Jon Meacham's American Lion Takes Pulitzer Prize for Biography
Biographer and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham was
attending a board meeting at Sewannee: The University of South on April 20 when
his Blackberry lit up with the news. His biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House) had
been awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The citation called it "an
unflinching portrait of a not always admirable Democrat but a pivotal
president, written with an agile prose that brings the Jackson saga to life."
Meacham, the author of Franklin
and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, discounted what critics have called his
entertaining and lively writing style as something new. "I do not see the manner in which I wrote the
Jackson book as distinct from the way many other biographies are written,"
Meacham told TBC. "I am an enormous admirer of writers such as Robert Remini,
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., William Manchester, and so many others."
American Lion also garnered praise for
its evenhandedness and Meacham's analysis of the arcane political world of the
early nineteenth century. "I like to think that my background in journalism may
help me detect and assess the political forces at play in a given historical
situation, and perhaps the human ones too," Meacham said. But, he added, "great
biographers write in engaging ways no matter how they trained. I am just
grateful to all the biographers who have given me so many countless hours of
pleasure and profit."
Also nominated as finalists for this
year's biography prize were H. W. Brands's Traitor
to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano
Roosevelt (Doubleday) and Steve Coll's The
Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (Penguin).
Biographers' Club Expands Number of Prizes and Begins Taking Applications for its Renamed Annual Award
Club is renaming its annual prize the Tony Lothian Biographers' Club Prize after the late biographer. The £2,000
prize is awarded each year by the London-based organization to an
uncommissioned first-time writer working on a biography.
This year's judges will
be Margaret Drabble, whose biographies include Arnold Bennett and Angus
Wilson; Anne de Courcy, author of The
Viceroy's Daughters and Snowdon: The
Biography; and John Guy, whose books include Tudor England and My Heart Is
My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots.
The name change was prompted by a generous donation from the Lothian family. Antonella, Marchioness
of Lothian, OBE (1922-2007)--always known as Tony--wrote a biography of
her close friend Valentina Tereshkova (Valentina: The First Woman in Space
). Lothian was also a current-affairs
columnist on the Scottish Daily Express
and a broadcaster and
television presenter. In 1955, along with Odette Hallowes and Georgina
Coleridge, she created the Woman of the Year Lunch, an event that continues to
The 2007 prize winner, Clare Mulley's The Woman Who Saved the
Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, was released by Oneworld on April
24. All the book's royalties will be donated to the Save the Children Fund.
to changing the name of its annual prize, the club has decided to start
awarding prizes for the best first biography, for club members' favorite
biographies, and for services to biography. Details on applying for any of the
awards may be obtained from the Biographers' Club Web site.
Lessons from an "Ensemble Story"
David O. Stewart's Impeached:
The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy, out this
month from Simon & Schuster, may be of interest to biographers as a model
for managing the eternal problem of minor characters.
what he calls an "ensemble story," Stewart had to cope with a huge cast of
politicians and journalists. As biographers have to do with the numerous people
who surround their subjects, Stewart had to weigh how much to tell
the reader about each person who walked across his literary stage. If early
reviews are any indication, his approach succeeded. "Stewart takes readers through a tangled web of motives and maneuverings
in lively, unadorned prose," noted Kirkus. "He's skilled at characterizing his
large cast of characters."
Like a biographer, Stewart first had to
decide whether to even identify a person. Frequently in a biography a minor
figure is reduced to "an editor," "a friend," a "savvy observer," or some other
anonymous epithet to prevent overwhelming the reader with names, an excess of which gives a book the Russian novel problem, said Stewart. "Readers get
bogged down with too many names, so they stop trying to remember them or, worst
of all, stop reading the book."
Stewart's rule of thumb is the
person must make at least three or four appearances to merit a full
Once a figure has been
identified, the next dilemma becomes how much needs to be said about them. "You
have to keep people in balance," Stewart said. "They should get only as much
air time as their significance warrants."
To accomplish this, Stewart
researches the person's life with an eye for those things that will illuminate
their behavior in the tale he is telling. "You know how they behaved," he said,
"so go back and look for parts in their lives that give some explanation as to
why they acted as they did."
The research is the key. Authors
gather more information about their subjects than needs to be revealed. "You
look for personality traits that will be central to the story you are telling,"
Stewart said. "You try to find expressions of that in their lives."
Next up for Stewart is a book on the
alleged treasonous conspiracy by Aaron Burr.
Best Biography and Best of Everything Through "Bracketology"
The Final Four of
Everything, to be published month by Simon & Schuster, takes a look at
everything from breakfast cereal and biographies to talk-show hosts and romance novels using the method of "bracketology" to
determine what we love or hate--and why.
TBC's editor contributed the entry
on biographies. As an exclusive preview for our readers, the publisher provided us with permission to share the Biography Brackets.
The PDF file may be viewed here, or you may visit a special page on our Web site with a link to the brackets.
The choices and the winners are bound to inspire debate, and as always we invite you to send in
your comments to us and we will publish them next month.
It's hard not to be familiar with
the tournament bracket format used in the overhyped NCAA basketball tournament
pairings each March. If you've ever participated in a March Madness office
pool, you know what a bracket looks like. If you are among those who have
remained immune, Wikipedia can explain the "science."
Editors Mark Reiter and Richard
Sandomir have taken the concept one step further by applying the knockout
format to every category but
basketball. You can build your own brackets at a special Web site created by
the book's publisher.
Mary Lisa Gavenas: A Levy Center Fellow
In its first two years
the Leon Levy Center for Biography has awarded eight one-year $60,000 fellowships to biographers. The fellowships are among the most
competitive and significant funding awards available to biographers. Over the
coming four issues we will profile the four 2009-2010 fellows.
Lisa Gavenas has worked as both a beauty editor and a scholar of the beauty
industry, especially as it relates to cultural history. Her previous book, Color Stories: Behind the Scenes in
America's Billion-Dollar Beauty Industry, was published by Simon &
Schuster in 2007.
herself as "over the moon" in learning that she would be one of four Levy
fellows. She will use the appointment, funds, and time to work on a biography
of Mary Kay Ash, founder of the multibillion-dollar Mary Kay cosmetic company,
whose products are sold in offices and homes by nearly two million women.
Gavenas first covered Mary Kay Ash's company when
she researched her earlier book. "I realized that her life story was
intertwined with social history that I felt was ignored or, at the very least,
under-explored," she told TBC.
"On the technical level,
she presented an opportunity to explore a new form of biography. As a longtime
journalist and sometime academic author, I wanted to aspire to something beyond
the standard form of storytelling. In this case, I plan to let Mary Kay Ash's
life be defined by its intersections with the life stories of other people. I
think of it as a Studs Terkel technique to biography.
"This is a life
that reads like a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. Her story is a page-turner,
pure and simple. At face value, the book is a first look at an icon who founded
an outrageously successful and secretive business with its own language,
manners, and customs. I hope to push it into a biography that also clarifies
evangelical capitalism, women's status in the business world, and the shaping
of twentieth-century American identity."
Google Books Settlement Delayed
A federal judge is giving authors
four more months to opt out of the deal and review potential pitfalls in the
proposed Google settlement over its book-scanning program. Instead of the
original May 5 deadline, the court ruled that authors now have until September
4 to consider the agreement.
The Google Print
Library Project has scanned millions of books from libraries. A class-action
suit filed in 2005 by the Authors Guild alleged that Google was "engaging in
massive copyright infringement." Publishers have also joined the suit.
In October 2008
Google and the publishing industry agreed to settle. Under the terms of the
settlement, Google would pay $125 million while developing online sales
opportunities for scanned books that turn up in Google searches. Future
revenues would be divided between Google, publishers, and authors. The latter
two would divide 64 percent of the money, and Google would keep the remainder.
The company also agreed to pay for the millions of copyrighted books already
scanned and for the legal fees of the Authors Guild and publishers.
Another hurdle to the deal's approval has recently surfaced. The Justice Department is
reviewing whether Google's settlement violates antitrust laws.
Readex Adds Twentieth-Century Newspapers to Its Digital Collection
Readex is launching American Newspaper Archives, an online collection that will offer
access to major US newspapers. A part of America's Historical
will provide users with fully searchable digital editions of historically
significant and regionally diverse publications from the nineteenth century
through the 1990s.
Initially, American Newspaper
Archives will feature nine papers and their relevant
predecessors: The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana; 1837-1988),
The Plain-Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio; 1845-1991), The Oregonian (Portland,
Oregon; 1850-1987), Press-Register (Mobile, Alabama; 1821-1992),
The Times (Trenton, New Jersey; 1883-1993), The Seattle Times (Seattle,
Washington; 1896-1984), The Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts;
1850-1987), The Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas; 1885-1984), and The
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia; 1792-1993).
month TBC inaugurated 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.
As promised, here is a photo of a less-than-neat
biographer's workplace. Yup, it's the one belonging to the editor. Click here to see the Room of Our Own Web page.
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 May 17, 3 to 5 p.m., in Cambridge, MA. If interested in attending, e-mail Elizabeth Harris or call (978) 270-0084.
Miles Jackson, Emeritus Dean, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, author and filmmaker, will give a talk entitled "Holding Fast the Dream: Hawai`i's African American Experience" on May 6.
All talks are held from 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
Biography Group will have a discussion on the topic of "Taboos: what you can say, what you can't say."
May 18, 7 to 9 p.m.,
Washington International School, 3100 Macomb Street 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
Not long ago a friend and I discussed the art of a really
good romantic e-mail exchange--one with just the right mix of cultural
allusion, flirtation and wit. While e-mail has killed the suspense of the old
fashioned epistolary exchange, it is not nearly lamentable as the rapid fire
(and often lazy) text message. Although the love letter has been reduced to 160
characters, it still stands as an imperative in modern day courtship. So, how
do you think you would survive in a time when romantic exchanges were made
through handwritten letters and sonnets? That was the question I pondered while
reading Edna St. Vincent Millay's biography What Lips My Lips Have Kissed:
The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. [read more]
--Michelle Rafferty, OUP publicity assistant
Tips Corner: Criminal Matters and Tracking Down the Rich
Barbara Fister, a
mystery novelist and librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota,
maintains a Web site full of useful ideas and links primarily to do with crime,
criminal justice, and general research.
If you are chasing
down information on the rich and famous in the 1980s and 1990s, Town & Country magazine can be a
useful source. But it is not indexed. Waltman Associates, a firm
specializing in helping organizations raise money, publishes the Town
& Country Personal Name Index, which covers issues from 1986 to 1998, in a
searchable database on CD-ROM for Windows, priced at $99.00.
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
For those of you hoping for a Pulitzer Prize in biography,
the trend is clear. You will need to rethink your title.
An in-depth examination of the last
four prizes awarded by the Pulitzer committee reveals an
important bias. In three of the four years, they responded positively to the
word "America" or "American," as in American
Lion, The Most Famous Man in America, and American Prometheus.
Biographer and novelist Antoinette May has fun combining the
two crafts in her new novel, The Sacred Well,
in stores this month. The book combines the story of Alma Reed, a famous
reporter who accompanied archaeologists to the ruins of Chichen Itza, where a
fortune in Mayan artifacts has been stolen from a sacrificial well, and that of
Sage Sanborn, who is writing her biography eighty years later.
"Every biography is in some way
exploitation," says Sanborn. "Hadn't I reinvented my heroine? Biographers face
constant choices. What to say, what to leave unsaid."
Author imitating subject?
This month Chicago Review Press (one of the nation's best independent houses) is publishing Matthew Algeo
terrific book Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great
American Road Trip. In it he recounts how less
than six months after leaving the White House in 1953, Harry and Bess Truman
took a 2,500-mile road trip in their Chrysler New Yorker. Now Algeo is
retracing the route as part of his book tour. You can read all about the book
and the tour in Publishers Weekly.
James McGrath Morris
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies recently sold to publishers, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.
Kathleen Jones, Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, to Penguin
Jeffrey Meyers, John Huston, to Broadway
Justin Martin, biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, to Merloyd
William Silber, Paul Volker: Central Banker, to Bloomsbury
Jenny Woolf, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, to St.
Frederick Nolan, The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall, to Sunstone Press
John Guy, biography of Thomas Becket, to Random House
Michael Scheuer, Osama Bin Laden: A Biography, to Oxford University Press
The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are accompanied by a link to the PW review.
Paul Newman: A Life
by Shawn Levy
(Harmony)The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
by Alec Wilkinson
(Knopf)Iron Man McGinnity:
A Baseball Biography
by Don Doxsie
The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr. Beddoes and
His Sons of Genius
by Mike Jay
(Yale University Press)
Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed
the Pop Sounds of a Century
(Oxford University Press)Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England
by Ralph V. Turner
(Yale University Press)PW Review
Mr. Mob: The Life and Crimes of Moe Dalitz
by Michael Newton
The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution
by Alex Storozynski
We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, Rivals
by Gillian Gill
The King of Vodka:
The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an
Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West,
Becoming Bucky Fuller
by Loretta Lorance
The Lassa Ward: One Man's Fight Against One of the World's Deadliest
In the Valley of the Kings: Howard Carter and the Mystery of King
by Daniel Meyerson
On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno
by David Sheppard
The Match King:
The Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street
Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and
Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller
by Kim E. Nielsen
by Maurice Lever, trans. from the
French by Susan Emanuel
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
James McGrath Morris,
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM 87574