BIO Award

Taylor Branch: 2015 BIO Award Winner

By James McGrath Morris

 Branch's most recent book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013.


Branch’s most recent book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 2013.

Had it not been for the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch would have become a surgeon and the movement would have been deprived of one of its most important chroniclers.

For his work in producing a three-volume biographically based narrative history of the civil rights movement, Branch received the BIO Award on June 6 at the Biographers International Conference. He was the sixth writer to be so honored since the first gathering, originally called the Compleat Biographer Conference. Previous winners are Jean Strouse, Arnold Rampersad, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, and Stacy Schiff.

Growing up white in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, Branch aspired to become a surgeon. But his father’s close relationship with an African American and the inescapable presence of the civil rights movement in the hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., resonating in Branch’s words in “spiritual values,” replaced that life plan with another. “I wrote the civil rights triology because I wanted to know myself where the movement came from that changed the direction of my life’s interest against my will.”

To do his trilogy of books, collectively called America in the King Years, Branch told readers in the first volume that he had chosen to structure his work as “narrative biographical history.”

While he was working on it, Branch came to the conclusion that most people approach race abstractly. “Everything I learned was very personal,” he said. “I resolved to write in a narrative style if I could, without using analytical labels because where people are so skittish, defensive, and assertive on the race topic, analytical tools and labels conceal more than they reveal.”

In short, Branch said, “I chose to base it in the people because ‘the people’ is what broke down my own emotional resistance as a white southerner.”

Aside from earning Branch a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2,912-page trilogy has become one of the standard works on the civil rights movement. Unlike biographies of the movement’s figures and histories of the movement, however, Branch’s America in the King Years employs the tools of biography to tell the larger story.

This achievement was the motivation behind Branch’s selection by the BIO Award Committee. When considering who would be honored at this year’s gathering at the National Press Club in Washington, the committee was guided, as in past years, by the goal of selecting a writer who had advanced the art and craft of biography.

When Branch learned he had been selected for the 2015 BIO Award, he said he felt a bit uncomfortable because he didn’t define his work as biographical. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was fraudulently trespassing on their turf,” he said. “I think we are certainly kinsmen trying to put people at the center of historical interpretation, whether you do that through one person or a collection of characters.

“The tools of a biographer are very, very important. That’s why I am happy and honored to bring myself as a semi-biographer down there,” said the Baltimore-based author.

(In July, the BIO website and The Biographer’s Craft will feature highlights of Branch’s keynote speech at the sixth annual BIO conference.)

Schiff Keynote Speech Highlights Fifth BIO Conference

More than 200 biographers, including ones from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, attended the fifth annual Compleat Biographer Conference, held May 17 at the University of Massachusetts Boston. As at past conferences, one of the day’s highlights was the presentation of the BIO Award at the afternoon luncheon, which this year went to Stacy Schiff, author of Saint-Exupéry: A Life,A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Cleopatra: A Life and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage.

At the day’s luncheon, outgoing BIO President James McGrath Morris presented Schiff with the award, noting that her dedication to the craft of biography went far beyond the written page to her longstanding and ongoing support of BIO.

Schiff delivers her keynote address to an appreciative audience.

Schiff delivers her keynote address to an appreciative audience.

In her keynote speech, Schiff addressed the two major problems biographers face: a paucity of information or an overabundance of it. She termed the latter “the haystack in the haystack” and said “nothing could be worse,” because “documentation is not revelation.” Writing about Franklin’s years as a diplomat in France, Schiff found voluminous material on him in various archives, though the information did not always reveal the essence of the man at the time.

Schiff recounted enduring the other extreme, the needle in the haystack, while researching Vera Nabokov and Cleopatra. Yet at times, she said, a lack of information, or what a subject leaves out of his or her own writings, can be telling. She believes that “the story lurks in the excisions, the elisions, the denials,” in information distorted or destroyed. The biographers’ challenge, Schiff said, is to find their subject’s voice, or rather, to “help their subject to find his voice, to coax him to speak, when he opts not to do so himself.”

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