New Organization for Career-Minded Biographers Is Launched
More than fifty biographers gathered in New York City on
March 26 to launch the Biographers International Organization (BIO). Ranging
from a Pulitzer Prize winner to an aspiring student, the attendees strongly
endorsed the need for an organization that would foster community among
biographers, increase public awareness of the genre, and generally represent
and serve the interests of career-minded independent and institution-affiliated
David Nasaw, faculty director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, which donated
the space for BIO's founding meeting, welcomed the attendees. After his brief
remarks, Catherine Clinton, author of Mrs.
Lincoln: A Life, offered a remembrance of historian John Hope Franklin, who
passed away the day before the meeting. Will Swift, author of The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm, organized introductions
of the attendees, some of whom had come from as far away as Canada and Ireland.
discussion began about the steps needed to organize BIO, Louise Knight, author
of Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle
for Democracy, suggested the group follow the model of nineteenth-century
activists by creating a temporary committee to draft a mission statement and
bylaws. The idea was accepted, and a fifteen-member founding committee was
then discussed at length the various anticipated purposes and roles for BIO. The
group's various recommendations will be put into a formal statement, along with
bylaws, by the Committee of Fifteen.
coming months TBC will report on the committee's progress. Should you wish to
be involved in the deliberations, please send us a note and we will add your
address to an email distribution list.
Levy Center Holds First Biography Conference and Selects 2009-2010 Fellows
The new Leon Levy Center for Biography, established in 2008, opened its doors to writers and the public on
March 26 for a well-attended daylong conference on biography. Beginning with a
screening of Werner Herzog's My Best
Fiend and closing with staff members of the National Portrait Gallery
discussing "curating biography," the conference designated its theme as
"Biography for the 21st Century." All events were held at the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York.
presentations also included an elegiac lament for the passing of biography by
Benita Eisler (vigorously disputed by discussant John Matteson), an overview of
biography in graphic novels and animation, a lively discussion of jazz and
biography, and a well-received talk by Darcy Frey on the journalist as
Center will host its Second Annual Conference on Biography in the spring of
2010, according to David Nasaw, faculty director of the center.
2009-2010 Levy Fellows
A Pulitzer Prize winner, a beauty magazine editor, an art
critic, and a journalist were selected for the 2009-2010
Leon Levy Center for Biography Writing Fellowship. This is the second year that
the center has provided four $60,000 year-long fellowships to biographers. One
of the fellowships is reserved for a CUNY professor, so the competition was
actually for three slots.
again had a first-rate pool of applicants for the four fellowships, and all
applications were read by an extraordinary group of editors, writers and publishers
for the final analysis," wrote Nancy Milford, Levy Center executive director,
in a letter to applicants.
the selection disappointed some observers, who had expected that the center
would direct its fellowship funds to lesser-known writers. Indeed, the center
itself raised such hopes. "While established biographers are welcome to
apply," the fellowship announcement read, "we are especially interested in
receiving applications from biographers in the early stages of their careers
and writers moving to biography from other genres."
Here are this year's awardees:
- John T. Matteson, who
won the Pulitzer Prize in biography last year for Eden's Outcasts:
The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. An associate professor of
English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he
is working on a biography of Margaret Fuller, journalist, critic, women's
rights activist, and a prominent female figure of American Transcendentalism.
(His fellowship is the one designated for a CUNY professor.)
- Mary Lisa Gavenas, a former
Glamour, Mirabella, and InStyle beauty editor, who is
writing a biography of Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, Inc.
- Wendy Lesser, novelist
and editor of The Threepenny Review, who is at work on a biography of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
- Vanda Krefft, a
journalist writing a biography of William Fox, founder of the movie company
Twentieth Century Fox.
Up Next: Centre for Life-Writing Research to Host Major Biography Conference
Next month the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King's
College, London, will hold a conference in collaboration with the Department of
English and Comparative Literature, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the
Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill. To be held from May 26 through May 28, the conference intends to
map the state of the field of life-writing, in practice and in theory, across a
range of genres and media, and to investigate its personal, social, and
Among the speakers are Bill Andrews, Paul John Eakin, Vesna
Goldsworthy, Trudier Harris, Craig Howes, Kathryn Hughes, Meg Jensen,
Margaretta Jolly, Hermione Lee, Philippe Lejeune, Sidonie Smith, Angela
Thirlwell, and Julia Watson.
The conference will comprise more
than seventy lectures, papers, and readings. Topics will include Life-Writing
and Cultural Memory; Life-Writing and Film; Memory; Portraiture; The Body;
Medical Lives; Life-Writing and the Future; Life-Writing and Work; Life-Writing
as Cultural Capital; the Politics and Pragmatics of Life-Writing; Life-Writing
in the Family; Historicity; the Personal; Exhibiting Lives; Voices; and the
Teaching of Life-Writing.
papers from the conference will be published, either in a special journal issue
or in a volume of essays.
For more information visit the center's Web site.
Taking on a Nineteenth-Century Giant and Those Who Wrote About Him
T. J. Stiles's long-awaited and lengthy (752-page) biography
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of
Cornelius Vanderbilt (Knopf) arrives in stores this month. The work traces
the life of the economic dynasty founder, Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt,
from his humble origins on Staten Island to his lordship over a railroad
The book is
bound to have many readers. Knopf's first printing is 60,000 copies. But
biographers, who are said to read books from the back to the front, will be
fascinated by a nine-page bibliographical essay tucked in at the end of the
In this essay Stiles confronts problems
common to many biographers.
The first is how to deal with other biographers.
Discussing one's disagreements with the work of others within the main text of
the book can bog down the narrative and seem like research boasting. Taken to
excess, it can be fairly disastrous, as Kenneth White learned when critics and
readers complained about his lengthy criticisms of other biographers' work in
his new book, The Uncrowned King: The
Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst.
"Who wants to go after another
biographer?" asked Stiles in an interview with TBC. However, he faced a
difficult problem. Edward Renehan, author of a 2007 Vanderbilt biography, made
major claims based on secret sources that the Commodore had suffered from
syphilis and become demented. "Edward Renehan's claims were so enormous, so
recent, and so untenable that I had to address them. Somehow."
At first, Stiles included a lengthy
critique in the text, explaining why, in light of both medical knowledge and
all historical evidence, it was impossible to believe that Vanderbilt ever suffered
syphilitic dementia. "Still, I hated to junk up my narrative with this
"It was not until I read the story of
Renehan's criminal convictions and his self-proclaimed struggle with severe
bipolar disorder that his book (and his refusal to reveal his sources) made
sense to me. Only then did I fully accept that his secret sources had no
validity. I stripped my discussion out of the text and stashed it in the
bibliographical essay. I still needed to spell out the case against Renehan's
claims, but I kept it from marring my narrative."
In the end, Stiles offers this advice
when struggling with what role one should play in "correcting" mistakes in
history books or other biographies. "My GPS system for this question is a
simple admonition: Remember the reader. Will it help or entertain the reader
(as opposed to a scholar or a researcher)? If the answer is yes, it goes in the
main text. Otherwise, in the endnotes, if anywhere at all."
If the issue is
central to how the subject has been traditionally defined, then Stiles
explicitly addresses the question in the narrative. "The interpretive passages should
advance the storytelling--they should propel, not bog down, the reader," he said.
"On the other hand, if I am correcting
the record in subtler ways, I think it's best to simply give my version. Just
leave out the bad and put in the credible. Many issues are best left to the
endnotes, where they will be found by serious scholars or researchers, who will
care enough to look up the sources.
"Every once in a while, there's a
story that doesn't merit a full discussion in the text but is known well enough
to go into a footnote, at the bottom of the page. That's where I took on the
idea that Vanderbilt helped invent the potato chip. The reader will see it and
be amused by it, but the main narrative text is best off without it."
Google Book Settlement Challenged
settlement of a suit brought against Google by publishers and authors
(announced in last month's TBC) is raising questions among many authors and is
being challenged in court.
The Authors Guild, one of the participants in the original suit, favors
the agreement and urges authors to register their books by the May 5 deadline.
The guild offers an explanation of the agreement and instructions on how
authors can register their works on its Web site.
On the other hand, Lynn Chu, a
partner in a respected literary agency, penned a highly critical review of the
agreement in the Wall Street Journal, "Say goodbye to your rights, forever, authors, if this mess goes
Other critics also claim the settlement will provide Google virtually
exclusive rights to publish the books online and to profit from them. Several
academics and public interest groups plan to file legal briefs objecting to the
settlement before a review by a federal judge in June, according to the New York Times.
month we inaugurate a new feature. In correspondence with other biographers, we
got the idea it would fun to publish photographs of our work spaces.
posting the photographs on our Web site. Click here to see this month's featured workplace, which belongs to Charles Shields,
who is at work on a biography of Kurt Vonnegut. When asked if he had neatened
the place before taking the photo, Shields assured us it always remains neat.
Next month, we promise a view of a less fastidious author's desk.
Send your photos to us.
To submit an event, email the details no later than the 25th of the month prior to the event.
The Boston Biography Group will meet on Sunday, April 19, 3-5 p.m., at
the Arts at the Armory building, 191 Highland Avenue, Somerville,
MA. There is free parking behind the building. Contact
Professor of Oriental Philology, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, will give a
talk entitled "Getting the Blues in Chicago: The Life and Art of Photographer
Susan Greenberg" on April 9.
Lilia Omarouayache, Instructor in French, University of Hawai`i at
Mānoa will give a talk entitled "Pioneers
in Education: The Case of Horace Mann and the Beginning of Public Education in
the United States" on April 16.
Robert J. Littman, Professor of
Classics, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, will give a talk entitled "The Book
of Tobit and Biographical Fiction" on April 23.
Ty P. Kāwika Tengan,
Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Anthropology, University of Hawai`i
at Mānoa, will give a talk entitled "The Stories of Hawaiian Men" on April 30.
All talks will be held from 12:00 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
Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian
Century, by Adina Hoffman
A celebration of the Yale University Press's publication of Adina Hoffman's
biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.
April 7, 7 p.m., Skylight
Diaries Retrospective, 1999-2009, Mary Ann Weaver
Radio Diaries works with people to document their own lives for presentation on
National Public Radio's This American Life. Their subjects include
teenagers, seniors, prison inmates, and others whose voices are rarely heard.
The producers and a diarist will join journalist Mary Anne Weaver, 2008-9
Biography Fellow, to explore the radio documentaries that they have created
over the past decade.
April 21, 7 p.m., Martin E. Segal Theatre
Both events will be held at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the
Graduate Center, the City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. Contact
Biography Group will have a discussion on the topic of who has the
right to write a biography, in terms of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and
April 27, 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
If authors only
wrote about themselves and what they knew, we'd be flooded with bookshelves
full of memoir and autobiography (though, to some, it might feel like we are).
For writers like Wray, novels open up possibility through imagination and
creativity. Yet, with that, comes a level of responsibility to stay true to the
reality that the writer has assigned to his or her characters. For Wray, this
was a central part of the process; he says it took him some time before he felt
fully comfortable with his main character and convinced that he had gotten the
voice and accordant emotions down pat.
Although this can be a difficult and often frustrating endeavor for
novelists, it is a struggle for other writers as well. Writers of non-fiction,
especially biographies, may encounter similar frustrations and chagrin as they
attempt to convey the story of the life of someone else. While authors may have
had a prior interest or obsession with a subject that inspired them to write
about them, there still requires a certain courage and conviction on the part
of the author. [read more]
--Danny Groner, Huffington
Tips Corner: Outlining Software
some point, most biographers create a roadmap for their project. Some write
their outlines in long hand on yellow legal pads, while others use
word-processing programs or spread sheets. But for those who want something
more sophisticated, there is a vast array of software designed to help the
writer outline a project. Some even help organize notes.
Below are brief descriptions of some of
the leading programs (quotations taken directly from the company Web sites). If
we have missed one you like, don't hesitate to tell us about it; we will
publish your recommendation.
Blocks create hundreds of blocks,
each containing a few sentences or a few pages of text. Arrange your blocks
into a coherent structure and
then transfer your outline into the integrated full-featured word
processor and expound on your ideas. Each block remains linked to a
section of your manuscript for quick
and easy reference. Click on a block to automatically scroll the
corresponding section of your
manuscript into view."
Writer's Block [PC only]
you are taking notes in class or a meeting, planning a project, keeping track
of vehicles or health, or just outlining your ideas, SplashNotes is a very
powerful assistant. Create outlines of any size and complexity, and turn them into
checklists if you wish. Attach notes and drawings for quick reference. Use it
on a Windows desktop computer or on your handheld, and synchronize your notes
between the two."
Splash Notes [PC/Mac]
by gathering source materials--books, magazines, periodicals, interviews, etc.
Make a Source card for each item and any needed Author cards. As you read, use
Summary / Paraphrase / Quotation note cards to take notes and link them to
Source / Author cards. Begin outlining the paper using the Project feature. Add
headings and see where your notes will fit. As you discover gaps in the paper,
do additional research / take more notes. When your
project outline looks ready for a draft, export it into your word processor for
editing. Your bibliography will be exported, too."
Ndxcards [PC only]
"Opal lets you organize just about anything--ideas, reports, lists, notes, projects, graphics--in the form of an outline.
Opal's elegant, uncluttered interface stays out of your way so you can
capture notes efficiently. You're free to organize--and reorganize--however you like. You can always find information later, using fast
filtering or Spotlight. Or keep it out of your way by shrinking long
topics or focusing on part of a document. Prioritize lists with
flexible sorting. Track projects with smart checkboxes. Multiple
selection lets you work faster. Streamlined and responsive, Opal is
truly your digital notepad.
Opal will be familiar to anyone who ever used the popular and reliable Acta outliner. However, it's completely rewritten for Mac OS X."
Opal [Mac only]
"OmniOutliner 3, an amazingly flexible program for
creating, collecting, and organizing information. Give your creativity
a kick start by using an application that's actually designed to help
you think. It's like having an extra brain--one that doesn't keep
losing the car keys.
You can use OmniOutliner's document structure to create hierarchies
of main headings and subpoints that can be expanded and collapsed,
which are immensely useful when it comes to brainstorming new ideas,
drilling out specifics, and lining up steps needed to get everything
done. But you aren't limited to outlines--you've got multiple columns,
smart checkboxes, customizable popup lists, and an über-innovative
styles system at your disposal.
Use OmniOutliner to draft to-do lists, create agendas, manage tasks,
track expenses, take notes, plan events, write screenplays . . . and just
about anything else you can think of."
OmniOutliner3 [Mac only]
following two Web sites include reviews of various outlining programs (caution: the second site has not been updated in a number of years, so some of
its recommendations are out of date):
Link Yourself to Other Biographers, Editors, Agents, and Readers.
Make sure your Web page is listed in the TBC Directory of Biographers
From the Editor's Desk
Producing TBC each month yields enormous rewards. Many of
you write to tell me how much you appreciate the newsletter. But, despite best
efforts, I also engender criticism.
Recently, I was taken to task for not
challenging the claims made by a biographer in a new book that was featured
in TBC. I explained to the angry reader that TBC does its best to cover
biographies of interest to readers, but we will never have the staff to verify
claims contained in the books. We leave that to others. (With remarkably
fortunate timing, this month we are featuring an article that discusses how one
biographer dealt with correcting the work of another.)
I have also
been severely rebuked by a member of an institution for a seemingly negative
tone in our news coverage of its work.
TBC can't be all things to all readers.
We seek to provide impartial coverage of news of interest to writers and
readers of biography, to present practical and useful information about the craft,
and to foster community. It is by this benchmark that I evaluate TBC each month.
Is Amazon the only place to buy books? It would seem so, if one were
to judge by the Web sites of prominent authors and writer organizations. More
often than not, the "buy this book" links on such sites take you directly to
Amazon.com. Nothing wrong with Amazon, but by limiting the choice to that venue
alone, authors are hurting independent stores, their most valued partner in
reaching readers. Independents are aggressive supporters of authors on book
tours. They provide valuable personal support for books in ways that Amazon
So consider adding a link to Indiebound, which would allow
visitors to your Web site to obtain your book from an independent store rather
than solely from Amazon. Then the next time you do a well-attended reading at
an independent bookstore, you can proudly point to your membership in
This issue features a story about T. J. Stiles's new
biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Last month many readers undoubtedly heard or
read about a discovery made inside President Lincoln's pocket watch. Stiles has
an unusual connection to this intersection of myth and memory. You can read
about it on the Atlantic magazine Web site.
James McGrath Morris
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies recently sold to publishers, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.
Dean Nelson and Karl
Giberson, Quantum Leap (about John Polkinghorne, a British particle physicist who,
after 25 years of research in academia, resigned his post to become an Anglican
priest and theologian), to Lion Hudson Books
Edward Klein, Ted
Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died, to Crown
Mick LaSalle, The
Beauty of the Real (a portrait of the
women shaping the explosion of female talent in French film over the last two
decades), to Stanford University Press
Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J. T. Stepanek and Heartsongs, to Dutton
Tim Newark, Lucky
Luciano, to St. Martin's
Raymond Carver: A Critical Biography, to McFarland
Paul Batura, Good
Day: The Paul Harvey Story, to Regnery
The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are accompanied by a link to the PW review.
Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of
Labor and His Moral Conscience
by Kirstin Downey (Doubleday/Talese)
Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants
by Jane S. Smith
of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits
by Barney Hoskyns (Broadway)
Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys
by Lillian Pizzichini
Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of
Field of Dreams's Doc Graham
by Brett Friedlander and Robert Reising
and the Floating World: How a Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber
Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science
by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano (Collins/Smithsonian)
Judge Richard S. Arnold: A
Legacy of Justice on the Federal Bench
by Polly J. Price
Power: A Good Woman
by Elizabeth Goodman
Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant
by Robert Sullivan
on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache
by Peter Levinson
The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek
and the Struggle for Modern China
by Jay Taylor
by Margaret Washington
(Univ. of Illinois)
Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream
by Mark Gevisser
of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare
by Jonathan Bate
Girls Like Us: Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Books)
Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, A Personal Biography
by Charlotte Chandler (Applause)
Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician Man
by George Case
Sylvia Path: A Biography
by Connie Ann Kirk
James McGrath Morris, editor
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM 87574