2008 Biographer of the Year: Fred Kaplan
Each March, in its anniversary issue, TBC selects a single biographer whose work
has either advanced or contributed greatly to the craft during the previous
year. This is not an award; rather it's an editorial decision intended to
highlight a particular individual's work.
On a winter day in 1918, on the Lower East
Side of New York City, teacher Hattie M. Strelitz selected an earnest young
schoolboy for the "Proficiency and Excellent Class Spirit" award. The prize was
a copy of The Perfect Tribute, an
account of how Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address.
A generation later Issac Kaplan passed the
prize book on to his son Fred. Despite its mythologizing approach to its subject, the book sparked such an interest in Lincoln as a writer that ninety years after that
winter's day awards ceremony Fred Kaplan has published Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (HarperCollins). In the sea of
books honoring the bicentennial of the birth of the sixteenth president,
Kaplan's is one of the freshest and most original.
More than 10,000 books have been written
about Abraham Lincoln, some sixty of them published in the past few months
alone, estimates James Swanson, who has written his share of Lincoln books. As
with other popular historical figures, such as Theodore Roosevelt, finding a
distinctive new perspective from which to examine the man is near impossible
for a biographer. Kaplan succeeded, and his novel approach offers an example
distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate
Center of the City University of New York, Kaplan is the author of many
previous biographies, including The Singular Mark Twain; Gore Vidal;
Henry James: The Imagination of Genius; Charles Dickens; and Thomas
Carlyle, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
and the Pulitzer Prize.
After years as a professional student of
Lincoln, inspired by his childhood admiration, Kaplan believed that "no one
else had seen the origins, growth, and flowering of Lincoln's literary
sensibility and genius with language as the key to the total man." While
writing his biography of Twain, he was seized by an inspiring idea. "Just as
Howells has called Twain the Lincoln of our literature," Kaplan told TBC, "I
could envision Lincoln as the Twain of our politics."
Certainly Kaplan is not the first to
examine Lincoln's writings. As Washington
Post critic Jonathan Yardley observed, "To be sure, many others before Kaplan have dealt in various
ways with Lincoln's love of literature and writing." In fact, entire books have
been devoted to a single speech by the president. Nor does Kaplan uncover
anything we did not know before; instead all his material is drawn from readily
available books. But his single-focused chronicle of the man as a writer
provides an engaging new portrait. In short, in Yardley's words, "no one has
explored the subject so deeply or found so much meaning in it."
A secondary story also emerges in his book.
It is one with which biographers can easily identify--the love of language. When
you think of it, in biography we use words to recreate a life; in a way, to
bring our subject back to life. In Lincoln: The
Biography of a Writer both the author and his subject display a passion for
words. The marriage between the two makes for compelling reading.
In an age
before twittering, language held a primacy in life that today seems quaint to
many. "Language mattered because it was useful for
practical communication and for learning and because it could shape and direct
people's feelings and thoughts in a culture in which spoken or written words
had no rival," Kaplan writes.
"In Lincoln's case it also mattered immensely
because it was the tool by which he explored and defined himself. The tool, the
toolmaker, and the tool user became inseparably one. He became what his language
Biographers International Organization Holds Its Founding Meeting This Month
On March 26, in New York City, between
fifty and one hundred biographers are expected to gather to launch the Biographers
International Organization (BIO) in
hopes of advancing the professional interests of career-focused biographers
through networking and advocacy, the creation of a virtual library, and
providing legal advice.
meeting will begin promptly at 11 a.m. in the Skylight Room at the Graduate
Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue. It is free of charge and
open to any professional or aspiring biographer. While advance registration is
not required, it is appreciated. If you think you may attend, please send us word.
The BIO founding meeting will be held in
conjunction with the Leon Levy Center for Biography Conference,
which runs from 1 to 8 p.m. on the same day. The Levy Center is donating the
space for the BIO founding meeting.
preliminary agenda is as follows:
by James McGrath Morris
over the proposed mission statement
over proposed bylaws
of governing board
assist us in spreading the news about the founding meeting to as many writers
as possible. A downloadable PDF flyer is available on our Web site.
Barbie's Inventor Subject of Two New Biographies
Two biographers have produced competing
portraits of Ruth Handler to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Barbie,
the sonsy doll she may, or may not,
The books are Barbie and Ruth: The Story of
the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her, by Robin Gerber
(Collins Business), and Toy Monster:
The Big, Bad World of Mattel, by Jerry Oppenheimer (Wiley). Early
reviews have been positive. "This stirring biography is a fine study of success
and resilience," Publishers Weekly said of Gerber's book; it called
Oppenheimer's "fast-paced and engaging."
Both writers found a great story in
Handler, but their approach to the topic is as different as Ken is from Barbie.
In Barbie and Ruth, Handler is a
woman wronged by business history. In Toy
Monster, she is a white-collar criminal falsely credited for Barbie's
invention. Side by side, the two books complement each other.
wanted to bring a fascinating, complicated woman out of the shadows of
history," Gerber told TBC. "Ruth Handler was a corporate genius, but also a
person with serious flaws. I wanted to be sure to capture her strengths without
slighting her weaknesses."
"She was a woman who founded a company in
1945 that become one of America's greatest companies," Gerber said. "Her
husband had been given credit before, but it is clear from the record that,
while he was a brilliant designer, he never could have built a company on his
focused his book more on the Mattel Corporation, founded by Handler with her
husband, and its curious cast of characters, including the flamboyant doll
designer Jack Ryan. "My goal," Oppenheimer told TBC, "was to write highly
readable, colorful portrait but remain objective."
of the most interesting parts of Toy
Monster addresses how Barbie was conceived. According to Oppenheimer, the
doll was inspired by a German curvaceous plastic sex toy. "For years, the
credit was taken by Ruth Handler," he said. "In fact, as I disclose, the real
power behind Barbie's introduction in society fifty years ago this month was a
brilliant Yale-educated engineer with many sexual kinks by the name of Jack
will never be viewed the same way based on the bizarre life of Ryan that I
document for the first time."
Be Careful Using YouTube
As a Source
Jarred Weisfeld, manager of the late rap
star Ol' Dirty Bastard, is unhappy with the way he was portrayed in Jamie
Lowe's Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death
of ODB. He is suing the author and the publisher, FSG's Faber imprint.
complaint, according to reports in Publishers Lunch, is that he was depicted "as
a money hungry Jewish manager who was financially invested in ODB's very soul."
The source for the description, he claims, comes from a parody of a press
conference aired on YouTube and not from a real meeting with the press.
Authors Guild and Google Book Lawsuit Settlement Information
Statement from the Authors Guild regarding its settlement with Google:
"The settlement strengthens authors' rights and
will, if approved by the court, result in millions of dollars of payments to
authors. At least $45 million will be paid to authors and publishers to
release claims for books that are scanned by Google by May 5th of this
year. But that's not the most significant part of the settlement, in our
view. We expect the licensing that this settlement would enable,
particularly of out-of-print books, will result in far more revenues for
authors over the coming years.
The settlement covers essentially all in-copyright books that were published by
January 5, 2009. (Some authors have told us that they think of the
settlement as covering only books for adults or nonfiction books. This is
incorrect. Books of all types are covered by the settlement.)
We think it's in the strong interest of authors of all books, whether in print
or out of print, to go to the Google Book Settlement web page
and claim their books."
Letters to the Editor
I assume that a percentage of your readers
are "starving writer types" who would appreciate opportunities for supplemental
income. I would also think that nearly all of them have an interest in
biography and history.
I have started a company that is building a
national (and I plan someday international) force of "Legacy Consultants" to
serve as the human face of our centralized custom publishing enterprise. LCs
meet with clients to interview them, organize and scan their photographs, and
review drafts of beautiful custom "LifeStory" books that we create on their
behalf. All editorial and layout is centralized, so Legacy Consultants are not
writers per se, but they are at the center of the interviewing and story
development. There are also opportunities to build a team of like-minded
individuals through recruiting and sponsorship.
LCs earn between $400 and $475 per
LifeStory that they complete (each takes about twelve to fifteen hours, which
equates to about $30 per hour). It is an opportunity for your readers to make
substantial money in a gratifying part-time role.
Peter A. Gudmundsson
CEO · The Priceless Legacy Company
15305 Dallas Parkway, Suite 1000 · Dallas, Texas 75001
214.272.2363 · 1.866.320.9390 x301
To submit an event, email the details no later than the 25th of the month prior to the event.
Evelyn White will present a lecture
titled "The Universe Provides: Alice Walker, a Hammock and the Art of
Biography," discussing her ten years as the official biographer of the Pulitzer
Prize-winning writer of The Color Purple.
March 11, 5 p.m., University of Texas campus, Main Building, Room 212. A
reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public.
The Boston Biography Group will meet
on March 22, from 3 to 5 p.m., in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Contact
Eleanor Nordyke, author and former research
fellow at the East-West Center, will give a talk entitled "Pacific Images:
Views from Captain Cook's Third Voyage." March 5, 12 to 1:15 pm, at the Center
for Biographical Research, Henke Hall 325, 1800 East-West Road, the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. Contact
Michael Holroyd will chair a major discussion panel entitled
"Biography and the Current State of Publishing." Panel members will include
Alexandra Pringle, publisher at Bloomsbury; Andrew Hayward of Constable,
representing the sales and marketing position; and Andrew Lownie, literary
agent and founder of the Biographers' Club. March 26, 6 to 8:30 p.m., Imperial
College, Read Lecture Theatre. Contact
The Leon Levy Center for Biography
will host a conference exploring biography in all of its many guises. The
conference schedule begins with a film screening and features talks by biographers
working in a variety of genres and disciplines, ranging from literary biography
and jazz studies to curatorial science. March 26, 1 to 8 p.m., Elebash Recital
Hall, Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue,
Biography Group will have a discussion on the topic "How I Found My Subject." March 30, 7 to 9 p.m.,
Washington International School, 3100 Macomb St., NW, Washington, DC. Contact
Amanuensis: A person
whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has
written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
Max Born's life was made for chronicling.
For one thing, it tells a fascinating story that covers much of western history
in the first half of the twentieth century. For another, he and his friends
seemingly never threw away any of the thousands of letters they received nor
much else for that matter. That is not to say that the record is complete and
available. The dozens of archives I have visited in Germany and Great Britain
divulge some wonderful tales, but upheavals from two world wars, government
secrecy policies, and the unknown whereabouts of friends' children, ensure that
one does not always find the "expected." For the "unexpected," there is only
hope and here I have been very fortunate. [Read more]
--Nancy Greenspan, "Surprises in Writing a
Biography of Max Born"
AIP History Newsletter
Tips Corner: Sharing Ideas
TBC offers a research tip of its own each month. This month, however, our
suggestion is to visit Legal History Blog, a wonderful site devoted to scholarship, news, and new
ideas in legal history. Here are links to a series of
useful articles on research techniques posted by Emily Kadens of the University of Texas Law School.
Thanks to alert reader David O. Stewart, author of
the forthcoming Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the
Fight for Lincoln's Legacy (Simon & Schuster), for suggesting these web sites.
NEW FORMS: BIOGRAPHY FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
featuring talks by Benita Eisler, Kai-Ming Cha, Darcy Frey, Farah Griffin, John Matteson, Jewell Robinson, Eiji Han Shimizu, Ilena Silverman, David Ward and Salim Washington
The first annual conference on biography at The Leon Levey Center for Biography will explore biography in all its guises. The conference schedule begins with a film screening and features talks by biographers working in a variety of genres and disciplines, ranging from literary biography and jazz studies to curatorial science.
Thursday, March 26,
.Elebash Recital HallThe Leon Levy Center for Biography
The Graduate Center
The City University of
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016
Free and Open
to the Public
Click here for more information
From the Editor's Desk
TBS celebrates its second anniversary this
month. As we did with our first, we selected a Biographer of the Year. Last
year, you may recall, it was John Heilpern for his book
John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man (Knopf).
Thanks to all of you who wrote me kind notes this past month about my vision problems (TBC 2/09). You will be glad to hear that my surgeon told me I won't have to give up writing biographies.
For those of you wondering when the next
volume in Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson will be
released, the answer is not soon, according to an interesting profile of the
writer running in Newsweek.
authors, Deirdre O'Connell has a Web site. Surprisingly,
however, it is not devoted to her new book, The
Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius, but
rather to its subject. This approach is far less commercial than that found on
most author sites, and it's a service to others who might be interested in the
It's not quite a biography, but readers of
TBC may want to look at Louisa Gilder's The
Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn (Knopf). Gilder takes
an unusual tack in this history of quantum mechanics. Using excerpts from
journals, papers, and letters, she constructs dialogues among her cast of
scientists. She explains and defends her method in an elaborate "note" to the
reader. This unconventional approach may inspire the admiration of some biographers and the wrath
of others. In any case, it's well worth examining.
Speaking of scientists, Nancy Greenspan
offers tales from her pursuit of the story of Max Born in this month's
James McGrath Morris
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies recently sold to publishers, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.
Marc Eliot, Clint Eastwood, to Harmony
Mark Vieira, Irving
Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, to University of California Press
Adam Begley, biography of John Updike, to HarperCollins
Angel Esteban and
Stephanie Panichelli, Fidel & Gabo, to Pegasus
Susan Wels, Amelia
Earhart: The Thrill of It, to Running Press
Wendy Leigh, Patrick
Swayze: One Last Dance, to Simon Spotlight Entertainment
Deborah Strober and
Gerald Strober, The Story of Bernard L.
Madoff, The Man Who Swindled the World, to Phoenix
The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are accompanied by a link to the PW review.
Life A Saint on
Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green
by Blake Bailey
by Thomas Cahill (Doubleday/Talese)
W. C. Handy:
The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues
by David Robertson
William Francis Bartlett: Biography of a Union General in
the Civil War
by Richard A. Sauers and Martin H. Sable
Don't Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin': The
Authorized Story of Public Enemy
by Russell Myrie
Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel
by Jerry Oppenheimer
and Ruth: The Story
of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created
by Robin Gerber
(Collins Business)PW Review
Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous
Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore
by Wendy Moore
The Fearless Harry Greb: Biography of a Tragic
by Bill Paxton
by Thomas C. Danisi and
John C. Jackson
by Susan Gubar
How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex,
Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation
by Mark Adams
Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner,
and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles
by Michael D'Antonio
Elton: The Biography
by David Buckley
(Chicago Review Press)
Wallace Stegner and the American West
by Philip L. Fradkin (University of California Press)
Michener: A Writer's Journey by Stephen J. May
(University of Oklahoma Press)
James McGrath Morris, editor
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM 87574