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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
December 2007
Vol. 1, No. 10
Colossal Lincoln Biography timed for Bicentennial

Johns Hopkins University Press has begun work on Michael A. Burlingame's long-awaited and gigantic biography of Abraham Lincoln to be published in late fall 2008, on the eve the national celebration of the bicentennial of the 16th President's birth.

    The biography, with a working title of Abraham Lincoln: A Life, will be published as a two-volume set totaling 2,000 pages. Unlike most multi-volume biographies both volumes will be released simultaneously. The anticipated price will be $75, according to a spokesperson for the press. An abridged version will be published later.

    In a nod to the age of cyberspace, Burlingame also obtained permission to create an unusual internet version of his book. Like a director's cut DVD, this version of the biography will include all the material left on the cutting floor. Especially valuable to researchers will be the longer version of the footnotes. And, like Wikipedia, the on-line version of the biography will be continuously updated and corrected.

    Burlingame, a Lincoln scholar who has published at least a half-dozen Lincoln books, is well known for his efforts at applying the insights of psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to the study of the past. His book, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (University of Illinois Press, 1994), was considered one the more important Lincoln books in nearly four decades.

    He was drawn to writing this biography while conducting research for other Lincoln writing projects. He discovered  valuable source material that had not been used. For instance, many biographers had relied too heavily on New York newspapers and ignored articles in newspapers from Boston, Chicago, and other cities. He also found primary source material collected but not used by previous Lincoln biographers. "Somebody," he thought, "ought to do a new cradle to grave version of Sandburg's Lincoln." (The author-poet Carl Sandburg wrote a multi-volume biography of Lincoln and received a Pulitzer Prize for History in 1940.)

    Burlingame began working earnestly on his huge Lincoln biography in 1997 when his agent sold the idea to Random House. It intended to publish the biography in three volumes. But when Burlingame turned in the first volume, Random's editors asked that he cut it in half. Burlingame decided he couldn't do it and contacted Hopkins, which had earlier expressed an interest in the book. "Would you give me a bigger canvas on which to paint?" Burlingame asked the Hopkins editors. They agreed and bought out his Random contract.

    Recently, in discussing with a Hopkins editor the challenges of publishing a work of this size, the editor replied "Instead of two fat volumes, we prefer to think of them as magisterial."
Good News for Biographers, American Heritage Comes Back to Life
American Heritage

It's hard to kill off a good magazine, though it seemed like Forbes Inc. was doing a good job of it when it closed American Heritage this past spring, even though it had a quarter of a million subscribers.

    Luckily, Edwin S. Grosvenor stepped in and rescued the magazine from its sad fate with a $500,000 check and a promise to assume about $11 million in subscription liabilities. "As a publisher, I saw saving American Heritage the way a preservationist sees preventing Grand Central Station from being turned into an office tower," he said.

    In an interview with The Biographer's Craft, John F. Ross, who will be the managing editor, promised an invigorated editorial style. "Ed and I are planning on taking American Heritage magazine back to its roots, away from its recent emphasis on nostalgia and popular culture," Ross said. "We feel there's a strong interest for good, solid hard hitting history out there-witness the strong interest in non-fiction history and biography."

    This is good news for biographers. "Much of the features of our magazine will be written by top drawer historians," Ross said. "So, yes, we'll be looking out to the biography community for contributions, because we can't talk about history without talking about biography."

    To learn more, or to subscribe, visit the magazine's web site.
'Twas Tuff Getting Washington Irving's Spelling Rite
by Brian Jay Jones

While the published writings of American writer Washington Irving are considered elegant-"dressy," as one 19th century critic put it-his private writings are another matter. With the door closed, Irving struggled with spelling and punctuation.  His letters, even official correspondence from his days as John Tyler's Minister to Spain, are a mishmash of poor spelling and erratic punctuation.  His journals, which he believed no one would ever see, are even worse.

    That conflict between the private and public Irving is part of his complex charm and it's a side of Irving I wanted readers to see. Sure, there were the pleasant cadences of his sketches and histories and biographies, but there was also the Irving who struggled for the right turn of phrase, spelled the same word three different ways in the same letter, and guessed wildly when it came time to put in punctuation. Early on I made the decision to leave Irving's misspellings, botched punctuation, and inverted syntax intact, even carrying such mistakes over into the endnotes, where Irving regularly mislabeled his letters and journal entries. 

