Hermione Lee's Compact Look at Biography Hits the Stores
distinguished biographer Hermione Lee has added a title to the growing shelf of
books about the craft and art of biography. In the last three years, books such
as Carl Rollyson's Biography: A User's Guide (Ivan R. Dee) and Nigel Hamilton's How To Do Biography:
and Biography: A Brief History (both from Harvard University Press)
have found a receptive audience.
This month Oxford University Press will publish Lee's Biography: A Very Short Introduction as
part of its popular and long-running series of compact books on a wide variety
of topics in history, philosophy, religion, science, and the humanities. It
also comes with a modest price of $11.95.
Sprightly written and to the point,
the pocket-sized volume provides an entertaining and thoughtful history,
reflection, and commentary on the subject. Biographers, for instance, will love
her ten rules for biography, especially the tenth one. The final two chapters
alone, "Public Roles" and "Telling the Story," are worth the purchase
Lee told TBC that she had general
readers, students of "life writing," and fellow biographers in mind when she
wrote the book. Although she expressed confidence in the continued health of
biography, she admitted in a video interview that she remains puzzled as to
what attracts readers.
"Do we read biographies because we
want to read about people who are different from ourselves or do we read
biographies because we want to read about people who are very like ourselves?"
Lee asked. "Is it about identification and empathy or about strangeness and
otherness? Those kinds of conflicts are the sorts of things I am very
BIO Days Away from Becoming Reality; Website Up
international committee charged with producing a mission statement and
provisional bylaws for the Biographers International Organization (BIO) has
completed its work. It approved a proposed founding document that has been sent
to biographers who have expressed an interest in being members of the
Also this month, BIO may now be found on the Web at biographersinternational.org.
Assuming the bylaws are accepted by the would-be members,
elections of officers and a board will follow. These would comprise a
president, a vice president, a treasurer, a secretary, and a seven-member board.
In this interim period, the duties of
the executive director (to be picked by the board once in place) will be
assumed by James McGrath Morris, the organization's corresponding secretary.
Those who wish to run for one of the offices or the board should submit their
names to him. The deadline for nominations is midnight (MDT),
Thursday, October 1.
The idea of creating BIO was first
raised in the July 2008 issue of TBC. The completion of a founding document and
the approaching election of officers represent major steps in the launching of
an organization that aims to promote the art and craft of biography and seeks
to further the professional interests of its practitioners.
Next on the agenda will be its proposed
May 23, 2010, conference. Details on this and other aspects of BIO may also be found on the new website.
Holroyd Wins James Tait Black Biography Prize
Holroyd was selected for this year's James Tait Black award for biography. The
prize, given each year since 1919 by the University of Edinburgh, is awarded to
one work of fiction and one work of biography, based on a selection by scholars
Holroyd's A Strange Eventful History, which traces the lives of Ellen Terry
and Henry Irving, two stars of the Victorian theater, and their descendants,
was picked from a list of five finalists that included Arthur Miller 1915-1962, by Christopher Bigsby; Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, by
Gerald Martin; Edward Carpenter: A Life
of Liberty and Love, by Sheila Rowbotham; and Chagall: A Biography, by Jackie Wullschlager.
"I'm in good company, if a little
far behind," said Holroyd referring to the fact that his wife Margaret
Drabble won the fiction prize in 1967 for her novel Jerusalem the Golden.
It took Holroyd seven years to write the
book, and during part of that time he was suffering from bowel cancer. "Whenever I
could escape from the sick room, I used to immerse myself in another world, of
actors in the Edwardian age," Holroyd told the Guardian. "I hoped that need to get away from sickness and
enter another world would give the writing an additional intensity. It was a
magic carpet, and I was the time traveler."
TBC to Poll Its Readers to Help Plan Its Future
everything on the Internet supposed to be free-of-charge? Heck, I read the New York Times online and don't send a
penny to its hard-working staff. Instead the cost of delivering this daily
editorial wonder is supposed to be borne by advertisers. On a recent day, I
found folks paying large sums for space to persuade me to fly Air France, get a
new Visa card, or take Vytorn (ezetimibel/simvastatin) pills, though they
offered me no clue as to their purpose. But, from what I read in the financial
pages, even the venerable New York Times
can't make the new Internet economy work.
Ultimately, free may not be the
right way to get paid. That's the dilemma TBC is contemplating. When it was
launched, we presumed that book publishers would eagerly seek an opportunity to reach our choice
audience--yes, you, dear reader.
That has not happened.
So as we approach our third year,
TBC is considering adopting an old-fashion economic model--charging for our
product. To that end, we are going to conduct a random-sample survey of the
readership this month to see if you would be willing to pay a modest
subscription fee. The survey will also include some other questions to provide
us with editorial feedback.
If you receive one of the surveys, I
hope you will take a minute to complete it. If you want to weigh in with a
comment, suggestion, or thought, please write us. We love your letters.
New Levy Center Director in Place
Brenda Wineapple has been appointed executive director of the Leon Levy
Center for Biography. She replaces Nancy Milford, who stepped down as director this summer in order to concentrate on completing her biography of
Wineapple is an
accomplished biographer and scholar. Her most recent book, White Heat: The
Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was
published last year by Knopf.
TBC her plans for the center "include helping biography be better understood, both
within the academy and by the larger reading (and reviewing) public, as a
specific genre that depends not just on research, organization, and doggedness
but on the finest writing, the most careful shaping, and the widest vision; and
also welcoming innovations to the genre so that biography is not considered--or
executed--as a rote womb-to-tomb exercise."
In addition to her new duties as
director, Wineapple is working on a book about the United States between 1848
and 1877, to be published by HarperCollins.
Biographers Invited to Attend Seventh IABA Conference
Centre for Life History and Writing Research, at the University of Sussex, in
England, is inviting biographers to attend the seventh International
Auto/Biography Association five-day conference, to be held on its campus
beginning June 28, 2010.
The theme of this year's conference
is "Life Writing and Intimate Publics." According to the conference program,
the modern world has put a spotlight on intimate relations. "Families, feelings
and love lives have been opened to public politics through pressures of
globalization, digitization, the mass media and social movements such as
feminism. At the same time, traditional citizenship of public rights and
responsibilities find new definition through trauma, consumption, identity and
care. As boundaries between 'public' and 'private' multiply, new constituencies
of belonging and claim are convened, from Fathers for Justice to flood
survivors to Facebook."
Conference director Margaretta Jolly
reports that confirmed speakers include Michael Holroyd and Jenny Diski, among
others. For more information, consult the University of Sussex website.
"One of the aims of the conference is to bring together biographers,
autobiographers, and academics in oral-history and life-writing communities,"
The deadline for paper proposals was
September 1, but Jolly tells TBC she will accept proposals through the end of the
Calling All Rhode Island Biographers
past spring more than thirty biographers and memoirists gathered at the
Providence Athenaeum in Rhode Island. The meeting was an outgrowth of a small
biography group that has been active for a dozen years. The next meeting will be
in October, on a date to be determined.
Contact Jane Lancaster if you would
like to join the group.
Currently there are active biographer
meetings in Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and London. For information on
these city groups, write us.
James Lord, Giacometti Biographer, Dies at 86
Lord, credited with writing the definitive biography of artist Alberto
Giacometti, died at his home in Paris on August 23. He was 86.
A soldier in World War II, Lord came to
Paris after the city was liberated, befriended Picasso, and soon became a
fixture among the artists of the city. "Returning to Paris after the war," wrote
New York Times reporter William
Grimes, "he became a kind of Boswell to the artistic and social elite in France
and, to a lesser extent, Britain."
In addition to his well-known Giacometti
biography, Lord wrote novels and memoirs.
This month at TBC's Room of Our Own (completely redesigned--you must check it out!) we are featuring the office of British author Clare Mulley.
Her The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, Founder
of Save the Children was published in 2009 to coincide with the charity's
90th anniversary; it won the Daily Mail Biographers Club prize.
worked at Save the Children for five years before moving to another INGO and is
currently a trustee of the British charity Standing Together Against Domestic
Violence. In 2006 she was awarded a distinction for her Social and Cultural
History MA. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Saffron Walden,
England, where she is researching her next book.
Send your photo 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
No man is a hero to his valet, or
for that matter, his spouse. The greatest of men have often been
less-than-worthy husbands, be it Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy or Albert
Einstein. Patrick Henry, the hero of the American Revolution, immortally
declared, "Give me liberty or give me death", but afforded neither to the wife
he kept chained in the basement.
details are usually the stuff of biographies, safely tucked between the pages
of some 500-page treatise, softened and often redeemed by a larger narrative of
valour. But what if the storyteller were the wife, not her famed husband's
biographer? What tales would she tell of the man she married? [Read more]
unfortunately for me, a research commitment has forced me to trawl through
dozens of books about the recent history of British politics. On the whole,
this has not been much of a literary experience. Despite narrating the grand
and subtle power games of our times, the typical biographer of current players
in government seems to take their prose inspiration from the 1980s text
adventure games. [Read more]
Tips Corner: Bookmark This
Guide to Periodicals
Ellen Gruber Garvey, an associate professor of English at New Jersey City University, has put together a resource page that should be
bookmarked by most TBC readers.
website features links to almost every scanned 19th, 20th, and even 21st century periodical. It includes publications devoted to women, children, schools, alternative and radical causes, African Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few categories.
is maintained by the Research Society for American Periodicals, of which Garvey is the former president. She
recently returned from an NEH fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical
Society, where she worked on a book about 19th-century scrapbooks.
From the Editor's Desk
presume the notoriety of your subject will sell your book" may be the lesson of
this summer's sales reports on biographies. Jerry Oppenheimer's
much-touted Madoff with the Money has sold only about 1,000 copies, according
to Bookscan, which tracks 70 to 75 percent of the book market. Others have done
better, but only slightly. For instance, Andrew Kirtzman's Betrayal: The Life and Lies of Bernie Madoff has sold 3,000 copies.
During this month's vote on bylaws I received two ballots by
email that made reference to Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy in James Joyce's Ulysses. One
was written by a male screenwriter, the other by a female author. When I asked
one of the correspondents, the noted female writer, what it was about writers
that a simple "yes" didn't suffice, she wrote back, "Perhaps we get our sex mainly through words? That's a pity."
next books coming from two of England's best-known biographers have been
announced. Claire Tomalin will be tackling
Charles Dickens. At 76, Tomalin shows no sign of easing up on her
ambitious biographical list, which so far includes Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, and
Hermione Lee, who is featured in
this issue of TBC, once told a reporter that "people always ask what I'm
working on. Now I say 'nothing'. It is a bugbear of mine that people should
always be defined by what they're doing. Not enough allowance is made for the
importance of just thinking." Of course, we asked. We had better luck than the
reporter. She disclosed she is working on a biography of writer Penelope
you will learn in this issue of TBC, we are trying to make some decisions about
our long-run finances. We are counting on you who are selected for the surveys
to help us make our plans. We will also listen carefully to anyone who
cares to write us. But, in the end, rest assured that should TBC become a
paid-subscription publication, you, the original subscribers, will become
charter subscribers, with at least a year-long complimentary subscription.
James McGrath Morris
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies recently sold to publishers, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.
Dan Cryer, American Grain: Rev. Forrest Church and the
Boomer-Generation Quest for Spirituality, to St. Martin's
Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century, to Viking
Gire, Albert Schweitzer, a short biography in the "Christian
Encounter" Series, to Thomas Nelson
Jenkins, Rehnquist, to Public Affairs
Ricca, Super Boys: Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and the Creation of Superman,
Tyldesley, Tutankhamen's Curse: A Biography of King Tut, to
Goldberg, The Goddess Pose (life of Indra Devi), to Knopf
Goldsmith, The Cardinal's Nieces (Marie and Hortense Mancini), to Public Affairs
The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are accompanied by a link to the PW review.
Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary
M. Patenaude (Harper)
Major Farran's Hat: The Untold Story of the Struggle to Establish the
Cesarani (Da Capo)
The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan,
and the History of the Cold War
Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's
Most Notorious Minister
by Robert Hutchinson
(St. Martin's / Dunne)
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of
a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
Hoover Bartlett (Riverhead)
Marcus Aurelius: A Life
The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Françoise d'Aubigné,
Madame de Maintenon
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina
Grimké Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant
Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third
Reich, and the Space Race
by Wayne Biddle
Where Men Win
Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday)
Horton Foote: America's Storyteller
Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes
The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac,
Mystic of the Atom
NEW IN PAPER
Taking on the Trust: The
Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller
by Steve Weinberg (Norton)
James McGrath Morris,
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM 87574
by Jane Brown
James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd