the book to read with me everywhere: Epipsychidion on the cliff-top at Ventnor, Mont Blanc on St Boniface Down, every poem given the backdrop of the huge blue sky and the sea. Perhaps that was the trouble; for when, having journeyed through those vast, roiling, misty Shelleyan landscapes, landscapes of the spirit rather than the earth, I tried to resume ordinary life again, I would find those visions still stretching and shining as far as I could see."

     In the end, Wroe felt the only way she could cope with Shelley's visions was to undertake this unusual approach to his biography. "I felt impelled," Wroe said in an interview with The Biographer's Craft, "to try to write his life in a way that would capture that. I wanted to get right inside the creative life of a great poet-and that life (as Shelley believed, and as I believe) is not lived on earth, or in time, but in voyaging and dreams and in sympathetic 'dissolutions' into the object or landscape the poet contemplates. I therefore had to break out of chronology, stop thinking of poetry as sporadic eruptions in the everyday round, and make it the warp and weft of his being."

     As a consequence, Wroe abandoned the chronological approach for a literary structure around the four elements of ancient cosmology important to her subject--earth, water, air and fire. "Because Shelley is such an elemental poet, filling his works with references to earth, water, air and fire, and because this also represents a spiritual process of rarefying and purifying (as Shelley richly understands), this seemed a good way to structure the book-in the end, the only way. But I agonized over it for some time, precisely because it is such a risk to jettison chronology from the story of a life."

     The result is at once awe inspiring and forbidding. Like Gaudy's famous cathedral in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia, Wroe's book begs to be admired yet it remains enigmatic. It is certainly not the writing that causes these twin reactions. Wroe's prose is a wonderful accompaniment to the words of one of the greatest poets. Rather the fault may lie with us, the reader. We are so well trained that it is hard to surrender to a biography whose structure is akin to a novel.

     "The big difficulty with this approach is keeping a narrative progression, a driving forward, outside time," said Wroe. "I expended more energy on this than on any other aspect of the book, and there were times when I was close to despair; but in the end, I hope, the sense of a gradual spiritual awakening to Reality will draw the reader through."

  • For details on events in the UK, see Jonathan Cape
  • Events in the US, include the English Speaking Union, New York, NY on September 20, 2007 and Princeton University, February 20, 2008.
  • Wroe also delivered an interesting speech about her work at the Biographers Club in London in 2005.


An Ocean of Difference in Book Covers and Book Titles
shelley US



If the Americans and British are two nations separated by a common language as Churchill asserted, then perhaps the choices made by publishers in the respective countries makes sense.

     Ann Wroe's biography of Shelley (see article above) was published to considerable acclaim last month in the United Kingdom with a cover that reflects the daring nature of her enterprise. It features full frontal nudity. Now that the book is coming out in the United States, Pantheon has opted for a subdued, dull cover.

     The two-covers two-nation approach also holds true with book titles. Weidenfeld & Nicholson will publish Andrew Lycett's biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle September as Conan Doyle: The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes. In the United States,  Free Press will bring it out later this fall as The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

      "My dear Watson," as Holmes once said, "there we come into those realms of conjecture where the most logical mind may be at fault."

Biographers in Nation's Capital Meeting Monthly for 20 Years

Each month about three dozen or so Washington, DC, writers gather in the library of one of this city's most exclusive private school to discuss the writing and making of biographies.

The Washington Biography Group, as it is known, is probably one of the longest running biography groups in existence. It celebrated is twentieth anniversary this year.

     Membership in the group is open to those who are seriously interested in writing, or reading, or may be the subject of, a biography. In other words, the entrance fee is merely a serious interest in the craft. "It may not be worth making a special trip to DC for, but if you're going to be here anyway, it is worth scheduling your visit around one of these meetings, if you have a special interest in life story writing," says long-time member Pat McNees.    Pachter           
     Meeting in Washington International School library--appropriately named the "Dacha" because of its Russian architectural style--the group usually discusses a topic agreed upon at an earlier meeting. These range widely from research puzzles to mundane issues of copyright, from the joys of writing to the usual complaints about publishing. On most occasions the meetings are chaired by Marc Pachter, (left) director of National Portrait Gallery and editor of Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art.
     The Washington Biography Group grew out of a successful one-day symposium on biography held at the Smithsonian Institution in 1986 that featured several prominent biographers. Pachter, who organized the symposium, asked the 300 or more in the audience if there was an interest to continue meeting. About thirty responded and the group has been gathering each month since.

     The next meeting is will be September 24 for the annual "what I did on my summer vacation" meeting.

