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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
January 2009
 Vol. 2, No. 11
BIO Founding Meeting Nears
This spring may see the creation of an organization for biographers. At a meeting scheduled for late March in New York City, as many as one hundred biographers will gather to consider forming Biographers International Organization (BIO). To be notified on the specific date and location of the meeting, write to us.
  BIO logo  The idea for an organization was first broached in the July issue of TBC. More than fifty biographers have since signed a call for a meeting. The letter is now circulating to other writers and may be viewed here
    "The craft of biography, like that of most literary genres, is a solitary one," the letter reads. "But we have strong reasons to come together. As serious biographers working across the spectrum of print, television, film, radio, web and other media we need better 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."
    The first task for the meeting will be to adopt a mission statement. Here is a proposed draft of such a statement:
Biographers International Organization seeks to advance the professional interests of career-focused and aspiring biographers through networking, advocacy, increasing access to resources, and providing legal advice.
      The second and more complicated task before biographers seeking to creating BIO will to make preliminary decisions on issues regarding the nature of the organization, ranging from funding to administration. To frame the discussion, we are forming a pre-convention committee to prepare a proposal that will be presented at the March meeting. Volunteers for the committee are urgently needed. All work will be done by email or using a Wiki. To volunteer, write us.

New Civil War Digital Archives Opens
Readex has released The Civil War: Antebellum Period to Reconstruction, a digital archive of American newspapers, government documents, broadsides, and other printed materials from the American Civil War period. The company previously created the Archive of Americana, a widely used digital resource.
    The new Civil War archive comprises more than 150 fully searchable newspapers from communities of all sizes; it contains frontline reporting, editorials, and local and national news, as well as advertisements. Also included in the collection are more than 50,000 government documents.
    "By bringing together newspapers, government publications, and ephemeral documents, many of which are richly illustrated, The Civil War offers fresh opportunities to explore the day-to-day lives and defining moments of a time that profoundly shaped our nation," said Brett Kolcum, Readex product director.
    To learn more about the new Civil War archive, visit Readex's website.

Learning from the Best: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer Offers Master Class

Applegate pixPulitzer Prize-winner Debby Applegate will teach the art of turning historical research and the raw experience of lived life into written, publishable narrative in a master class at Marymount Manhattan College.
    Applegate received the Pulitzer for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. She teaches at Yale University, where she received a Ph.D. in American Studies.
    "This is very much an old-fashioned craft course, where we focus on concrete techniques and skills that help the biographer or memoirist tame and then structure their material," Applegate told TBC. "Unlike many writing classes, I don't approach writing as a form of authorial self-expression."
    "Instead," Applegate continued, "the class will focus on how to create a suspenseful, compelling experience for a reader, one that makes him or her want to keep reading, to keep turning the page." 
   Suitable for both beginning and advanced writers, the course will cover every part of the composition process, from research and plotting to editing. Topics will be approached through brief readings, classroom discussion, and writing exercises. The four weekly sessions, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., begin on Wednesday, January 28.
  Any interested individual is welcome to attend. The course tuition is $365, plus a $20 registration fee. Registration may be completed by phone (212-774-0780), fax (212-774-0792), mail (Office of Special Programs, Marymount Manhattan College, 221 East 71st Street, New York, NY 10021), or in person.

Selling Notes: One Author Declines and Archives Cheer

Six years ago, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sold their notes, memos, clippings, and other materials from the years when they reported on Watergate for the Washington Post to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas for $5 million. Before his recent death, Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter sold his papers to British Library for $2.3 million.
    It's easy to understand the temptation. In the United States, in particular, wealthy donors have lined up with their checkbooks to help universities acquire the papers of the famous in the hope that some of the fame might rub off on their alma maters.
    But when British playwright and author Alan Bennett recently considered where he might leave his literary estate, the checkbooks were silenced. He chose to leave all his papers to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, free of charge.
    "I felt in a way it's a recompense for the education I was given," he told the Economist in an interview. "I went to state school in Leeds. I went to Oxford on a scholarship. I benefited at every stage from the nanny state, as it is disparagingly called. It would be unimaginable now to be a student and free of money worries. But I was lucky in my time and I'm grateful to be nannied."

Hollywood Legends Series Selects New Editor
Rollyson pixA new editor is taking the reins of the Hollywood Legends Series of biographies published by the University Press of Mississippi. The new advising editor for this series will be Carl Rollyson, Professor of Journalism, Baruch College, City University of New York. He is the author of Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress and Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag, as well as Lillian Hellman: Her Life and Legend.
    "I'm interested in receiving queries from anyone writing on a Hollywood legend," Rollyson told TBC. "So far the series has concentrated on actors, but it is also open to books on directors, cinematographers, and so on, provided, of course, that they have some claim to being a legend."
    The Hollywood Legends Series comprises critical biographies of filmmakers and stars from Hollywood's early years to more recent decades. It is intended to appeal to those generally interested in film and the history and culture of cinema in America. Special attention will be given to subjects who have yet to receive significant biographical treatment and to those legends that deserve reconsideration.

Even More Notable 2008 Biographies

Completing the lists we offered in the December issue, here are more selections by critics of the best biographies of 2008.

Washington Post
  • Alfred Kazin: A Biography, by Richard M. Cook (Yale)
  • American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham (Random House)
  • Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times, by Dennis McDougal (Wiley)
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, by Paul Mariani (Viking)
  • Ida: A Sword among Lions, by Paula J. Giddings (Amistad)
  • Madame de StaŽl: The First Modern Woman, by Francine du Plessix Gray (Atlas & Co.)
  • The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by Andrew Lycett (Free Press)
  • The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, by Pico Iyer (Knopf)
  • A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, by Donald Worster (Oxford)
  • The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder (Bantam)
  • Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, by Tim Jeal (Yale)
  • Traitor to his Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by H. W. Brands (Doubleday)
  • Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief, by James M. McPherson (Penguin)
  • The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, by Patrick French (Knopf)

Los Angeles Times

  •  The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, by Steve Coll (Penguin Press)
  • Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan (Harper)
  • Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, by Stanley Plumly (Norton)
  • The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, by Patrick French ( Knopf)

Library Journal

  • Shakespeare's Wife, by Germaine Greer (HarperCollins)
  • John Lennon: The Life, by Phillip Norman (HarperCollins)
  • Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, by Jim Steinmeyer (Tarcher)

The Economist

  •  Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein (Scribner)
  • The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, by Patrick French (Knopf)
  • A Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate (Random House)
  • White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple (Knopf)
  • Chagall: A Biography, by Jackie Wullschlager (Knopf)

Atlantic Monthly

  •  Nureyev: A Life, by Julie Kavanagh (Pantheon)
Heated Conversation
The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, by Patrick French, was selected as a best book of 2008 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Economist. A review by Ian Buruma, the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College, in the New York Review of Books, has stirred up a considerable debate. Both the review and the debate may be viewed online.
One of our loyal readers noted that in the December listing we inadvertently left off Champlain's Dream, by David Hackett Fischer (Simon & Schuster), from the New York Times list of best books of 2008.

Crick, Orwell Biographer
The noted British political philosopher Sir Bernard Crick, who wrote an authorized biography of George Orwell, died at age 79 on December 19.
    Best known for The Reform of Parliament, Crick was invited by Orwell's widow in the late 1970s to write a biography of her late husband. Orwell had asked that none be written, but the publication of an unflattering biography in the United States prompted Sonia Orwell to overrule her husband's wishes.
      George Orwell: A Life was published in 1980. Crick used the royalties to launch the George Orwell Memorial Trust.

Letters to the Editor

In December a devoted reader and well-known biographer informed us of Joyce Carol Oates's view of our craft: "Biographies are for facts and theories, I think--but prose fiction is for the evoking of a world and of a consciousness within that world--distinct and individual--which can only be rendered through a chosen language," said Oates in a recent issue of  Literary Matters: The Newsletter of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.
    Here are two readers' responses to those thoughts.
Dear Editor,
     Oates has the privilege to live in her own world and dream up inanities like this. By immersing oneself as a biographer, into another time and place, through the thoughts and motives of our subjects, we can conjure lost eras, ideas, and revolutions of thought. Hers is an uttering of an intelligentsia snob.
    Paul Maher Jr.

   An independent scholar and writer from Massachusetts,
Maher is the author of four books and is at work on a biography of Henry David Thoreau.
Dear Editor,
    May I say a word in defense of Ms. Oates? While I can understand why one reader interpreted her comment on biography as "boneheaded," I suspect that nine out of any ten fiction writers might agree with her, simply because of the lamentable tendency of most writers to aggrandize their "own" genre, even at the expense of others. Poets, I find, are the worst offenders. Even though he was otherwise quite sensible and generous, James Merrill, for example, often suggested that poetry was the pinnacle of literary achievement (if not all human endeavor!).
    [Oates's] comment may reveal her complicated (perhaps even reactionary) attitude toward the autobiographical elements in her own work. As I argued in an essay on her work for the New York Review of Books a few years back, much of her prodigious career has been devoted to transmuting a nightmarishly violent family history into a body of work obsessively cataloging the effects of violence on personality. While this doesn't excuse her remark, it may suggest that there are more complex undercurrents at work.
    Of course I believe that biographies are as capable as any genre of "evoking a world" and a consciousness--isn't that why we read them?--but I nonetheless hesitate to bash her for this. I think she has, in her career, been bashed enough. Truman Capote once called her "the most loathsome creature in America."
     Caroline Fraser

     Formerly on the editorial staff of The New YorkerFraser has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Outside Magazine, Allure, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, among other publications. She is currently at work on her second book, Rewilding the World: The Race to Save Wildlife, to be published by Henry Holt's Metropolitan Books.

January Calendar

To submit an event, email the details no later than the 25th of the month prior to the event.
Kate Williams, author of Young Victoria and Emma Hamilton, will speak to the Biographers Club on the adaptation of books to film. Location: Kensington Palace, North Drawing Room, hosted by Historic Royal Palaces. £20 per person. Contact.

January 26, 7-9 p.m. The Washington Biography Group will meet at the Washington International School, Terrace Room (at back of main building), 3100 Macomb St. NW. The topic will be Biographical Truth in Fiction and Nonfiction. Contact.

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)

Today she has 25 grandchildren, 45 great grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren. The events of Leah's long life were recorded in a book written by Tirza Tam as part of a documentation project initiated by the Holon municipality's service for assistance to the elderly. Tam, a pensioner herself, participated two years ago in a course for writing biographies organized by the municipality and given by biographer Amotz Shorek. [Read more] 

     --Noah Kosharek, Haaretz.com

In 1982, just a few months before his death that October, Stuart Macdonald asked a U.S.-born English literature professor at Ontario's University of Guelph if she would write the biography of his mother.
     Mary Henley Rubio didn't know if she could. [Read more] 

    --James Adams, Globe and Mail

Tips Corner
Sharing research ideas
We've Come a Long Way from Card Catalogs

The biographer's life just keeps getting easier. In the old days to tap into the wonderful OCLC database of 10,000 or more libraries one had to go to a library and use its computers. No more. OCLC--more widely known as Worldcat--is now on the web, free of charge.
   Not only can you complete your searches for that illusive copy of Count Luigi Marsigli's Histoire Physique de la Mer, first published in 1711, from your home computer, but you can even add a search plug-in on your home page.

In This Issue
BIO Founding Meeting
Digital Civil War Archive
Biography Course by Applegate
Selling or Giving to Archives
Film Bio Series Gets New Editor
Even More Notable 2008 Biographies
Obituary: Bernard Crick
December Calendar
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner
editor From the
Editor's Desk
Those of you who think the time is right to create an organization for biographers need to stand up now and be counted. We have secured a meeting place in New York this coming March. What we need now is help planning and organizing the meeting so that we come away with the foundation of a useful, practical, and viable organization. So please volunteer to serve on the pre-convention committee. All the work can be done by email or by Wiki from the comfort of your home.
Biography, autobiography, memoirs. What's the difference--it's all the same, right? For us the difference is enormous, but apparently not so for others. In keeping track of biographies singled out for distinction by reviewers in 2008, TBC research staff (who rarely get to see daylight) came across a website offering lists of biographies. Further investigation (I told you these were diligent researchers) revealed that of the nineteen titles listed on the "biographies" page, ten were memoirs, one was an autobiography, and seven were unrelated to any life telling. Just one was a biography. The search engine at Amazon, the Leviathan of bookselling, produced a list of only ten biographies coming out in January, one of them a book on the Emancipation Proclamation. Last month we talked with a Barnes & Noble store manager about its monthly meeting for biography readers. Its selection for the month was Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. I tried to explain that biographies were usually not written by the subject of the work, but my point was lost on the manager.
   So my wish for 2009 is if we pray hard enough maybe the books we love to write will finally earn a corner in the store for themselves. And no longer will we live in fear that our well-researched and carefully written biography will sit next to the forgettable Paris Hilton's A Night to Remember, a yet to be written memoir.
Though there is a world of difference between biographies written on the payroll of the subject and those on that of a publisher, the Association of Personal Historians often offers valuable material for biographers. This coming month, its Personal History Press will bring out My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees, with a foreword by Rick Bragg.
   "At last, a collection that shows the 'why, what, and how' behind memoir as legacy," said Susan Wittig Albert, author of Writing from Life. "Spanning more than a century, these intriguing reflections of personal as well as global, social, and political history are told in the unique voice and from the unique viewpoint of each storyteller."
Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris
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Sold to Publishers

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

David Evanier,
Keeper of the Flame: A Biography of Tony Bennett,
to Wiley.

Herman Obermayer, Rehnquist: The Man Behind the Robe,
to Pocket.

Lynne Cheney, Founding Genius: A Biography of James Madison, to Viking.

Sheila Weller, biography of Michelle Obama,
to Collins.

See a Book You Want?
Any title mentioned in TBC can be ordered from Powell's Books,
the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world.
 Your purchase helps support TBC! 

In Stores

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

 Hoover bio 
Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg
(Times Books)
William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man
by Duncan Wu (Oxford University Press)
PW Review
The Life and Times of the Shah

by Gholam Reza Afkhami
(University of California Press)
PW Review
Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

by Adam Gopnik (Random House)
PW Review
Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

by Alison Weir (Ballantine)
PW Review 
The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising
by Kenneth Roman (Palgrave Macmillan)
PW Review 
John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought
by Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns
(Oxford University Press)
PW Review
Poe: A Life Cut Short

by Peter Ackroyd (Doubleday/Talese)
PW Review
Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King

by Lisa Rogak
(St. Martin's/Dunne)
PW Review
James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile
by Magdalena J. Zaborowska
(Duke University Press)
PW Review 
Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford

by Geri Spieler (Palgrave McMillan)
PW Review

New in Paper

Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had
by Andrew Cook (The History Press)
George Eliot
by Jenny Uglow (Virago UK)



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