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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
April 2008
 Vol. 2, No. 2
Two New Books on the Art of Biography Hit the Shelves This Spring
Biographers will soon be faced with a surfeit of useful advice as two long-awaited guides to writing biographies will be released this month and next.

    How To Do Biography: A Primer, by Nigel Hamilton, comes out in April from Harvard University Press, which also published his previous book, Biography: A Brief History, reviewed in an earlier issue of TBC. Hamilton is the author of biographies of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton.How to bio

    His newest book approaches the subject from a teacher-practitioner perspective. "In other words," said Hamilton in an interview with TBC, "I wanted my book to be a primer, as well as one that would draw on many practitioners' examples and experiences. I deliberately divided the book into chapters that take the reader from inception to completion-and consequences of publication."

    While Hamilton admits there are some excellent books on the art of biography, he notes that most take a literary-critical viewpoint. He felt the need for one that would serve as a practical guide to the process of writing a biography.

    "Biography, as opposed to memoir and 'creative nonfiction,' is still virtually untaught at American colleges, save in Hawaii, and hopefully CUNY shortly," Hamilton said. "This is an educational scandal. The result is that all biographers today are self-taught-with often alarming consequences."

    The second book is Biography: A User's Guide, by Carl Rollyson, to be published in May by Ivan R. Dee. A prolific reviewer of biography as well as a professor of English at the City University of New York, Rollyson has written biographies of Norman Mailer, Marilyn Monroe, and Rebecca West, among others.Bio user guide

    The book covers a wide array of subjects organized in an encyclopedic fashion, from academic biography to Virginia Woolf, with topics such as censorship, fair use, libel, obituaries, Plutarch, and sales in between. "The A-to-Z format makes my book different, especially since it departs from other, multiple-author reference works," Rollyson said. "It is thus the product of one sensibility," he continued. "Rather than just defining genres like religious biography, for example, I review current examples of religious biography, as well as giving some history of the genre."

     Both books promise to generate discussion in the field. Rollyson tackles the contentious issues involved in unauthorized biographies, for example. "I think my vigorous defense of unauthorized biography-especially of living figures-will provoke some disagreement, if not controversy," said Rollyson.

     Hamilton works at solving what he calls the "knottier aspects" of proposal writing, research, narrative, and ethics. "Not everyone will agree with my views on the above," he said, "but I hope they will be debated!"

     Both books will be reviewed in the May edition of TBC.

Jeal's Stanley Is This Year's NBCC Pick in Biography


British biographer and novelist Tim Jeal is the recipient of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. The selection of his book Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer was announced on March 6 at the NBCC award ceremony in New York.

    Jeal makes his home in London and is the author of two previous biographies, Livingstone and Baden-Powell: Founder of the Boy Scouts. All three biographies were published by Yale University Press.

     Stanley was selected from a list of five finalists, including Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (Knopf); Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Knopf); John Richardson, The Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years (Knopf); and Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy (Penguin Press).

     Writing Henry Morton Stanley's biography posed some difficult research problems. Almost everything readers think they know about Stanley when they pick up Jeal's book is wrong. "For one thing, his name was not Henry Morton Stanley," noted Paul Theroux in his New York Times review. "He was not, as he claimed, an American from New Orleans. He had not been adopted. It was not the New York Herald's idea for him to find Livingstone, and the Livingstone he found was not, as he claimed, a saintly figure devoted to the uplift of Africa. He did not utter the words 'Dr. Livingstone, I presume?'"

     The source of much of the misinformation turns out to be the subject himself-a cautionary tale to other biographers. Stanley was rejected by his parents and sent to a Welsh workhouse. When he emigrated to the United States, he not only began a new life but also reinvented his old one.

     "He invented the myth of Stanley as a kind of defense against the incredible feelings of inferiority due to his appallingly bad start in life," Jeal said in an interview. "One of the problems with Stanley is that if he had any time to think about what he was going to say about things he would almost inevitably change them. He would try to improve them, make himself look better, or somehow reduce the pain of an occasion."

     Stanley will be released in paper in October. Jeal will continue his work on African explorers, but his next book will not be a biography. Rather, he explained, the project is "a more general look at nineteenth-century explorers of Africa, what made them tick and what effect they had on the future of the continent."

Center for Biographical Research Hosts International Conference This Summer

"Life Writing and Translation" will be the focus of the International Auto/Biography Association Conference, scheduled for June 23-26 in Honolulu, Hawaii. This will be the sixth such conference since the 1999 creation of the organization at Peking University in Beijing, China.

     This year's conference is expected to draw more than 200 scholars and writers. Among the keynote speakers will be the following:

        Barbara Harlow, a professor of English literature at the University of Texas

        Philippe Lejeune, a European critic and theorist of autobiography

        Alicia Partnoy, a survivor of the Argentinean secret detention camps where about 30,000 people "disappeared," and author of The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival

    Hosting the June conference is the Center for Biographical Research (CBR). Established at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Center in 1987, eleven years after the nonprofit Biographical Research Center began publishing the quarterly journal Biography, CBR provides courses on biography topics at the university, maintains a library of "life writing texts," sponsors a seminar and a lecture series, and produces documentaries for Hawaiian PBS television.

    This past month the center's Miriam Fuchs and Craig Howes published Teaching Life Writing Texts, a collection on the teaching of life writing that includes essays by professors who have taught courses on the subject.

   Howes  "Our center encourages the study and the writing of biography and autobiography, in a wide variety of fields," explained Howes, who is the director of CBR and editor of Biography. "It tries to get people interested in teaching life writing, as well as getting people to write biographies themselves-at the international, national, and local levels."

    Most biographies featured in American public discussion, Howes claims, are about politicians, businessmen, or artists, and they usually emerge from a union of academic, archival, and "belles-lettresistic impulses."

     "To take two examples from the last issue of the Biographer's Craft," said Howes, "look at Deirdre Bair's list, or at the Biographer of the Year choice. Unless you live in London or New York, what are the chances of ever encountering John Osborne anywhere but a classroom?"

    Howes believes that literary biography dominates the field, particularly among reviewers and book sections. "In short," he asks, "what are we doing when we're reading and writing biographies? Are they sustaining certain notions of who's important, and who's not? Are they comfort food? Is the publishing market in fact dictating a very small stream of potential subjects [a biographer] who wants to be 'full-time'?

    Readers of autobiography have often been disappointed by what they find in biography, Howes contends. "They often contrast the excitement they find in that genre with what they see as the very formulaic, conservative, and generally boring realm of biography as they see it generally practiced today.Some of the most prominent scholars and writers of autobiography have told me that they almost never read biography."

CUNY to Offer Master's with Focus on Biography

This fall the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at the City University of New York Graduate Center will begin offering a concentration in biography, autobiography, and memoir.
      The program will use "life writing" as a focal point for studying a variety of literary genres and themes in personal narrative, such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, and the social construction of the self in different times and places, according to university officials.

     The courses in the history and theories of biography and autobiography are intended, in part, to prepare students to take doctoral-level courses with graduate-center faculty, which includes many biographers as well as scholars and critics in the field. The thesis that culminates the program in this new concentration may be a memoir or a biographical text.

   Among the graduate center's faculty are Blanche Wiesen Cook, John Patrick Diggins, Gail Levin, and David Nasaw.

    The new program is expected to benefit from its proximity to the Leon Levy Center for Biography, which beginning in the fall of 2008 will serve as a hub for writers, scholars, students, and readers of the genre.

            Further information can be found at CUNY's Master's web page.

Boston Biography Group in Its Second Year 
Boston has joined the ranks of such American cities as Washington and Los Angeles with a regular gathering of biographers. Its genesis was frustration.

     Quincy Whitney, a former freelance writer for the Boston Sunday Globe'sNew Hampshire Weekly section, is now at work on a biography of a remarkable American female violin-maker. Whitney attended the 2007 Summer Seminar "Writing Past Lives: Biography as History" at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard. On the final day of the gathering, she rose and asked a question she felt was on the minds of many in the audience.

    "Since the traditional roots of American biography sprouted in academia, most professional biographers of the past-because they have been academics-have had access to a built-in network," she said. Being an academic, she continued,  offers opportunities for mentoring, facilitates research through colleagues, provides access to archives, and even provides an outlet for publication. "What would you suggest to those of us pursuing biography who do not have an academic affiliation?"

      "The panelists," Whitney said, "looked blank and said nothing."

      "Disappointed, I left the microphone and returned to my seat. Minutes later, my reward came when three women came up to me and asked: 'When do we start a biography group?'"

      Months later these women and others Bay State biographers meet regularly to work on common problems. Each biographer at the meeting is invited to discuss whatever issue is on his or her mind (for a set time limit.) "The group feeling has been that we learn from listening to each person present, whatever he or she is thinking about," said Whitney. "Consequently, we may be hearing colleagues speak about point of view, fact versus fiction, voice, letters, or questions about research methodology."

      "As biography houses a myriad of topics," Whitney added, "discussions are seldom dull."

      Membership is open to any aspiring or accomplished biographer. If you would like to join the group, send a note to editor@thebiographerscraft.com and we will pass it on to the group.


All-Time Favorites-The Series: Pulitzer Prize Winners and Readers Weight In

The Pulitzer Prize committee may have decided that these three biographers were among the best, but when the writers in question were asked for their lists of all-time favorite biographies, they came up with no selections in common.

    Kenneth Silverman, who was awarded a Pulitzer in 1985 for his biography of Cotton Mather, picked these:

        Richard Ellman, James Joyce

        Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington

        Patricia O'Toole, The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends

        Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

        Michael S. Reynolds. Hemingway: The 1930s

     David J. Garrow, who won the Pulitzer in 1987 for his biography of Martin Luther King Jr., had no trouble picking the best biography he has ever read: Martin Duberman's book on Paul Robeson. He named no other biographies, however, he did have favorites.

    "Indeed, I can easily name the three best works of history I've ever read," he said. The first two are Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, and Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. And the third is Duberman's Paul Robeson: A Biography.
    "This [list] leaves aside works like Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon or Solzhenitsyn's books on the Gulag," added Garrow.

     Kai Bird, who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 with Martin J. Sherwin for a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, chose the following titles, coming up with six instead of five:

        Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years

        Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA

        Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times

        Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power

        James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

        Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography

     And, for good measure, Bird added a memoir: Victor S. Navasky, A Matter of Opinion.

     The subjects on the list sent in by Tom Vance, community relations manager for the Portage Public Schools, ranged from a conqueror to a cartoonist to a Michigan politician. Vance, who once organized the system's archival collection while pursuing a master's in U.S. history, included the all-time classic Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell-but the edited and abridged edition by Christopher Hibbert. Here are the others on his list:

        Emil Ludwig, Napoleon

        Linda H. Davis, Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life

        Ken Gormley, Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation

        Dave Dempsey, William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate

Keep the lists coming; send in your five all-time favorite biographies to editor@thebiographerscraft.com.

Richardson, Biographer of French and English Writers
Joanna Richardson, a prolific British biographer of French and English literary figures, died on March 7 at the age of 82.

            The first non-French winner of the Prix Goncourt, one of France's highest literary prizes, Richardson published biographies of Emile Zola, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Colette. She was well-known for her attention to detail. "You ought to know what sort of marmalade the subject eats for breakfast," she once said.

            French writers were not her only subjects. Richardson also wrote biographies of the Irish-born critic Enid Starkie and of Fannie Brawne, the muse of poet John Keats, as well as books on Alfred Tennyson, Edward Fitzgerald, and Edward Lear.

            But the great French poets and novelists remained her favorite focus. At the time of her death, Richardson was working on a biography of Flaubert.


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 ripples are now gone from the recent news that another fake memoir had passed through the editing process of a major U.S. publisher and into print.

  We've become blasť about the issue

Read more. . .

-Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
Searching Once Is Not Enough


Back in the old days, a biographer would journey regularly to the card catalog. But once a topic had been examined, he or she could be fairly sure that a considerable time would have to elapse before other entries would appear.

     With text-searchable books, however, it's a new world, one that requires a different approach. Every day that you are not checking, books are being added by the carload to sites such as Early English Books, Internet Archive, Live Search Books, and Google Books.

     "While we can't give an exact number of the books in our index," said Google spokesperson Jennie Johnson, "you can search the full text of more than a million books in Google Book Search today."

     "We are currently working with twenty-eight libraries, the latest being the Cornell University library," Johnson added. Google also has seven non-U.S. partners: six European library partners and one Asian library partner. A complete list of library partners is posted on a Google website.

     The staff at Google Books maintains a blog for those interested in keeping up with their work.


In This Issue
New Books on Biography
NBCC Biography Winner
CBR Hosts Conference
CUNY Offers Master's
Boston Bio Group Meets
All-Time Favorites
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner

Internet Review of Books

Intelligent reviews for intelligent people

Click here to read a sample issue

From the Editor's Desk

To the relief of many readers, The Biographer's Craft is pleased to announce that we have acquired the services of a seasoned copy editor. Sarah Baldwin, a veteran editor of nonfiction books, begins work with this issue.


You may notice that this issue includes a lot of academic news, stretching from Hawaii to New York. It's not a new editorial trend, simply the coincidence of interesting news emanating from academia.

Keep an eye on your email inbox on the afternoon of April 7. We will report on this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for biography in a special bulletin. And that won't be the end of our prize coverage. We hope soon to report on the first-ever PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award. The biennial prize of $10,000 will go to the author of a biography published in the United States during the previous two calendar years.

Of course, we are about much more than prizes. Here are some of the items in the works for upcoming issues:

  • An interview with Simon Winchester
  • A guide to summer workshops (very few)
  • Graphic biographies (who knew?)
  • How to select a subject for biography
  • Podcasts and videos on the internet relating to biography
As always, if you have an idea, send it on. Then again, judging from the volume of mail TBC receives, none of you are shy about expressing an opinion.

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

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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.
Sold to Publishers

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


Mark Wolverton, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer,

 to St. Martin's.


Linda Leavell, Possessed to Write: The Biography of Marianne Moore, to Farrar, Straus.


Kenneth Earl Morris, Daniel Ortega, to Chicago Review Press


Joe Woodward, Lonely Heart: the Life of Nathanael West, to Atlas


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. 

Lost Supreme
The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard by Peter Benjaminson (Lawrence Hill Books)

All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora by David Rensin (Harper Entertainment)

Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius by Detlev Claussen, trans. from the German by Rodney Livingstone (Harvard/Belknap)


Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr by Michael Seth Starr (Applause Books)


Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Prisoner of Conscience by Justin Wintle (Skyhorse)


 The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder (Bantam)


Yeltsin: A Life by Timothy J. Colton (Basic)

 PW Review


Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherford, and the Other Remarkable Women in his Life by Joseph Persico (Random House)


Julie Andrews: An Intimate Biography by Richard Stirling (St. Martin's)


 Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth Century American Journalist by Gary Scharnhorst (Syracuse University Press)


Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman (Random)



Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin by David R. Contosta (Prometheus)


So Farewell Then: The Untold Life of Peter Cook by Wendy E. Cook (HarperCollins)

New in Paperback
Katey: The Life and Loves of Dickens's Artist Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley(Corgi)

Arthur's Round: The Life of Brewing Legend Arthur Guinness

by Patrick Guinness (Peter Owen)


Lily Allen: Living Dangerously by Martin Howden (John Blake)


Rising Out: Sean Connolly of Longford  by Ernie O'Malley (University College Dublin Press)


Jane Austen by Fiona Strafford (Hesperus Press)


James McGrath Morris, editor
Sarah Baldwin, copy editor
Mailing address; P.O. Box 660, Tesuque, NM 87574