The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
July 2009
  Vol. 3, No.5
Autumn's Crop of Biographies

It may be that TBC's crack research team, who did not attend the BEA this year (budget cuts, you know) missed learning about some blockbusters. But if one is to judge the Fall 2009 season by the list of forthcoming biographies submitted by publishers to Publishers Weekly, the Bible of our industry, it's not one overflowing with exciting and noteworthy biographies.
     If the season turns out to be lackluster, it's not a worrisome state. There are many major biographies in the pipeline. Ron Chernow is finishing one on George Washington, Charles J. Shield's biography of the late Kurt Vonnegut is expected out in 2010, and Adam Begley is at work on a John Updike biography, to name a few examples of highly anticipated works.
     Here is a short preview of the fall season:
     Knopf, which published the recent successful biography on Vanderbilt, has put its hopes in reader interest in royalty and movies stars. It will publish William Shawcross's Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Queen MumMother and Michael Feeney Callan's Robert Redford: The Biography. Both books are based on cooperation by the subjects and unprecedented access to documents.
     Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is also counting on star power to lift its sales. It will bring out William H. Mann's How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood. Clint "Make My Day" Eastwood is the subject of Marc Eliot's American Rebel, to be published by Harmony.
     The life of one of the century's most politically influential novelists, Ayn Rand, will be told in Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand Randand the World She Made. Published by Nan A. Talese, the book is based on original research in Russia, dozens of interviews with Rand's acquaintances and former acolytes, and previously unexamined archives of tapes and letters. The life of another Russian writer will also be in stores. Joseph Frank's five-volume biography of writer Fyodor Dostoevsky will be condensed into a new single-volume edition that Princeton University Press will publish under the title Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time.
     Political figures will get their share of books. The late Texas writer Molly Ivins will be remembered in a biography by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith (Public Affairs.) Other works include David Crocket in Congress: The Rise and Fall of the Poor Man's Friend, by James R. Boylston and Allen J. Wiener (Bright Sky Press); Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the Twentieth Century's Most Influential Economist, by Peter Clarke (Bloomsbury); Harold Macmillan, by Charles Williams (Orion/Widenfeld & Nicholson); and Honorable Survivor, by Lynne Joiner (Naval Institute Press), about the life of John S. Service, the U.S. foreign service officer who predicted the rise of Mao Zedong and then became Senator McCarthy's first victim in the 1950s Red Scare. Simon & Schuster is rolling out 125,000 copies of The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China, by Hannah Pakula.
    The football star who died while serving as an Army ranger in Afghanistan is the subject of Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tilman (Doubleday).Hoover 02
    The later years of artist Georgia O'Keeffe will be featured in the second of a two-volume biography by Nancy Reily from Sunstone Press.
    Lastly, the long-awaited (at least in the editor's home) Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power will be published by HarperCollins in February, the last month of the traditional fall season.

Ivan Dee Moves Forward with a New Series of Biographies on African-American Figures
WashingtonA biography of Booker T. Washington is the second in a new series of books being published by the Chicago-based Ivan R. Dee publishing company. Called the Library of African-American Biography, the series "aims to provide concise, readable, and up-to-date lives of leading black figures in American history, in widely varying fields of accomplishment," according to the publisher.
     Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow, the new entry into the series, was written by Raymond W. Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and co-editor, with Louis Harlan, of the fourteen-volume Booker T. Washington Papers.
    The series is being edited by John David Smith, the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Smith tells TBC that books on the following subjects are under contract: Marcus Garvey, by Mark Huddle; Jackie Robinson, by Chris Schutz; and Richard Wright, by Jennifer Jensen Wallach.

BIO Committee Adopts Proposed Mission Statement; Bylaws Are Next
BIO's twenty-two-member international founding committee has completed its work drafting a mission statement (see TBC, April 2009). It is now beginning work on approving a proposed set of bylaws.
     It is hoped that the committee will conclude its work in July and be able to send the mission statement and bylaws to the BIO membership for approval in August. Assuming the membership approves the mission statement and bylaws, the next step will be to elect officers and board members, which could be accomplished as early as September.
     Meanwhile planning continues for a spring conference, to be called "The Compleat Biographer," featuring workshops on such practical aspects of the craft as choosing a subject, funding your research, dealing with your subject's family, hiring a researcher by long distance, and note-taking systems, among other topics.
     If you have topic ideas or would like to volunteer to help organize the spring conference, please contact us.

Caro Is 2009 Levy Center Lecturer; Milford Steps Down as Executive Director
CaroTwo-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro, at work on the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, will be the 2009 Leon Levy Center for Biography lecturer. His speech is scheduled for September 29 at the center. Watch for more information on how to attend the talk in coming issues of TBC.
     The center is making some leadership changes. Nancy Milford is stepping down as executive director in order to concentrate her time on completing her biography of Rose Kennedy. She will remain associated with the center as a biographer-in-residence for the next two years. David Nasaw will assume the post of acting executive director until such time as a replacement has been found for Milford.

John Matteson: 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. TBC is running profiles of the four 2009-2010 fellows. In May we featured Mary Lisa Gavenas and in June Wendy Lesser. Next month it will be Vanda Krefft.
John T. Matteson hopes the Levy Center Fellowship he won will permit him to finish the manuscript of his next biography by the Mattesonend of the academic year. An associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Matteson will be working on a book similar to Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, which won him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
     His new subject is Margaret Fuller, a nineteenth-century journalist, critic, and women's rights activist, as well as a prominent female figure of American Transcendentalism. "I chose to write about Margaret Fuller because she enables me both to explore further some of the central concerns that engaged me in Eden's Outcasts and to take my biographical writing to what I consider a deeper and more rewarding level," Matteson told TBC.
     "I continue to be deeply interested in the daughters of noteworthy fathers who took an unusual interest in the education of their daughters. In that sense, Fuller resembles Louisa May Alcott. Also like Louisa, Fuller lived a life with numerous exciting and unusual episodes, and I find her experiences every bit as captivating as her writings. The difference with Fuller is her intellectual depth. Alcott had a very playful, common-sense intellect, one that gravitated toward the contemplation of everyday life. Fuller's mind had many more layers and complexities. There is a philosophical richness there that I find irresistible."
     Like many biographers working on a subject about whom there is a lot of material, Matteson faces the challenge of not getting lost, nor losing the reader, in an overflow of information. "The trick is to tell the story with a sense of its fullness without losing sight of one's narrative. One discovers quickly with Fuller that merely supplying information is not the same as telling a story. Another challenge where she is concerned has to do with the unusually rich supporting cast of characters. Fuller had important relationships with a number of heavyweights: Emerson, Greeley, Mazzini, and the Brownings, to name just a handful. It's tempting to get too involved in their stories and to forget to place Fuller at center stage."
     On the other hand, Matteson has one of the great nineteenth-century lives to tell. Fuller constantly reinvented herself and was still evolving when her life was cut short at forty. "Her personal metamorphosis from child prodigy to misfit to intellectual to activist is one of the richest stories of personal growth ever enacted in America." Matteson said.
     "Working on the Alcotts was perhaps a bit like writing a Haydn symphony. Fuller is the stuff of grand opera."

Chronicling America Posts Its Millionth Page
Chronicling America, the joint project of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities to create an online text-searchable collection of American newspapers, posted its millionth page in June.
     Eventually the project hopes to post 20 million pages of newspapers from 1880 to 1922. Currently researchers can scour papers from twelve states, but publications from other states are rapidly becoming available as more state organizations receive funding to select their regional papers and digitize them for the project. The University of Kentucky Libraries, for example, have processed thirty-seven of that state's papers. The NEH has distributed $11.6 million to state organizations for the project.
     The National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) is a partnership between the NEH, the Library of Congress, and state organizations to provide enhanced access to U.S. newspapers published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. NEH awards support state projects to select and digitize historically significant titles that are aggregated and permanently maintained by the Library of Congress.
     A complete list of the newspapers already available may be found here.

Accessible Archives Expands Its South Carolina Newspaper Collection
Accessible Archives, a publisher of electronic full-text searchable historical databases, has added four titles and renamed its Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper database South Carolina Newspapers to reflect its broader collection.
    "While digitizing the South Carolina Gazette we discovered a group of papers published in and around Charleston offering a variety of views and coverage," explained Tom Nagy, an executive with the firm. "By adding them to the collection we are able to provide a broader coverage of colonial America and events leading up to an affecting the American Revolution."

Booklist's Top Ten Biographies
Booklist has made its selection of the ten best biographies reviewed in its pages since June 2008.
      They are as follows:
  • The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition, by Thomas P. Slaughter (Hill & Wang)
  • Cheever, by Blake Bailey (Knopf)
  • The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances PerkinsPerkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kirstin Downey (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese)
  • The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed (Norton)
  • Le Corbusier, by Nicholas Fox Weber (Knopf)
  • Mary Austin and the American West, by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson (University of California)
  • My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century, by Adina Hoffman (Yale)
  • A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, by Donald Worster (Oxford)
  • Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, by Robert J. Norrell  (Harvard/Belknap)
  • Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, by Allen Barra (Norton)

Picture This

In the three months since TBC inaugurated this new feature of posting photographs of our work spaces, it has become the most popular item in the newsletter.
   Steve  This month we are featuring the office of Stephen H. Grant, author of Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal. He is currently at work on a biography of Henry and Emily Folger, founders of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
     Be sure to visit TBC's Room of Our Own Web page for other photographs.
     Send your photos to us.