      For more information visit Pat McNees's web site.

Newsweek Turns to Biographer for Reading Selections
O'Toole Newsweek magazine asked Pulitzer-prize finalist Patricia O'Toole for a list of her five most important books. O'Toole's, whose own works include The Five of Hearts and most recently When Trumpets Call, selected:
  • The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
  • A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
  • The Journal of John Winthrop
  • Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
     Though not on her list of five, O'Toole also urged parents to read Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson to their children.
     O'Toole and her choices were featured in "Periscope" in the July 2 US edition of Newsweek.
Canadian Biographers Share Stories of Literary Finds

applegateThree prominent Canadian biographers shared tales of their most interesting literary finds before an audience of 115 at the 13th Annual Lakefield Literary Festival, near Toronto, on July 14.

     In a panel discussion called "Literary Lost & Found: Treasures from the Past," the biographers discussed the important role letters play in bringing historical figures to life. One of the three, David Staines, said it took him fifteen years to track down and read 3,000 letters belonging to Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock In the end, very few of the letters turned out to contain much his trademark humor.

     The other panelists were Charlotte Gray, author of Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell and Michael Peterman, who has devoted years of study to Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill--two of Canada's most important 19th century writers--and has co-edited three volumes of their letters in addition to writing Susanna Moodie: A Life.

     The Lakefield festival was launched in 1995 and is intended to highlight the rich literary heritage of Lakefield and the surrounding area which includes the works of Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie and Margaret Laurence, among others, all of who lived and wrote in Lakefield.

Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
Photo Software Can Organize your notes.

Gone, in many cases, are the old pencil and index cards. Researchers are increasingly taking "notes" by taking digital images of archival documents. However, organizing the photographs, and retrieving the right one later, can be problematic.

A free software program from Google can help. Picasa allows one to organize and tag photos of documents from archives. Picasa automatically sorts all photos on one's computer into folders. One can then use Picasa's system for organizing photos into 'albums' and attaching 'tags' or 'keywords' to each picture.
The same photo-document can be sorted into one or more albums. Once one attaches keywords to a photo-document, it can be found through a keyword search. Multiple keywords can be attached to a photo-document. Unlike other photo-viewing programs, Picasa makes it easy to enlarge the photo with a slide bar, to rotate, tag and sort photos with well-labeled buttons.


This tip comes from Robin Gerber, a national commentator and speaker on leadership, and the author of Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way: Timeless Strategies from the First Lady of Courage (Penguin/Portfolio, 2002) and Katharine Graham: The Leadership Journey of an American Icon (Portfolio, 2005).

Have a great tip?

Send it to editor@the biographerscraft.com

In This Issue
Daring Experiment in Biography
An Ocean of Difference
Biographers in Washington
Newsweek Turns to O'Toole
Canadian Biographers Swap Tales
Tips Corner
 "Sold to Publishers" and "Coming to Store" may be found on the lower right-hand side of the newsletter.

From the Editor's Desk

Dear Readers,

For a while, I considered doing away with the August issue, assuming that no one would notice its absence in doldrums of summer.  As you can see, I changed my mind. 

I hope you are pleased with the August fare. I did endeavor to make it suitable beach reading.

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

P.S. In order for the newsletter to gain advertising support, it needs to increase its subscription base. So if you like what you find here, please forward this newsletter to your friends so they can sign up!

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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 July as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources 

  • Thomas Kidd, Patrick Henry, Basic Books.

  • Irene Gammel, Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Life and Times of L.M. Montgomery, St. Martin's.

  • Maria Tippett, Portrait in Light and Shadow: The Life of Yousuf Karsh, Yale University Press.

  • David Matthews, Brother Superior, Penguin Press.

  • Marie Krohn, The Flame of Learning: The Life of Louise Pound, American Legacy Historical Press.

  • Germaine Greer, Shakespeare's Wife,  Harper

  • Charles Rappleye, American Atlas: The Life of Robert Morris, Simon & Schuster

Coming to Stores  


Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President
Stephen F. Hayes (HarperCollins)


King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema
Anupama Chopra (Grand Central Publishing)


Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda (HarperCollins)


Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Random House)


Gall: Lakota War Chief by Robert W. Larson (University of Oklahoma Press)


Obama: From Promise to Power by David Mendell (Armistad)


Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari by Pat Shipman (William Morrow)


Elizabeth's Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War That Saved England by Robert Hutchinson (Thomas Dunne Books)


Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician by John Worthen (Yale University Press)


The Culture Broker: Franklin D. Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles by Margaret Leslie Davis (University of California Press)


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

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