    That caused some headaches. With the backing of a supportive editor, however, I was determined to drive proofreaders and copyeditors crazy.  Proofs came back with words like intitled and reccollection corrected; my editor patiently steted the changes. The copyeditor scribbled on the endnotes in near-panic: "Did Irving's various Spanish letters come from Port St. Mary's, or Puerta Sta. Maria, or Port St. Marys? Which is it?"  Irving could never make up his mind, and thus neither would we; the copyeditor's comments were scratched. Such back-and-forthing continued for several weeks ("Should 'New-York' be hyphenated?") as misspellings and faulty punctuation were checked and rechecked. What remains are Irving's words, exactly as he wrote them.

    Would Irving have approved?  Hard to say-he preferred to be known as a gentleman who wrote elegant prose with scarcely an afterthought, and being caught with his participles down and his modifiers dangling would have mortified him. Still, Irving often felt he never got adequate credit for how hard he worked for his craft.  Knowing that readers might at last come to appreciate just how much he agonized to overcome his own grammatical shortcomings to produce such polished final work. . . that much, at least, Washington Irving would quietly have approved of.


JonesBrian Jay Jones's biography, Washington Irving: An American Original (Arcade, 2008), is now in bookstores.


Lives of the Not-Famous
A Personal View of the "Personal History" Conference

By Pat McNees


Like most members, I came to the Association of Personal Historians (APH) believing I was one of the only people doing personal history, a phrase I'd never heard until I stumbled on the organization. Personal historians have in common a desire to help others capture life and family stories less as works for the general public than as personal and family legacies-often for consumption by a small family circle, for fees ranging from token to ample.

    Personal historians come from careers (or hobbies) as various as teaching, journalism, oral history, archiving, writing, editing, social work, hospice care, and anthropology. Those who attend the annual APH conference have in common the impulse to coax out of others the stories that make the family tree come to life. (The motto: "Saving lives, one story at a time.")

    What I like about the annual conference is what I learn about the various formats for presenting a life. As a print person, I want to know the how-to's of archiving, oral history, printing and binding, graphics, audiotape, videotape, CD, DVD, and multimedia if only to learn who to hire if I need such services, and what to expect. For example, this year in a session on preservation (saving photos and artifacts) and conservation (restoring what's damaged) we heard that "digitization is not preservation." Because DVDs (compressed video) may not be readable on later technologies, it's important to save the original and a master video in black and white and migrate the technology.

     My favorite event is the evening "media share," in which members who work in multimedia present selections from their works. My all-time favorite was a video tribute to a man's dog, Suzy. The story of one man's military career was beefed up with stock film about the kinds of planes he flew in World War II.One year a Ken-Burns-like history of a Chinese immigrant family in California inspired my brother and me to start working on a photohistory of our family's flight from the Kansas Dust Bowl to the southwest, where the McNees brothers did grueling work in desert sun on the All-American Canal and the Imperial Dam.

     I have seen videos made for bar/bat mitzvahs, anniversaries, and weddings (showing two family histories merging). A charming video tribute made for Ruth Ann Newby's 85th birthday incorporated one form of personal history: an ethical will or legacy letter.  Peter Savigny showed a delightful video interview with his son. The next day, after a compelling multimedia lecture, historian James Walsh urged personal historians to capture stories from the manual labor force, a long-neglected aspect of history proper. Walsh, Savigny, and others began discussing how to find grants to make such a mission affordable. Our mission, said Savigny after the conference, is to align memories, details, and images and bring a voice to them.

    As conferences go, the APH conference has almost no academic posturing and little professional self-marketing. Instead, there is much storytelling and sharing of practical information, so much so that after day one of three days your head is swimming, in a good way. Held this November in Nashville (with an emphasis on multimedia), the conference will be held in late October 2008 in Salt Lake City, where there'll be more emphasis on family history. 


Some useful links:


McNeesPat McNees is a Washington writer, editor, and biographer.  Her primary web site features a wide assortment of resources useful to writers.  Her Writers and Editors website includes resources on narrative nonfiction and book marketing and promotion, among others.


Your Personal Amanuensis

Amanuensis: A person whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)


"The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, Why do we need it at all? When an author has devoted his life to expressing himself, and, if a poet or a writer of fiction, has used the sensations and critical events of his life as his basic material, what of significance can a biographer add to the record?" More

-John Updike


"I don't read enough biographies. I want to read Nabokov's biography, but the definitive version is  two thick volumes. How many butterfly hunts did he go on, anyway? I should just read Speak, Memory instead.  It's one manageable volume, and it's better written. I've been meaning to read Henry James's biography for years, but as I dither more versions of his life come out, and I still haven't read The Golden Bowl. Once, when I was in graduate school, I dreamt that I was reading a Henry James sentence that never ended. It went on for pages, through whole books. I awoke in terror at the prospect of getting trapped in an entire library of non-restrictive clauses.  Since then, when it comes to reading him I've been as tentative and uncertain as a Henry James hero." More

-Richard Prouty



Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
Throw Away your Library Card
Carnegie Mellon University announced this past month that its project to digitize all the books in the world has passed the 1.5 million mark. "Anyone who can get on the Internet now has access to a collection of books the size of a large university library," said Raj Reddy, a computer science and robotics professor at the university who initiated the project.
    The Universal Library was began in 2002 and much of the recent work has been carried out by people at scanning centers in India and China, helped by $3.5 million in seed funding from the National Science Foundation and in-kind contributions from computer hardware and software makers.

    Some other on line, text-searchable collections you may want try:

In This Issue
Colossal Lincoln Bio Coming
American Heritage Saved
Spelling it Rite
Lives of the Not-Famous
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner



journal cover


New to Routledge

 in 2007!


The journal Life Writing is a fresh initiative in the scholarly exploration of biography and autobiography.

For more information, click here.
From the Editor's Desk

Dear Readers,

    Obviously readers are enjoying this newsletter as much as I enjoy putting it together.

    We are taking on new subscribers at the rate of three to four a day. This may not seem remarkable in the world of large corporate magazines, but for a small newsletter with no publicity budget, I think it is a strong endorsement.

     I have launched a new feature in this issue. You will find it below. It is called "Your Personal Amanuensis." If you are interested in the origins of the idea for this feature then you must read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, an absolutely marvelous book. (Hint: You will find the answer on page 24.)

     I'm working on plans for the anniversary issue of the newsletter in March. In conjunction with it, I will be launching a new web page called "The Biographer's Home Page," which you will be invited to Beta test next month. The March issue will also feature lists of the top five favorite biographies compiled by our nation's most preeminent biographers. If you want to join in on the fun, send in your selection for your top five favorite biographies to me.

     Lastly, a note of thanks. Neither the success of this newsletter nor the fun that accompanies it would be possible without your participation. So please continue to send in your letters, comments, suggestions, articles, or story ideas

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

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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 October as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources 


Joyce Tyldesley,  Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, Basic.


Charles Marsh, Bonhoeffer in America, Knopf.


Mayme Johnson, Harlem Godfather: The Rap on my Husband, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, Ogun Publishing.


Charles Cross,  biography of Kurt Cobain, Little, Brown


Alex Storozynski,  The Peasant Prince Kosciusko: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Tolerance, Thomas Dunne Books.


Tim Dahlberg, Mary Ederle Ward, and Brenda Greene, America's Best Girl: The Gertrude Ederle Story St. Martin's.

In Stores

Sweet William


Sweet William:The Life of Billy Conn by Andrew O'Toole (University of Illinois)


Edward VI: The Lost King of England by Chris Skidmore (St. Martin's)


Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman by Caryl Flinn. (Univ. of California)


Ethel Merman: A Life by Brian Kellow (Viking)


Henry James: The Mature Master by Sheldon M. Novick (Random)


American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill by Anne Sebba (Norton)


Napoleon's Master: A Life of Prince Tallyrand by David Lawday (St. Martin's/Dunne)


The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Andrew Lycett (Free Press)


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around the world since 1986.


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