The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
October 2009
  Vol. 3, No.8
First BIO "Compleat Biographer" Conference Set for May in Boston

The University of Massachusetts Boston will be the site for the first ever Biographers International Organization (BIO) conference, on May 15, 2010. The daylong event, called the "Compleat Biographer," will focus on the practical aspects of the art and craft of biography. UMB
     The Boston Biography Group will act as the formal host of the conference, but others will handle  registration and payment. Details regarding hotels, meals, and other practicalities will become available later this fall. A number of biographers have already volunteered to conduct workshops and serve on panels. The conference committee will issue a formal call for participation.
     In conjunction with the conference, BIO will hold its first annual business meeting, during which it will formally approve its bylaws, which were recently provisionally approved, and install its officers. Originally the date of the conference had been tentatively set for May 23, but for space and scheduling reasons the final date became May 15.
     Further details on the conference will be posted on the new Biographers International Organization website.

Caro Shares Insights about Conveying Sense of Place in Levy Lecture
By Steven Hart

At the end of his speech at the Leon Levy Center for Biography in New York, Robert Caro pointed to his wristwatch and joked that he'd run over his allotted time, a trait he claimed showed why "I always write thousand-page books." Judging from the applause, I doubt many people noticed he'd gone into overtime--or even cared if they had.
     Caro was the second biographer to be selected to give the annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture. Each year, the center selects a biographer of note to give a lecture on the process of researching and writing a biography, with a focus on their current work in progress.
      Hoover 02The theme of Caro's speech, delivered before a capacity crowd, was the importance of conveying a sense of place in writing biography. As the author of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, and the ongoing, Brobdingnagian chronicle The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro certainly has the credentials to show how biography should be done.
     Interestingly, when Caro illustrated the need for a sense of place, he cited examples from fiction: Tolstoy's description of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace, Herman Melville's account of a dead whale being systematically taken apart by whalers in Moby-Dick, and Dickens' depiction, in Great Expectations, of Miss Havisham's house, a mansion turned into a mausoleum for the hopes that died when she was jilted by her suitor. This tact served as a reminder that Caro is a contemporary of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and other New Journalism figures, who brought literary techniques to their reportage, though I could hardly think of great books with less in common than The Power Broker and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, or Means of Ascent and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
     What Caro went on to demonstrate was the power of storytelling grounded in deep, painstaking research. Anyone hoping for a taste of the fourth and (Caro says) final Johnson volume went away disappointed: he concentrated on his time spent in the Texas hill country, where he got a feel for the loneliness, isolation, and poverty that wracked Johnson's youth. Caro noted that when he started his Johnson research, there were already 17 books about the controversial president, and he had read "Johnson grew up poor" so many times he thought he already knew most of what he needed. Only by going to the hill country could he imagine what it would be like to live in a place where the essentials of life had to be dug, chopped, and hauled across miles of rugged landscape.
     Particularly spooky was Caro's description of how one of Johnson's relatives made him get on his knees and thrust his fingers into the soil, by way of demonstrating the mistake that ruined the Johnson family's fortunes. No matter where he dug, Caro said, he never found soil that was deep enough to cover even the length of his fingers. The land was beautiful, but the beauty was a veneer of easily exhausted soil over rock. Johnson's father overpaid for his property, thinking he would grow crops, and in so doing dragged the family into ruin. His son's ruthlessness and drive, Caro explained, was rooted in that disaster.
     Not all of this was new--some of it has been offered by Caro at many other speaking engagements. But the author's storytelling skills rendered the lack of novelty irrelevant. To illustrate his theme of the need to convey a sense of place, Caro spoke of New York City; Washington, D.C.; and the Texas countryside. But by the end of the evening, it was all Caro country, and I am eager to pay it another visit.
Steven Hart is a journalist and freelance writer based in New Jersey. His first book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America's First Superhighway, is now available in hardcover from the New Press. This article was adapted from the account posted on his blog.

Famed Novelist of Ideas Ayn Rand Captured in Two New Biographies
Readers will have their choice of two major new biographies of Ayn Rand this month as Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press) and Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) arrive in bookstores.
     Each has received favorable early reviews, earning starred reviews from Booklist. In fact, at least one reviewer suggested that they work wonderfully as a pair to provide a rounded portrait the influential Russian-born writer and philosopher.
    rand-heller Unlike millions of American adolescents, Heller somehow escaped reading Rand's undyingly popular and iconic books until she reached her forties. This gave Heller a distinctly different perspective in tackling Rand. "If I had read her work when I was in my teens," she said, "I would have focused angrily on her 'morality of selfishness' and might not have appreciated her legitimate insights into the nature of state power and her remarkable ability to integrate her fast-paced plots, outsize characters, and original themes in large-scale nineteenth-century-style social novels of ideas."
  rand-burns   In Burns's case, she began working on Rand during her graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "Part of it was my dormant interest in literature, roused now by a long-dead novelist still read by thousands," Burns said. "Everywhere I went, it seemed, I saw someone reading one of her books. But unlike, say, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wharton, or any other American novelist who had stood the test of time, there wasn't an established 'line' on Rand within the academic world. She claimed to have made great innovations in philosophy, literature, and ethics. Was that true? Where did she fit in American history? Surely she was significant, but just how?"
     Both Heller and Burns took years to produce their biographies, which remarkably are coming out in the same month. For a biographer Rand is a risky and challenging subject. Rand held sway, and still does, over a vast number of influential followers, including, among the better known, economist and former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan. In addition, as Heller said, "she remains a powerful if largely unsung influence on the political perceptions of the millions of Americans who have read her books." On the other side of this admiring crowd are critics and detractors who consider her--in the words of one of them--"a fruitcake."
     To navigate the waters stirred by adorers and detractors is tricky. For instance, Heller was denied access to papers kept by the Ayn Rand Institute. Burns, on the hand, did get to see these documents. She tells a great tale about how she first gained access while a student, the fact that some of the documents had been altered in their published form, and how she won permission to use all but two quotations. (See this month's Amanuensis for a link to the tales.)

Two Authors Illustrate Ways to Get More Mileage Out of Your Subject

When biographers finish their work, they usually move on to a new subject. Two new books provide models of ways one can get more mileage from the extensive research it takes to complete a biography.
    Miller In the first case, biographer Kristie Miller found an instructive way to extend the life of her work on her last subject by editing a collection of correspondence. In 1999 Miller, at work on her since-published biography of Isabella Greenway, wrote an article about the correspondence between Greenway and Eleanor Roosevelt for the Arizona Historical Journal. "It sold out the magazine, first time ever," Kristie told TBC. "So I knew there was interest."
     This month the Arizona Historical Society will release A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway, 1904-1953, edited by Miller and Robert H. McGinnis.
     Miller had already copied the letters for the research on her Greenway biography, but as she worked on the volume she realized that the letters alone were not enough. "I had to explain who the people in the letters were, decipher unusual words and figures of speech for modern readers, and give background on books and current events alluded to," she said. In the end it required that she and her co-editor write 850 footnotes, weave the letters into a narrative, and add an introduction and a conclusion.
     Author Welford Dunaway Taylor's work on writer Sherwood Anderson offers a novel way to present one's research. Taylor compiled reminiscences of the famous author of Winesburg, Ohio and short stories into a book coming out this month from the University of Alabama Press. "Sherwood Anderson Remembered is an attempt to create a different biographical perspective for its subject, one that represents an alternative to the autobiographical narratives and the third-person portrayals," explained Taylor in his introduction.
     These are two examples of sequels, if you wish, to biographies, but they are not necessarily easy to pull off. "The bottom line," said Miller, "is that it's a good way to get a second book out of the material you have already collected and digested, but it's also a lot of work."

From Collecting Dust to Publication, Distinguished Biography of Augustine Heads to Bookstores
More than a quarter century ago, Oxford University Press commissioned Henry Chadwick, then Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, to write a short book on Augustine for what would eventually form Oxford's popular Very Short Introduction series. When the manuscript arrived, it was 60 percent too long for their current purposes.
     chadwickTo comply with the editor's wishes, Chadwick wrote a new, shorter text and put the longer work on the shelf. For almost three decades the typescript gathered dust in Chadwick's study, until shortly before his death, in June 2008, when his wife and daughter contacted Oxford to ask if they would have interest in publishing it, according to a press spokesperson. The manuscript was submitted to the press's governing board, who wholeheartedly agreed to publish it, noting how well the biography had withstood 27 years of passing time.
     This month Augustine of Hippo: A Life, by Henry Chadwick, will be in stores.

Hughes and Others Headline East Anglia Biography Conference
The 2009 Postgraduate Biography Conference at the University of East Anglia is set for November 14, according to organizers. Entitled "History, Mystery, and Myth," the daylong conference is scheduled to begin with a talk by Kathryn Hughes, biographer and Guardian book critic, and will conclude with a roundtable discussion featuring biographers D. J. Taylor, Lucasta Miller, Jon Cook, and Helen Smith.
            More information about the conference is available here.

Letters to the Editor
Dear Editor,
      As one who is new to the field of writing biography, I have a question I hope you and other readers can answer: Presuming that one likes or admires the subject he or she is writing about, and the subject is dead, how do you handle writing about the subject's death without being either maudlin or sensationalistic? Is this a problem most biographers encounter, or is there a standard way of handling the problem?
     Sign me, "Dying to Know"

Readers can send your suggestions to us. We will publish an assortment of responses next month.


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)

The legacy of Ayn Rand is a source of never-ending controversy, which I seem to have stirred up again with my forthcoming book, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press). Many observers are wondering: How did I get access to the Ayn Rand Archives?
  Very simply: I asked.
  Rather, since I was a graduate student at the time, my advisor inquired in a formal letter. This was back in the fall of 2001. I had written a research paper on Ayn Rand, but before I proceeded to design a dissertation about her, it was vital to know if I could work in the archives. For my project to make an important contribution to scholarship, I would have to go to the original sources generated by Rand herself. At the time, the archive was not officially open. But there was a newsletter, and I reasoned that if the archive published a newsletter, they must want visitors.
[Read more]

--Jennifer Burns

Tips Corner: Bookmark This
Guide to Periodicals

Often when one begins research on a subject for a biography, the learning curve is large. This is particularly true when trying to gather a sense of the world in which one's subject lived. One might be an expert in poetry, literature, or film, for instance, but know little about American communism, with which one's subject flirted.
      roseA remarkably wonderful place to start remedying such deficits is the Tamiment Library and the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. The library has one of the finest collections of materials pertaining to the history of radical politics. If you are looking for anything regarding socialism, communism, anarchism, utopian experiments, the old left, the new left, or civil rights and liberties, this is the place to go.

In This Issue
BIO Conference in May
Caro Insights on Sense of Place
Ayn Rand Biographies
More Mileage from Your Research
Augustine Bio Lives On
East Anglia Bio Conference
Letters to the Editor
Tips Corner
From the Editor's Desk
You will have a choice when it comes to buying my new book when it comes out in February. Amazon will sell it to you for $19.79, or you can wander down to your local bookstore and pay $29.99. That 34-percent price difference is on my mind every time I visit Collected Works, Santa Fe's oldest locally owned independent bookstore and one of the nation's finest bookstores, along with Elliott Bay, Tattered Cover, and Politics & Prose, among others.
   What is it we get when we pay full price at an independent bookstore? In the case of Collected Works, the answer is simple: You get Phil.
   I'm a nonfiction guy. I spend my days reading and writing the stuff. So when I wander into the fiction section of the store, I'm as lost as a Thunderbird drinker looking at a rack of chardonnays. This is where Phil comes in.
    Like a wine steward he learns of my tastes and guides me to a selection. So far, he is batting 98 percent. (I wasn't wild about Olive Kitteridge.) When I take into account his services, I think paying full retail price is worth it. Apparently there is a sport profession where batting 30 percent will earn you millions. Phil's salary seems a small price to pay for what he does. In the scheme of things, it's seems far more socially valuable than hitting a leather-bound ball with a wooden stick.
   Paying full price also keeps one of my town's important cultural centers alive. On almost any night, one can find a crowd gathered at Collected Works for an author's reading, a fundraiser, or a community gathering of some sort. Readers meet writers. Writers meet writers. Poets find readers. Readers find poetry. Without such a place, our community would be impoverished.
   Yes, I get a little preachy when it comes to the topic of independent bookstores. But, as a friend of mine who recently heard my tirade said to me, "Zealotry in defense of independent bookstores is no sin."
Speaking of money, more than 65 percent of TBC readers are willing to pay a modest subscription fee for the newsletter, according to the preliminary results of the random sample survey we conducted last month. No decisions have been made about turning TBC into a paid publication. In fact, we have some interesting ideas we will share later about TBC's future. In the meantime, if this topic of paying to read material online interests you, check out this article.

As you can imagine, I read a lot of book reviews to try to keep up with the world of biographies. Every once in a while a reviewer comes up with a wonderful line that brings a smile to my face. One such line appeared in Publishers Weekly's review of the new Elizabeth Taylor biography. "Reading this life," said the reviewer, "is like gorging on a chocolate sundae."

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

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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.

Paul Fisher, The Grand Affair: The Undiscovered John Singer Sargent,
 to Farrar, Straus
Herb Levy, Henry Morgenthau Jr., to Skyhorse
Kathryn McGarr, The Persuader: Robert Strauss and the Art of Politics, to Public Affairs
Vere Chappell, Ida Craddock: Erotic, Mystic, and Sexual Outlaw, to Red Wheel/Weiser/ Conari          
Christopher Heard, Little Girl Lost: Britney Spears Uncovered, to Transit Publishing

John Anthony Gilvey, Prince of the City: Jerry Orbach's Way from "The Fantasticks" to "Law and Order," to Applause Books
Steven Roby and journalist Brad Schreiber, Becoming Jimi: From Southern Crossroads to Swinging London, the Making of a Musical Genius, to Da Capo

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. 

How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
by William J. Mann
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
PW Review
The Queen Mother: The Official Biography
by William Shawcross
PW Review
Putin and the Rise of Russia
by Michael Stuermer
PW Review

Prince of Quacks: The Notorious Life of Dr. Francis Tumblety, Charlatan and Jack the Ripper Suspect

by Timothy B. Riordan
Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery

by Eric Ives
PW Review
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
by Robin D.G. Kelley
(Free Press)
PW Review
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits
by Linda Gordon
Signed review by Kristin Downey
PW Review
For Country and Corps: The Life of General Oliver P. Smith
by Gail B. Shisler
(Naval Institute Press)
PW Review
Andy Warhol
by Arthur C. Danto
(Yale University Press)
PW Review
The Grand Turk: Sultan Mehmet II, Conqueror of Constantinople and Master of an Empire
by John Freely
PW Review
An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson

by Andro Linklater
PW Review
The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich
by Daniel Ammann
(St. Martin's)
PW Review
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
by Mitchell Zuckoff
PW Review
Clark Clifford: The Wise Man of Washington
by John Acacia
University Press of Kentucky
PW Review
Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter
by Ingar Sletten Kolloen, trans. from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin and Eric Skuggevik
(Yale University Press)
PW Review
American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood

by Marc Eliot
PW Review

Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics
by Joyce Purnick
(Public Affairs)



Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love
by Sheila Rowbothan (Verso)

 The Snowball:
Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
by Alice Schroeder



James McGrath Morris,

Sarah Baldwin,
copy editor
Mailing address:
P.O. Box 660
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Photo of
Henry Chadwick
by Julian Herbert

Photo of
 James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd