An Open Letter To Biographers
The time has come for biographers to unite. We have nothing to lose but our isolation.
The craft of biography, like that of most literary genres, is a solitary one. But we have strong reasons to come together. We need access to resources, such as newspapers or archival documents; we need up-to-date information about new online repositories; we need to know about funding sources; and we need to learn from each other.
This is the moment. This is the time.
In this past year the Leon Levy Center for Biography has been established at CUNY's Graduate Center, thanks to a gift of $3.7 million from the Leon Levy Foundation. The University of Southern California organized the Consortium for the Study of Biography. The Biographer's Craft newsletter, launched with a handful of readers, found a strong reception among biographers and has grown at a prodigious rate. Sessions on biography at the Organization of American Historians and the American Society of Journalists and Authors attracted solid audiences.
In New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, biographers have learned the immense of value of coming together. I am proposing that we do this on a national scale and establish the American Organization of Biographers.
This not-for-profit organization might provide, among other things,
- a virtual library whereby members--particularly independent biographers who lack academic affiliation--could gain access to resources such as Proquest, First Search, and Archives Grid, to name a few;
- an annual conference;
- mentoring and collaboration opportunities;
- professional advocacy.
Some academic organizations related to biography already exist, but none of them provide the kind of support that an organization geared to working biographers would.
Creating an organization of this kind would not be easy or cheap. We would need seed money, an institution willing to act as our host, and leadership.
But to begin with, we need you. If you think this is a good idea, please email me. I will build a database of potential members (as with your subscription to TBC, I will not share your email address with others). If enough of you respond, we can then begin an online discussion and start the hunt for money and a host institution.
James McGrath Morris
Putting Your Subject on the Couch
This fall Arcade Publishing will bring out a new biography of Charlie Chaplin, by Stephen M. Weissman, a practicing psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry who previously wrote His Brother's Keeper: A Psychobiography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Weissman's new book, Chaplin: A Life, traces his subject's life and seeks to demonstrate how his tragic childhood formed both his personality and his art. To accomplish this, Weissman engaged in a psychiatric contemplation of Chaplin that he hopes will shed new light on the legendary silent-film figure.
He has pursued his quarry in this manner for decades. "Geraldine Chaplin [daughter of Charles] is on the money when she says I've had her father in analysis for years (twenty to be exact)," Weissman commented.
In 1988, for instance, Weissman and seven students at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute devoted hours to studying two Charlie Chapin autobiographies, Charlie Chaplin's Own Story, dictated when he was twenty-six and mired in controversy about its legitimacy, and My Autobiography¸ published when he was seventy-five. In addition to a Talmudic reading of these texts, side by side, the group watched several of Chaplin's greatest movies. "A fundamental premise of our seminar (and this current biography as well) is that a filmmaker's life can be used to read his films and the films can be used to read his life--if he retains such extraordinary control of his films as Chaplin did."
"Looking back, I might have advertised my course in the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute's academic catalog as 'Hollywood meets Sigmund Freud.'"
Weissman, of course, is not alone in turning to psychiatric tools in hope of gaining new insights into subjects of biography. But his focus on childhood represents a continuing trend toward a more refined use of analysis than what earlier practitioners attempted.
Initially, biographers who engaged in analysis tended, on the whole, to reduce motives to egoistical drives and historical conflict to the working out of the id, ego, and superego in the participants. "Fifty years ago psychoanalytic theory and therapy dominated the culture," wrote Jack Beatty in a 2003 Atlantic article. "No more. The revolution in American psychiatry from the Freudian to the medical paradigm has given historians the basis for a fresh approach to psychology. Instead of focusing on posited conflicts between instinct and repression, they now tend to examine observable psychiatric illness rooted in childhood events."
Even so, it is a complicated task for any biographer to try to understand the psyche of one's subject. "The eminent historian H. Stuart Hughes once proposed that all graduate students in history undergo extensive psychotherapy in order to sensitize them to the irrational forces that shape human conduct," observed Michael Burlingame. "They would then become better historians. That may be extreme advice, but anyone undertaking a psychological biography should consider it."
Burlingame should know. He is the author of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, a psychobiography often touted as a model of this new craft. "No book can begin to provide the kind of sensitivity and insight that therapy can yield," Burlingame noted, "but Peter Gay's Freud for Historians is worth looking at."
Even if some of the insights harvested by these methods are not always accepted by readers, the discipline stemming from the approach itself may yield dividends, argues Will Swift, a New York psychologist and most recently author of The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm (featured in last month's TBC). "My training as a psychologist, like that of a historian, teaches me to gather evidence, double-check its accuracy, and look for ways that the evidence fits into patterns."
In this case, Swift used a particular assessment and diagnositic method known as "schema therapy" to interpret Joe Kennedy's life. This approach provided an explanation for Kennedy's view of himself as a "not-good-enough" outsider, a perception that dominated his life.
Swift is quick to warn, however, that while it is one thing to find the insights, it is an entirely different task to present them to the reader. "Psychological insights and patterns work best when they are integrated into the story," Swift said. If not, the work can end up sounding like a case study.
Collective Biography Conference Set for September in Australia
A multidisciplinary conference on collective or group life-writing will be held at the Australian National University Research School of Humanities in Canberra from September 8 through September 10. Highlighting the conference will be a lecture by biographer Richard Holmes. Currently a visiting scholar at Trinity College in Melbourne, Holmes is know both for his biographies and for two books about biography--Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer
continued his discussion of his particular biographical method, which he first wrote about in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.
Papers will be presented on a variety of topics, from specific biographical subjects to methodologies. For registration and accommodation inquiries, contact Leena Messina
All Things Copyrighted
Biographers often have difficulty determining if a source is still copyrighted. In particular, it can be tricky to find out whether a copyright was renewed.
It is common to check the US Copyright Office records. But only their more recent records are online; Carnegie Mellon University scanned them as part of the Universal Library Project in recent years, and the records were reviewed and corrected by Project Gutenberg and the Distributed Proofreaders.
Now software engineer Jarkko Hietaniemi has provided a means for Google to gather the records from both the copyright office and Universal Library and combine them into a single XML file, available for download here.
"There are undoubtedly errors in these records," said a Google spokesperson, "but we believe this is the best and most comprehensive set of renewal records available today. These records are free and in the public domain, and we hope you're able to use them to determine the copyright status of books that interest you."
Well worth the visit is a terrific website devoted to copyright issues maintained by Vanderbilt University. Check it out by clicking here
Below are some other sites with useful information:
Thousands of non-US Historical Newspapers to Be Digitized
Readex and the Center for Research Libraries will create the world's largest, fully searchable digital archive of international newspapers.
This electronic resource will first offer Latin American newspapers published between 1805 and 1922 in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and other countries. Further series will focus on historical newspapers published in Africa, South Asia, and other areas. Users will be able to seamlessly cross-search the World Newspaper Archive with America's Historical Newspapers, including Early American Newspapers and Hispanic American Newspapers.
The initial, Latin American series will offer approximately thirty-five titles, encompassing nearly one million pages. Among the newspapers expected to be included are La Prensa (Buenos Aires), O Estado de São Paulo (São Paulo), Mercurio (Santiago), La Prensa (Havana), Diario de Centro America (Guatemala City), the Daily Chronicle (Georgetown, Guyana), the Mexican Herald (Mexico City), El Peruano (Lima), the Port of Spain Gazette (Port of Spain), and the Venezuelan Herald (Caracas).
Yet More All-Time Favorites
A continuing series featuring favorite biographies of biographers.
The ongoing series of favorite biographies continues this month with picks by Carl Rollyson and Nigel Hamilton, authors of two new books on biography (see the May issue of TBC), biographer Brad Gooch, and the editor of TBC himself.
Rollyson, author most recently of Biography: A User's Guide, selected these as his favorite five:
- Norman Mailer, Marilyn
- Leon Edel, Henry James: A Biography
- Roger Lewis, Anthony Burgess: A Biography
- W.A. Swanberg, Dreiser
- David Thomson, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles
Nigel Hamilton, whose most recent book is How to Do Biography: A Primer, provided the following list and clarified that these were his five personal favorites, not necessarily those he considered "most respected across the ages":
- Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
- Deirdre Bair, Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography
- John Fuegi, Brecht & Co.: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama
- Oliver Todd, Albert Camus: Une Vie
- Hermione Lee, Virgina Woolf
Like many who asked to participate in this project, Brad Gooch, author of City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, pointedly included the word "today" in reference to his list of favorites (a modification of "all-time"):
- Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde
- Diane Johnson, Dashiell Hammett: A Life
- Virginia Spencer Carr, The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers
- Geoffrey Wolff, Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby
- Ian Hamilton, In Search of J.D. Salinger
When I (the editor) perused my shelves and memory, I narrowed my five favorites to these:
- A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography
- Jean Strouse, Morgan: An American Financier (one of the few biographies I have read twice for pleasure)
- E.P. Thomson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary
- W.A. Swanberg, Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist
- Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life
The last selection deserves a comment. The magic of Powers's biography of a subject about which there are hundreds of books is the writing. As you make your way through the book, it slowly dawns on you that Powers has internalized Twain's wit. The cheekiness and cleverness is remarkable.
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)
I couldn't help noting that award-winning University of Massachusetts biographer Nigel Hamilton has just written not one but two books about biography, the latest being "How to Do Biography: A Primer." So I shot Hamilton an e-mail: What biographies are out there, asking to be written?...
--Alex Beam, Boston Globe
When you begin to write book-length literary journalism (or memoir, or novels), or to teach that process in a writing workshop, you inevitably find yourself puzzling over the organization of that book over the course of its 250 or more pages. You want to understand its structure. How to arrange the material in a sequence that makes for the best possible narrative development? You begin by looking at examples of successful books, beginning with a look at the sequence of chapters, followed by a deeper look at those various parts in an attempt to understand the relationships between them. You observe some common patterns, and among certain writers, some characteristic choices...
--Douglass Whynott, Newsletter of IAJLS
Research ideas contributed by readers
Building a Bibliography Online
A free, easy way to build a bibliography is now available on the web.
, it permits a user to quickly search for a book, article, website, or film. Once located, the item may be added to a bibliography and is downloadable in MLA, APA, Chicago, and Turabian formats.
BibMe originated as a student project at Carnegie Mellon University, according to Alvin Fong, one of the four creators. "We originally intended it for high-school and college students to quickly and painlessly create bibliographies. Since then, researchers, professors, and teachers have incorporated BibMe into their respective curricula," explained Fong.
"We are always interested in expanding the BibMe database to the needs of our users. Development is driven directly by user requests and emails
. We read and respond to each email, incorporating suggestions into our next release. Any popular requests we receive to expand our database or source support are rolled into our development agenda."
The program works smoothly, but it has some potential limits because the database it uses for books is Amazon. The publication history of books maintained by Amazon is not as accurate as online card catalogs such as the Library of Congress. Also, many older books do not show up in searches.
Thanks to author James A. Percoco
for this tip. Percoco's newest book is listed below from a bibliographical entry produced by Bibme.org:
Percoco, James A.. Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments
. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
The Eccentric Billionaire:
John D. MacArthur--Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary
"In The Eccentric Billionare, former Time business researcher Nancy Kriplen offers an incisive warts-and-all account of the business and personal life of John D. MacArthur."
--Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Order It Now
From the Editor's Desk
A little period can make things go wrong. In the June issue the link to the Current Value of Old Money website included an extra period, which prevented some readers from reaching this valuable site. So here is the link without that pesky period.
Those of you who have been following the efforts to keep American Heritage magazine in business will be happy to hear the Spring/Summer issue is out. Editor-in-Chief Edwin S. Grosvenor reports, "We have finally completed the arrangement to acquire and resurrect American Heritage." The magazine plans to return to a bi-monthly publication schedule but will only publish two more issues this year.
There is a rumor that historians and biographers occasionally leave their offices and do something other than sit at their desks and stare at their computers. David Stewart, author of The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution and a forthcoming account of the Andrew Johnson impeachment, which reads like a page-turner, is getting on a bicycle with his son and pedaling his way across Eastern Europe. Of course, as writing is in his blood, you can read all about the journey on his blog.
James McGrath Morris
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies sold to publishers in June, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.Stephen Michael Shearer, Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr,
to Thomas Dunne
Harlow Giles Unger, James Monroe,
to Da Capo
Bill Minutaglio and
W. Michael Smith,
She Said That: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, an American Original,
to Public Affairs
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.
The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation
by Nancy Rubin Stuart
Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante
by Lily Tuck (HarperCollins)PW Review Roses and Rain: A Biography of James Elroy Flecker
by Heather Walker
Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution
by Gerald M. Carbone
Margaret Mahler: A Biography of the Psychoanalyst
by Alma Halbert Bond
Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Life and Times of L.M. Montgomery
by Irene Gammel
(St. Martin's)PW Review Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey
by Mary Dudziak
Sweet William or the Butcher?: The Duke of Cumberland and the '45 by Jonathan Oates
(Pen & Sword)
|New in Paperback
Charles the Bold: The Last Valois Duke of Burgundy
by Richard Vaughan
Two books all biographers want on their shelves
How to Do Biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton, $22.95
A User's Guide
by Carl Rollyson
James McGrath Morris, editor
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM 87574
|Photo & Illustration Credits|
Collage of newspapers courtesy of the University of Connecticut Library.