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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
February 2008
Vol. 1, No. 12
CUNY Opens Multi-Million Dollar Biography Center
 
What may be the largest, best-funded, and most ambitious effort to foster biographical writing is being undertaken by the Center for the Humanities at the City University of New York Graduate Center with support from the Leon Levy Foundation.

     The new Leon Levy Center for Biography will offer well-paid year-long residencies for up to a half-dozen biographers, organize  annual conferences, present lectures, and engage in a variety other yet unplanned activities aimed at both developing a fresh approach and bringing new voices to the writing of biography

   Nasaw   "It is going to be big," confirmed David Nasaw (right), Executive Director of Center for the Humanities whose biography of Andrew Carnegie was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007.

     The idea for the center grew out of conversations between Nasaw, biographer Nancy Milford, and Aoibheann Sweeney, director of the Center for Humanities. The trio saw a need to increase the connection between university-based biographers and their independent colleagues working in print, film, visual arts, and other media.

     They felt that academicians undervalued this genre of non-fiction. "Biography has always been a step child of the academy," said Sweeney. As a result, said Nasaw, "the best biography is being written outside the academy."

     Author Shelby White, who is a trustee of the Levy Foundation, was impressed when she first heard of the idea for creating a center for biography but assumed that it had already been done.

     There are, indeed, two centers associated with universities. The Center for Biographical Research of the University of Hawaii at Manoa was founded in 1976 and the Consortium for the Study of Biography at the University of Southern California was launched last year (See The Biographer's Craft November 2007). Neither, however, are backed by substantial funding nor have the ambitious goals of the CUNY effort.

     The Levy-funded initiative at CUNY would try to not only re-legitimize biography as a form of scholarship but bring the two sides of the field together. The center, according to Nasaw, would "create or help foster a dialogue, a conversation, a forum among biographers who have an academic affiliation and those who don't."

     MilfordMilford (right) will serve as the Levy Center's first director. Her biography Zelda was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1970. Her most recent book is Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

     The Levy Center will begin its work this fall by awarding four fellowships. In coming years that number will increase to six. Each will include a stipend of $60,000, writing space, faculty privileges and full access to library resources and research facilities. Established and emerging writers with or without university affiliation, including novelists, journalists, poets, playwrights, graphic novelists, and biographers who are in the process of writing biographies are encouraged to apply.

     Applications materials may be obtained on line here The deadline for applying is February 18.

Standing on his Spot: Stegner's Biographer Took the Extra Step

 

Many years ago when writer Hampton Sides first came across a set of Wallace Stegner's short stories he was astonished. "From the opening page, Stegner slayed me," writes Sides in a recent book review. "Here were stories with poise clarity and (dare I say it?) wisdom, old-fashioned stories dead-bolted to their landscapes."

     As he did for Sides, Stegner had this affect on many equally and more famous writers such as Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, Robert Stone and Wendell Berry who were among his students at the Stanford Creative Writing Program during the years he taught there. Perhaps the best known chronicler of the Western American experience, Stegner's Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972.

   Stegner  Steger's own story is now told in a much-anticipated biography Wallace Stegner and the American West (Knopf) by Philip L. Fradkin, the author of ten previous books about Alaska, California, and the interior West, including A River No More: The Colorado River and the West.

     Like Stegner, Fradkin is known for his writings about the West. In an interview with The Biographer's Craft, he spoke about how his own relationship with the region prepared him for the task of writing this biography. "I think an affinity to place suits a biographer to his or her task, or at least it does for me," Fradkin said. "I can't conceive how I could have written a decent biography without having known most of the places that Stegner inhabited before I began the work and then having revisited them during the process of researching the book."

     For example, Fradkin went down the Colorado River because Stegner's had done to so to understand explorer John Welsey Powell. On his trip, Fradkin came to a spot that Stegner described where two names were carved in the Navajo sandstone of the canyon wall. "That, for me, was touching history; and, with the exception of sex, I cannot think of anything more exciting. So that is why I have to be there and know about a place before I write about the man or woman who inhabited it."

     Fradkin will join other writers, journalists, editors, and scholars at a three-day conference in March called "Geography of Hope: Celebrating Wallace Stegner."  The conference will be held at Point Reyes Station, California, from March 7-9.

American Heritage Again Faces Extinction
 
American Heritage, a magazine with a strong committment to biography, is facing a payment deadline that may kill it.
     The magazine was rescued from death's door by Edwin S. Grosvenor when he acquired the magazine last fall from Forbes, which had closed it in the spring of 2007, even though it had a quarter of million subscribers.
      Under the terms of the sale, the new owners were scheduled to make a substantial payment on January 31 and were not capable of doing so.

     "We are making good progress in our efforts to raise adequate funds to capitalize American Heritage and Invention & Technology Magazines," Grosvenor said. "But we have not been able to raise enough capital within the short time limit given us by Forbes (three months, during which we also had to produce the first issue, find staff and offices, etc.)"

     Authors Thomas J. Fleming, Benjamin Franklin: An Intimate Portrait, and Harold Holzer, Lincoln at Cooper Union, are circulating a letter asking other writers and historians to join them in pleading for more time to raise the needed money.

     "For 54 years, American Heritage has been the leading popular voice of the history community.  For its one million readers, it tells the American story with respect and affection and it remains an asset to our nation that should be preserved," Fleming and Holzer said in their letter.

NBCC Biography Finalists, Winner to be Announced March 6

The National Book Critics Circle will announce its choices for the best biography of 2007 on March 6 at 6 PM in the New School University's Tishman Auditorium, New York, NY (the event is free and open to the public.)

     The finalists in this category were announced earlier this month on line from San Francisco's City Lights bookstore. Knopf dominates the list having published three of the five finalists.

     The finalists are:

  • Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life Of Africa's Greatest Explorer, Yale University Press
  • Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton, Knopf
  • Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison. Knopf
  • John Richardson, The Life Of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Knopf
  • Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy, Penguin Press
 
Spring Biographies
Ida Wells
 

Along with crocuses, a new raft of biographies will pop up this spring. As usual a fairly complete list may be found in the trade publications. Here are some of the noteworthy biographies that should hit the shelves between now and summer.

     The life of journalist Ida B. Wells will be portrayed in Paula J. Giddings, A Sword Among Lions, to be released by Amistad in March. Wells is not the only journalist getting a biography. Gary Scharnhorst's Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist will be published by Syracuse University press in April.

     A biography of Raymond Burr, a favorite of television watchers going back to the 1950s (and late-night watchers today) will probably attract considerable attention. To be published in April by Applause Books, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr details the actor's life on screen and his homosexuality in a far less accepting era.

     Two other stars of the screen will also have their day and secrets on the biography shelf. Virgin Books will publish David Kaufman's Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door and the University of Mississippi Press will publish Eric Gans's Carole Landis: A Most Beautiful Girl. Both books will be out in June

     Two other biographies that will probably rack up considerable sales are Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China about scientists Joseph Needham, to be published in May by HarperCollins and Joseph Persico's Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherford, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life, to be published in April by Random House.

     Also on the spring lists are:

  • Neil Gould, Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life, Fordham University Press, April.
  • Peter Benjaminson, The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard, Lawrence Hill Books, April.
  • Robert Emmet Long, Truman Capote: Enfant Terrible, Continuum, July.
  • Lisle A. Rose, Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd, University of Missouri Press, March..
  • Frederick L. Downing, Elie Wiesel: A Religious Biography, Mercer University Press, March.

 

OAH to Examine Field of Biography
Baldwin

 

The Organization of American Historians will devote one of the sessions at its annual meeting in New York on Biography.

     The "State of the Field: Biography" panel will be chaired by Neil Baldwin (right), of Montclair State University and co-director of the NYU Biography Seminar.

     The panelists will include, Paula Giddings, of Smith College, Kenneth Silverman, of New York University, and Patricia O'Toole, of Columbia University. It will be held at 10 AM, March 28,  at the Hilton New York.

     For more information, see OAH's 101st Annual Meeting Progam.

Obituary
Margaret Truman Daniels, President's Daughter and Biographer 

 

Margaret Truman Daniel, daughter of President Harry Truman, who wrote biographies as well as her well-known mysteries, died January 29.

     She had also been an accomplished concert singer and broadcaster after her life as a young woman in the White House.

     Her biography of her father, which was published in 1973, was very successful. She also penned a biography of her mother as well as series of shorter biographies of First Ladies for a Random House books.

     Her biographical writings, however, were overshadowed by her success in writing mysteries, all set in Washington, DC locals.  He son joked that his mother wrote the biographies because she had a bad opinion of many in the capital and could kill them off, one at a time in her books.

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)

 

Two things can be said about the ever-popular genre of literary biography: Trade and university presses show no reticence in chipping and pulping the forests on behalf of almost any conceivable figure. And both increasingly prize conjecture over scholarship, with biographers salivating over half-baked thoughts frosted with significance and treating minor foibles as if they were as important as an author's workRead more. . .

-Edward Champion

 

I've got most of the major doorstop biographies of writers from the past 20 years, having been given them for Christmas or birthdays. On the whole I enjoy them, but - without exception - I never read the whole book. I always miss out the chapters that cover childhood and youth, beginning my reading with the adventures of the adult. If I'm lucky, the biography will be organised into several volumes, and I can cut straight to the second book, where adulthood begins. If not, chapter headings are often a giveaway for signposting where the action proper, as I see it, begins. If all else fails, I just skip the first couple of hundred pages and start from there. It takes a while to find my bearings, but better that than to have to plough through the tedium of the writer's upbringing. Read more. . .

-Mark Ravenhill

 

Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
 
New Improved Notecard Now Available 
 

     Many months ago The Biographer's Craft made available to readers a Word template that allows one to type and print traditional index note cards using a computer. Reader and writer Charles Dingman of Greenbelt, MD, took on the task of improving the rudimentary card. His "Version 6" is now available. It permits the note taker to more rapidly fill in fields with the use of the tab key.

     Dingman warns, however, that the new version may still need some tweaking.

     If you are interested in receiving a copy of this new note card template, send us an email.

 
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In This Issue
New Center for Biography
Stegner Biography Out
American Heritage in Trouble
NBCC Finalists
Spring Biographies
OAH Looks at Biography
Obit: Daniels
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner
From the Editor's Desk

editor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Dear Readers,
 
This month we are enhancing our listing of biographies "In Stores" with links to Publishers Weekly. This cooperative venture between us and the venerable trade magazine is yet one more way we are able to increase the amount of useful information we  provide you each month.
Look for some more exciting changes next month as The Biographer's Craft  celebrates its first anniversary!
 
The Biographer's Craft's incredible circulation growth
mirrors a rising interest in biography. New academic journals have been launched in the last few years, USC created a consortium, and now CUNY is launching this well-funded initiative (See article to left.) These are good times for biographers.
 
Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris
 

 

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Sold to Publishers

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

 

Pater Rader, Mike Wallace is Here, Thomas Dunne Books.

 

Peter Golenbock, The Boss: A Biography of George Steinbrenner, Wiley.

 

Philip Mitchell Freeman, Alexander the Great, Simon & Schuster.

 

Tina Brown, The Clinton Chronicles, Doubleday.

 

Adina Hoffman, Measure of Silence: The Life and Times of Palestinian Poet Taha Muhammad Ali, Yale University Press.

 

Leigh Montville, a biography of Evel Knievel, Doubleday.

In Stores

The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are now accompanied with a link to the PW review. 

 
Mauldin
 

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front byTodd DePastino.

(Norton) PW Review
 

A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford

by Richard Reeves (Norton) PW Review
 

Alexander the Great Failure: The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire by John D. Grainger. Hambledon (Continuum) PW Review

 

Dublin Nazi No. 1: The Life of Adolph Mahrby Gerry Mullins (Liberties Press)

 
William and Lawrence Bragg: Father and Son by John Jenkin. (Oxford)

 

The Greatest Gift: The Courageous Life and Martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang
Binka Le Breton.
(Doubleday) PW Review

 

Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography by Andrew Morton (St. Martin's)

PW Review (web exclusive)

 
Henry VIII's Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey by Jessie Childs (St. Martin's)

 

 Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson by Alan Pell Crawford (Random House)

 

Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution by Mark Puls (Palgrave Macmillan) PW Review

 

 The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by
Matthew Dennison (St. Martin's) PW Review

 

Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York  by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom (New Press)PW Review

 

Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue by Geoff Schumacher Stephens (Midpoint, dist.) PW Review

 

Not the Girl Next Door-Joan Crawford, a Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster) PW Review

 

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Credits

Photo of Nancy Milford  by

Kate Milford, 2008