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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
May 2008
 Vol. 2, No. 3
The Winding Path to a Pulitzer: Matteson's Tale
Matteson
 

A sharp-eyed agent, a fascination with Louisa May Alcott's father, and an interest in parenting are some of the ingredients that led John Matteson to write Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

     "Eden's Outcasts germinated somewhat by chance, and the project metamorphosed considerably before the contract was signed," Matteson told TBC.

     An associate professor in the English department of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Matteson has taught literature and legal writing there since 1997. In 2001, Peter Steinberg, an enterprising literary agent, contacted Matteson after reading an article of his on the image of the sepulcher in the writings of Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville in the scholarly New England Quarterly.

     At first, the two agreed that Matteson would work on a book about nineteenth-century utopian communities. But as Matteson researched the utopian colony Fruitlands, established by Bronson Alcott, he became deeply interested in Alcott himself. Also, Matteson then had a seven-year-old daughter (now fourteen) who reminded him of Alcott's famous daughter, Louisa May.

     "It dawned on me that what I really wanted was to tell a story about family and more specifically about the struggles for understanding that went on between a highly unusual father and daughter," Matteson said.

     He shifted his research and proposed a new book instead, entitled American Dreamers: Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, which W.W. Norton published in 2007 under the title Eden's Outcasts.

     "My hope was that my own experience as a father would facilitate my writing and that working on the book would inform and improve my parenting," he said. "It appears that both of these goals were realized."

     Matteson is now at work on a new biography of Margaret Fuller for Norton. The paperback edition of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book will be out in the fall, and he will also be visible as an on-air commentator in a forthcoming PBS documentary about Louisa May Alcott.

Winchester Brings to Life Another Overlooked Figure from the Past
Winchester

 

Best-selling author Simon Winchester will provide long-overdue attention to another lesser-known figure of the past with the publication this month of The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom (HarperCollins).

    Winchester's new subject is Joseph Needham, a biochemist from Oxford University who fell in love with a Chinese student, changed his vocation, and spent his life obsessively studying and writing about China.
    Though he may be an important scholarly figure, Needham is not familiar to many readers. The fact that the publisher chose to leave his name off the title or subtitle of the book speaks to this. The same was true with Winchester's famous The Professor and the Madman.

    In an era when publishers seem addicted to biographies of the famous, TBC asked Winchester about his passion for writing about subjects who are hardly known. "While I am generally full of admiration for those writers who successfully manage to tackle the well-known members of the pantheon," Winchester said, "I much prefer to ferret out those figures in history who have been wrongly overlooked--the unsung heroes of the past.

    "I think that my job--my delight, in fact--is to try to place upon pedestals those whom history has long since consigned to the basement, but who in fact deserve all the honors we can bestow."

    As with his previous books on a lexicographer and a geologist, this work required writing about his subject's scholarship without losing or drowning the reader. "Joseph Needham himself was very helpful in this regard--if only because he lived his own life in so colorful a manner, and filled it with so much adventure and controversy, that it was well-nigh impossible-- at least, for me as a writer--to be overwhelmed by the more scholarly aspects of his story," said Winchester.

    "Every time the narrative begins to descend into the arcane complexities of Chinese science, dear old Joseph does something unexpected--he flirts with another pretty girl, hurls a passenger from his speeding car, eats a donkey, risks his career by being branded a turncoat, goes off on a dancing spree, invites the Unabomber to a lecture he is giving--such that the saga suddenly becomes riveting once again. My hope also is that the reader will learn a good deal about the arcane complexities and mysteries of China--but incidentally, and painlessly, by reading the curious details of Needham's long and quite extraordinary life.

    To learn more about Needham, click here to view Winchester on YouTube.

Two New Books on Biography Appraised by Their Authors
 

Two major works on the craft of biography are in stores this spring. It was too irresistible not to ask the authors of these two works to review each other's book. So here is Hamilton on Rollyson and Rollyson on Hamilton. Aside from the minor complaint here or there, both writers found a lot to like in the other's work. The order in which the reviews appear was determined by a coin toss.

Biography: A User's Guide, by Carl Rollyson. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, $27.50

Review by Nigel Hamilton

 

Carl Rollyson has toiled in the groves of academia (Eng Lit), book reviewing (for the New York Sun and elsewhere), and life-writing for an entire lifetime, so his new work, Biography: a User's Guide, is not only a testament to his devotion to the biographical cause, but an unabashedly personal guidebook to the craft, the art, and the history of the genre.

     Under ninety-eight subheads Rollyson has collected his thoughts, aphorisms, analyses, insights, chosen book reviews, enthusiasms, and disgruntlements about biography--and how it is still treated (or mistreated) in higher education, as well as by ignorant reviewers at the New York Times, who seem incapable of appreciation of form and structure in crafting a biographical work.

    Rollyson's book isn't a definitive encyclopedia; indeed, it's not really an encyclopedia at all. Rather, it's a highly personal guidebook, as its subtitle makes clear, to the labyrinthine art of biography.

     Some mentions are honorable. Others are starred. Thus "Freud" gets only twelve lines, while "Fair Use" gets (rightfully) twelve pages. Yet the style of the writing throughout is deliberately conversational, not academic or lexicographical, making it fun to read. It's the sort of book where you're compelled to take out your pen and tick certain statements with approval and write "NO!" in the margin against others.

     Rollyson despises post-structuralist attempts to deconstruct and destroy the biographer's obligation both to tell an engaging story and to "construct" (or reconstruct) a real person's life. That said, he is certainly no Luddite when it comes to innovation. Time and again he applauds (and lists, usefully) examples of imaginative contributions to the art of biography, whether in content (as in gay and lesbian biography), in form (as in fictitious biography), or in cross-dressing (as in biography and drama).

    Linking all the subheads, though, is Rollyson's personal experience, whether as teacher, reviewer, or practitioner. I could have done with fewer reviews from his past columns in the New York Sun, but they are always applied to the theme he's tackling and always delightfully argumentative. It irks him, constantly, that biography is not taken more seriously in the academy when it's so damned popular--and when so many academics do it, for heaven's sake! (I clapped aloud at those points.)

    There are mistakes, but they can easily be corrected in a second edition. Meanwhile the book itself will be a most welcome addition to any practicing or would-be biographer's bookshelf. Indeed, by the end of it you feel as you do when descending from the tour bus, after a tour de force. You want to call out, "Thank you, Mr. Rollyson!" And at $27.50, the trip with such an expert, you tell your partner as you put away your wallet, was a bargain.

 
_________

 

How To Do Biography: A Primer, by Nigel Hamilton. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, $22.95

Review by Carl Rollyson

 

No one writing biography can afford to ignore this edifying book. Nigel Hamilton has the depth and breadth of experience to write about a genre that he champions. Indeed, he believes, as I do, that biography is superior to all but the greatest works of fiction. Hamilton does not say it in so many words, but I think he would agree with me that we are enjoying a golden age of biography--although you would never know it from the snobbish way biographers are treated by reviewers, who usually prefer to review the content of a biography and ignore form.

    Hamilton reminds us that Leon Edel long ago complained about the sorry state of reviewing. I have made this point elsewhere in reviewing Hamilton's brilliant JFK biography, a far better piece of work than Robert Dallek's recent pedestrian one-volume version, which critics praised while, to my perplexity, failing to honor Hamilton's earlier engaging effort.

     Don't be put off by the subtitle. While this is a "how-to" book, even the most seasoned biographer will find much of value about choosing a subject; doing proposals for biographies; handling interviewing; negotiating the perils of publishing unauthorized biographies; managing biographical narratives; writing with an audience in mind; and the nexus between memoir, autobiography, and biography.

    Hamilton cautions, "Ensure that the correct source is given in each case." He might have added that when errors go unnoticed in the first instance, they can take on a life of their own. Thus the title of one of my books, A Higher Form of Cannibalism?--a reference to Kipling's view of biography--is cited in Hamilton's Biography: A Brief History as A Higher Form of Capitalism, an error that is repeated in How to Do Biography.

     Hamilton captures the fraught but rewarding nature of biography in this well-turned paragraph: "Thus, publishing a biography or a memoir that is truly challenging demands courage, even foolhardiness. It will be a struggle between sensitivity and almost necessary insensitivity, a contest between your agenda and what the real world will tolerate. How you deal with those ethical issues is something only you (and your publisher) can decide--but decide you must." No one has said it better.

Biographers Get Prime Time at American Historians Meeting

 

On March 28, four noted biographers evaluated the state of the field before an audience of one hundred or more at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in New York City.

     Chairing the panel was Neil Baldwin, author of numerous biographies and Montclair State University Distinguished Visiting Professor in the College of the Arts's department of theater and dance. "For my part, I noted that the genre or 'field' of biography in America today defies encapsulation into any particular 'state'--except perhaps prolixity," Baldwin said. "Over the past dozen or so years there has been a widening gap between, on the one hand, encyclopedic, doorstop, detail-heavy treatises and, on the other, condensed, pre-digested 'mini-lives.' As one of the post-panel questioners remarked, the days of the classic, magisterial biography--the life and times--are waning, along with our native sense of the master narrative."

     Henry Adams and Theodore Roosevelt biographer Patricia O'Toole provided a spirited defense of the craft. Every time a controversial biography makes the headlines, O'Toole said, the cultural commentators resurrect an old list of complaints against the art of biography and the people who practice it.

      "It's easy to see why a Germaine Greer or a Rebecca West would object vociferously to biographical portraits of herself, but I'm totally buffaloed when other people extrapolate a subject's personal, self-interested objections into an indictment of the whole notion of biography," O'Toole told the audience. "When a historian or a novelist is swept up in a public controversy, it is rarely said that history itself is suspect or that the world would be a finer place if novelists put down their pens and took up an honorable trade."

      But while the critics complain and whine, biographers have been busy developing innovations in the craft, which O'Toole described at length in her presentation.

       Some of these innovations weren't exactly welcomed by Kenneth Silverman, a professor emeritus at New York University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. He said he was all for the development of new techniques but had harsh words for some of them. "I rejected as poisoned and destructive the recent use of such devices as fictional characters, the magnifying of the biographer's presence, and the piling up of remarks about the subject from friends and acquaintances," Silverman said.

      He told the audience the field needed to hold an international conclave on biography. "I want to know what biographers are doing in Argentina, China, Africa, Egypt, and everywhere else in the world. This may also lead us on to new forms and techniques.

     "I also [expressed a wish] for changes in current copyright laws concerning quotations from manuscript material, allowing quotation of letters and journals seventy-five years, say, after the subject's death. Finally, I wished to have someone write a history of American biography."

     The fourth member of the panel was Paula J. Giddings, most recently the author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions, a biography of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. The Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor of Afro-American Studies at Smith College, Giddings discussed how she discovered, while working on her book, that the generation of African American reformers alive in Wells's time were not counted as being an integral part of the Progressive Era.

     "A better understanding of the relationship between reform and race during the Gilded Age, with its disparity of wealth, religiosity, labor competition, need for regulation and political change, and the consequences of technological innovation, would help us to understand our own era," Giddings said. "For example, similar forces produced the discourse of Barack Obama, who comes directly out of the black progressive tradition."

Biography Prizes: UK Contest Looks for Entrants, Others Announce Selections

 

The Biographers' Club will accept applications until August 1 for its annual prize given to a first-time writer working on a biography. The 2,000 prize will be awarded at a London dinner on September 2. Actor and author Simon Callow will be the featured speaker. The competition is not limited to British writers.

    Last year's winner, Clare Mulley, has secured a contract with Oneworld Publications for Eglantyne Jebb and the Invisible Child, a biography of the woman who founded Save the Children.

    Details on how to enter the competition may be found at the Biographers' Club website.

    Other award news includes the following:

  • The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography was awarded to Simon Sebag Montefiore for his Young Stalin (Knopf).
  • The Arts Club of Washington gave its second annual National Award for Arts Writing to Jenny Uglow for her Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • The Publishing Triangle selected Janet Malcolm, author of Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale University Press), for the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction.
CUNY Selects Its First Biography Fellows

 

The new Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York Graduate Center has picked its first four biography fellows. Each will receive a cash award of $60,000, writing space, and faculty privileges; they will also participate in a seminar coordinated by Nancy Milford, the center's executive director.

    More than 200 biographers, including Pulitzer Prize winners, applied for the fellowships. The selection committee chose the following four writers:

  • Thulani Davis, who is working on a group biography of four blues queens: Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and Bessie Smith.
  • Mary Anne Weaver, currently at work on The Strange Journey of Ziad Jarrah: The Story of a Terrorist, a biography of one of the 9/11 hijackers.
  • Molly Peacock, a poet who is writing a biography of Mrs. Mary Granville Delany called Passion Flowers in Winter: A Woman Begins Her Life's Work at the Age of 73.
  • James Davis, who is working on Eric Walrond: Writing Beauty, Race, and Rage across the Caribbean Diaspora.
     Additionally, two Ph.D. candidates, Ilan Ehrlich and Hyewon Yi, will receive support and participate in the seminar.
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)

 

BURGLARS AND GRAVE-ROBBERS, greedy collectors, obsessive academics. From Henry James' "publishing scoundrel" in The Aspern Papers to A. S. Byatt's monomaniac in Possession, a wide range of unsavoury roles has been created for the biographer in modern fiction.

"That's us?" a biographer might well ask, incredulously. Michael Holroyd reassures his fellow practitioners: "A climate that nourishes biography as a humane and artistic branch of literature also assists the scurrilous biographical body-snatcher. We work in an unweeded garden.

Read on

 

--Brenda Niall

 

Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
 
Make Your Endnotes Work for You
 

While your book is still a manuscript, endnotes may perform a number of useful purposes aside from linking the source to the quotation or fact used in the text. They can become a depository of commentary and important information, leaving your manuscript uncluttered.

 

Endnotes are the perfect place for an author to keep a record of important pre-publication information. For instance, you may be using some material for which you must secure permission before publication. You can put a reminder IN BOLD CAPS in your endnotes that this quotation requires permission and even include the information as to where to apply for permission so you don't have to go scurrying around at the last minute looking through your notes.

 

You can also use your endnotes for editorial commentary. Say, for instance, you are unconvinced that a certain anecdote or passage belongs in a particular chapter. You can write notes to yourself that will guide you in your final rewrite.

 

You can even leave reminders of material yet to come. You may, for example, have finished a chapter, but you know that you may be seeing some additional material in a future archival trip. Endnotes make a good place for a list of items TK (the typographer's abbreviation for "To Come").

 

Think creatively. Those little endnotes can do a lot.

 

.
In This Issue
Matteson's Pulitzer
Winchester's New Book
Hamilton/Rollyson Bio Books
OAH Hears from Biographers
Biography Prizes
CUNY's First Fellows
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner
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Essays, fiction, poetry, reviews.
Print issues published twice annually.
New reviews of unfairly neglected books posted on the web every Monday.

Recent issues feature winners of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and authors such as Alice Mattison, Amy Bloom, Jim Sleeper, and George Scialabba
 
Click here to read the current issue.

 
editor 
From the Editor's Desk
 

There was so much news this month that I had to hold off on another installment of biographers' favorite biographies. But it will back next issue.

 

TBC's growth both in content and in circulation is causing me to rethink its format. I don't want to cut the length of articles, but nor do I want the newsletter to become unwieldy. If you have ideas, please don't hesitate to pass them on.

 

In reading about John Matteson's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, I think I have spotted a trend in the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Here are the winners for 2006, 2007, and 2008:

Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson;

The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate;

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

What do these books have in common? They have terrific titles.

 

Simon Winchester is back this month with another book on a lesser-known figure (see article to left.) It's hard these days, unless you have a name like his, to talk a publisher into buying a biography of someone who is not a household name. Usually these biographies can find a home only within the realm of university presses. Such presses' continued commitment to publishing these books should be praised and supported. At the same time, the myopia of trade-house editors is blinding them to an opportunity.

 

Generally speaking, trade houses are publishing two types of biography: The first is the doorstop-sized volume that is widely bought, though not necessarily read. The second is the short, very readable biography of a famous figure, often written by a famous writer using secondary sources. There is an unmet market for a third type--short, readable biographies of history's lesser known cast members.

 

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

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Sold to Publishers

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

Roy Morris Lighting Out for the Territory: Mark Twain 1861-1866 to Simon & Schuster

 

Stephen Weissman Chaplin: A Life to Arcade

 

 Paul Strathern The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: Leonardo, Machiavelli and Borgia to Bantam Dell

 

H. W. Brands Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt to Doubleday

 

Cherie Burns Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers to St. Martin's

 

Joyce Johnson The Voice Was All: Reading Jack Kerouac's Life to Viking


Alexandra Popoff, a biography of Sophia Tolstoy, to Free Press

 

Mark Gevisser Thabo Mbeki: A Dream Deferred to Palgrave.

 

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. 

 
Daring
  

Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field

by Anne Whiston Spirn
(University of Chicago)
 

The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm: A Thousand Days in London, 1938-1940

by Will Swift (Collins/Smithsonian)
 

Golda

by Elinor Burkett (HarperCollins)

PW Review

 

Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent

by Ernest Freeberg (Harvard University Press)

 

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl, and the Crime of the Century

by Paula Uruburu (Riverhead)


Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres
by Ruth Brandon (Walker)
 

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

by Jim Steinmeyer (Tarcher)

 

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr

by Michael Seth Starr (Applause)

 

Julius Caesar

by Philip Freeman (Simon & Schuster)

 

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

by Daniel Mark Epstein
(Ballantine)

 

Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici

by Miles J. Unger (Simon & Schuster)

 

 

New in Paperback
 
FDR

FDR
by Jean Edward Smith (Random House)
 

James Boswell: Unofficial War Artist

by William Feaver
(The Muswell Press)

 

Einstein: His Life and Universe

by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster)

 

The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by
Julia Flynn Siler (Gotham)

 

The Diana Chronicles

by Tina Brown (Broadway)

 

Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda

(Harper Perennial)

 

The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story

by Frances Kiernan

(W. W. Norton)

 

The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty

by Wilfrid Sheed (Random House)

 

The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy

by Judith L. Pearson (The Lyons Press)

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