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)

What does it feel like to invite an extremely distinguished, highly strung stranger into your home, into your head, for a few years? Would anyone in their right mind do it? Biographers do. But what happens to the rest of your life when a troubled genius lurks, waiting in the study in the morning and ambushing dreams at night? [Read more]
--Susie Boyt, Financial Times

I can think of only two really good reasons to read biographies. One is to learn interesting things about history and the world, which for many guys really means becoming the indisputable master of some narrow field of knowledge. (Did you know it is possible to construct a busy reading life without ever straying from books about Abraham Lincoln?) The other good reason is to get the dirt. Reading about heroes can only take you so far. I'd rather read about people who are at least as despicable as me, or worse than I will ever dare to be.[Read more]
--David Wright, Booklist

Tips Corner: A Boon for Those Doing Military Research

A few years ago the U.S. Army's Center of Military History launched a Web catalog of its publications. Recently the catalog has been revamped to make it comprehensive. It now lists more than six hundred publications, stretching back to the center's beginnings.
     Other improvements include increased search capabilities and links that expand the contents.
     Bill Olbrich, a government information specialist at the St. Louis Public Library, says "The USACMH books are high-quality, well-written materials." Most of the titles can be found in larger federal depository libraries, which include most academic institutions with at least 10,000 students and most public libraries with city populations of 300,000 or more.
     "The center's staff is unusually helpful to the clueless researcher," writes Olbrich in a Web posting. He adds, "No, they did not bribe me to write this recommendation."

In This Issue
Autumn's Crop of Biographies
New Series from Ivan Dee
BIO Gets One Step Closer to Reality
Caro Is Levy Lecturer
Matteson: A Levy Fellow
Million Pages for LoC Project
SC Newspaper Collection Expands
Booklist's Top Biographies
Picture This
Tips Corner
From the Editor's Desk
I recently told my walking companion--we're both working on swimsuit figures--that my book's launch had been moved up a month. "You mean preponed?" he said. Seeing that I was startled by his unusual choice of words, my erudite colleague, a retired nuclear physicist, explained that "prepone" (as an antonym to "postpone") was a word he heard many years ago when he went on a lecture tour to India.
    Being the doubtful and skeptical researcher, I checked. Not only has it been used for more than fifty years in India, it is now gaining favor in the medical profession, especially in Canada.
     Amazing what one can learn from a scientist. I'm thinking of a new marketing line for books and movies: "Preponed by popular demand!"
This issue is certainly not preponed. We endeavor to get it by the first of each month. Travel, sickness, and cataract surgery made us run late this month.
     Also, there is no calendar this month and the lack of events may cause us to pull the August calendar. But be sure to send in a listing of your events for the fall so that our readers don't miss out on learning about them.
Not a biography but bound to be of interest to biographers is Trudy Balch's translation of a bestselling Spanish-language autobiography of Gaby Brimmer, a Jewish-Mexican writer and disability activitist. Published by Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, Gaby Brimmer: An Autobiography in Three Voices is told by means of a three-way conversation between Brimmer, her mother, and her caregiver. Elena Poniatowska, known for works based on interviews and oral histories, provides an introduction.

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris

P.S. Don't forget to submit a photo of your workplace for our Room of Our Own Web page.
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Sold to Publishers

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

Stephen Michael Shearer, Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr, to
Thomas Dunne Books
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

In Stores

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

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
by Larry Tye
PW Review
John Brown's War Against Slavery

by Robert E. McGlone
(Cambridge University Press)
PW Review

William Henry Seward and the Secession Crisis: The Effort to Prevent Civil War
by Lawrence M. Denton

The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal
by Mark Ribowsky
(Da Capo)
PW Review
No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church: A Biography

by Robert Dean Lurie
(Verse Chorus)
PW Review

Bob Zuppke: The Life and Football Legacy of the Illinois Coach
by Maynard Brichford

  The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer
by David Roberts
PW Review
The Life of Mary Queen of Scots: An Accidental Tragedy
by Roderick Graham
PW Review
The United States Army in the War of 1812: Concise Biographies of Commanders and Operational Histories of Regiments, with Bibliographies of Published and Primary Sources
by John C. Fredriksen

Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World
by Glenn Stout
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
PW Review



James McGrath Morris,

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

Photo of James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd