Rich Variety of Biographies Highlight Fall Season
By James McGrath Morris
From the twerks of Miley Cyrus to the typography of Giambattista Bodoni, from the humor of Bill Cosby to the antics of Charlie Chaplin, from the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower to the rule of Joseph Stalin, the more than 100 biographies coming to bookstores this fall run the gamut of possibilities. While biography, like other segments of publishing, is navigating rough waters, writers keep producing a remarkably rich selection of works.
As TBC does twice a year, here is a discursive look at what is coming. A complete list is available here.
The first books to resonate with readers this fall are two September titles: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott (Harper) and Tennessee Williams: Made Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (Norton). Also getting some notice is The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott (Pegasus). One of the cast members of this prosopography is Mary Shelley, who will be the subject of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon, coming out in February (Random House).
As usual, as the fall gets underway, political figures will be featured in a large share of the biographies. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns have put together The Roosevelts: An Intimate History as a tie-in to the seven-part documentary airing on PBS this fall, which follows the Roosevelts for more than a century, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962.
Other American political leaders getting biographies include Eisenhower: A Life by Paul Johnson (Viking); The Contender: Andrew Cuomo, a Biography by Michael Shnayerson (Twelve); On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller by Richard Norton Smith (Random House); and The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years by Joseph A. Califano (Touchstone).
In an unusual twist, two members of the Bush family are bringing out books about George H.W. Bush, the 41st president. In September, Doro Bush Koch is offering a revised edition of her My Father, My President: A Personal Account of the Life of George H. W. Bush (Grand Central Publishing). In a case of literary sibling rivalry, in November her brother George W. Bush, the 43rd president, will weigh in with his version of their father’s life in a yet-to-be-titled biography from Crown Publishing.
Based on early buzz, reviews, print runs, and other indicators, here are some of the other biographies that are likely to garner attention this fall:
- La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris by Alina García-Lapuerta (Chicago Review Press). The trailer for this book was recently featured in Shelf Awareness
- Cosby: His Life and Times by Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster)
- Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (Henry Holt)
- Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest (Knopf)
- Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice by Joan Biskupic (Sarah Crichton Books)
- Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese)
- Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kristin Downey (Nan A. Talese)
- Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg (Harper)
- Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth (Bloomsbury)
- Hope: Entertainer of the Century by Richard Zoglin (Simon & Schuster)
- The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by Austen Ivereigh (Holt)
- Is that All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin (Atria)
- Colonel House: A Biography of Woodrow Wilson’s Silent Partner by Charles E. Neu (Oxford)
- Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul (Harper)
- Ezra Pound: Poet: Volume II: The Epic Years by David Moody (Oxford)
- Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and His Moment by Andrew Levy (Simon & Schuster)
- The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink by Pamela Katz (Nan A. Talese)
- Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America by David O. Stewart (Simon & Schuster)
- Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance by Daisy Hay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
And as for the book that will contain more than we want to know about twerking? She Can’t Stop: Miley Cyrus: The Biography by Sarah Oliver (John Blake) will be in stores in December.
James McGrath Morris is the former president of BIO. His next biography, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, will be published in February by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2014 edition of The Biographer’s Craft.)