Biography

“Different Lives” Conference Provides International Perspectives on Biography

By John A. Farrell

Did liberal scholarship, degrading the principle of truth with postmodern theory, pave the way for Donald Trump’s duplicity?

Biographer Nigel Hamilton, a former BIO president, proposed as much in a biting address that launched “Different Lives,” a three-day conference on biography at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, in late September.

“The White House was won . . . by a real estate developer committed to a platform of misogyny, hatred of immigrants, opposition to federal government, and greed-obsessed fantasy as preferable to reality,” said Hamilton. “Americans . . . are now living with the worrying outcome of that election—especially its implications for the concept of truth.”

Trump’s “Orwellian suppression of truthfulness” has roots in postwar postmodern and deconstructionist theories, Hamilton contended. Laudably, he said, biographers have resisted the call.

Organized by Hans Renders’s team at the Biography Institute in Groningen, with support from BIO and the Biography Society in France, the conference lured biographers from four continents and 18 countries.

The keynote address was given by British biographer Richard Holmes, winner of the 2018 BIO Award. The Dutch Biography Prize was given to Onno Blom, for his book on artist and writer Jan Wolkers. And the conference attendees were treated, midway through the program, to author Nick Weber’s stately, successful defense of his Ph.D. thesis on the painter Piet Mondrian.

BIO member Carl Rollyson spoke on the art of presidential biography. Writers from Iran, Russia, and Vietnam reminded attendees to not take for granted the immeasurable value of artistic freedom. Lindie Koorts of South Africa and Spain’s Maria Jesus Gonzalez gave instructive talks on how contemporary political issues affect the choices and interpretations made by biographers in their two countries.

Hamilton addressed issues of truthfulness and politics as well. We are “now confronting the effects of American cultural decay” symbolized by “a reckless administration of willful know-nothings,” he said, in a talk titled “Truth, Lies, and Fake Truth: The Future of Biography.”

Drawing from his own writings and experience, and quoting from critic Michiko Kakutani’s book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, Hamilton traced a line from the more extreme forms of poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism—that paint history, political verities, and at times science as social constructions—to today’s “fake news” climate.

With a few exceptions, biographers have resisted, Hamilton said. In the discipline, “truth has remained a red line,” he contended, a reason that readers have turned to biography in its recent golden age, for its reliance on “verifiable facts.”

Biographers “hewed to what was biography’s lifeblood: non-fiction,” he said, and “were pressed to work harder than ever in their search of the truth about real individuals. Where footnotes and endnotes had once been considered de trop in biography, they now became mandatory.”

Biographers, resisting the lure of postmodern theory, are now “willing to work harder to find and authenticate sources, do new interviews, challenge and update earlier accounts—to do, in short, the intense forensic research . . . footnoted and endnoted, that had once been the prerogative of the academic historian.”

Joanny Moulin, the president of the Biography Society and a member of BIO’s Advisory Council, replied in part to Hamilton in his own talk on biography. “My take on biography is theoretical, because I am French,” he said wryly. Biographers may resist the extreme interpretations—and extreme criticism—of postmodern theory, Moulin said, but it is foolish to say that social constructs and other forces don’t guide the lives and choices of individuals.

Biographers cannot close their eyes to the implications and insights of modern theory, Moulin contended. The notion that we can “go back to the good old days—this is nonsense,” he said.

Lectures about the culture of biography in Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and Indonesia were alternated by roundtables. During these discussions, there was a lively debate on propositions about censorship, the reception of biography, and the relationship between biography and history. Finally, David Veltman made some remarks about the political impact of artists’ biographies in Belgium.

This well-attended conference was prepared to the very detail by Hans Renders (another member of BIO’s Advisory Council), Madelon Nanninga-Franssen, and David Veltman. During the farewell dinner, they were frequently called upon to organize such an event again.

John Farrell is the author of biographies of Tip O’Neill, Clarence Darrow, and Richard Nixon.

Tim Duggan to Receive BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award


Biographers International Organization will present its fifth annual Editorial Excellence Award to Tim Duggan, editor and publisher of Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Crown at Penguin Random House. Please join us on Wednesday, November 7, at 6:30 p.m., for wine, hors d’oeuvres, and a celebration of Tim Duggan’s work on behalf of his authors, with a discussion of the pleasures and challenges of editing, and of the state of the art of serious biography and nonfiction. The event will be held in New York at the Fabbri Mansion (also known as House of the Redeemer), 7 East 95th Street.

BIO founder James McGrath Morris (Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power) will introduce Duggan. Other speakers will include David Michaelis (Schultz and Peanuts: A BiographyN.C. Wyeth: A Biography), who is currently working on a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, and Adam Begley (The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera).

Duggan founded his eponymous imprint in 2014 after working for many years as an executive editor at HarperCollins. Authors he has edited include Timothy Snyder, Michiko Kakutani, Adam Begley, Daniel Mendelsohn, Mark Singer, Madeleine Albright, Michael Kinsley, and Brenda Wineapple. The books he has published include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and multiple finalists for the National Book Award.

Duggan is a member of BIO’s Advisory Council, a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Previous winners of the award are Robert Gottlieb, Jonathan Segal, Nan Talese, and Robert Weil.

Although this event is free, advance registration is necessary. Please click here to register.

Andrew D. Scrimgeour Wins 2018 Hazel Rowley Prize

Andrew D. Scrimgeour of Cary, North Carolina, has received the 2018 Hazel Rowley Prize of Biographers International Organization (BIO) for best book proposal from a first-time biographer. Scrimgeour’s proposal for The Man Who Tried to Save Jesus: Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar—about one of the most controversial figures in modern biblical scholarship—was selected by distinguished biographers Stacy Schiff and James Atlas.

Scrimgeour’s proposed biography would chart Funk’s career, which revolutionized the study of biblical texts. For two decades, through his signature creation, the Jesus Seminar, he attracted more sustained media attention in the United States than any religious authority other than the Pope.

In addition to the $2,000 cash award, the Rowley Prize helps a promising first-time biographer by providing introductions to prominent agents. The prize also includes a year’s membership in BIO and publicity on the BIO website and The Biographer’s Craft newsletter.

The prize was named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951-2011). A BIO enthusiast from the inception of this organization, she understood the need for biographers to help one another on the path to publication. Before her untimely death, she published four books: Christina Stead: A Biography (a New York Times “Notable Book”); Richard Wright: The Life and Times (a Washington Post “Best Book”); Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.

You can find more information about the prize and the application process here.

2018 Conference Goers Take Home Useful Insights from Top Biographers

Below are reports on two of the panels that were offered at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in May, written with assistance from John Grady. Each article continues on the BIO website. BIO members can read about seven more sessions in the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft; an archived copy is available in the Member Area.

You can see a photo gallery from the conference here.

Writing Multiple Lives

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives, said she discovered that through a group biography she could dramatize her initial subject and anchor her in a community, a social circle. What tied together her three subjects—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—was that they “were women who knew everybody” and their sexuality.

“I didn’t set out to write collective biography,” Carla Kaplan said when she started work on Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. From her earlier biography on Zora Neale Hurston, Kaplan knew that many white women had connections to Hurston and others in the renaissance. As Kaplan delved deeper into the relationships those women had with Hurston and each other, she found “extraordinary dead ends” on how to approach writing about a single white woman in that time, in that place. Finally, Kaplan decided, “I am going to have to write that book to read that book” on the complexities of the relationships of the “Miss Annes”—a collective nickname—of being hostesses, philanthropists, snubbers of convention, and more.

Likewise, Justin Spring in The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy had to work through “any number of false starts” to settle on how to proceed to write about six very different writers, who “were very much like the Americans of the ‘Lost Generation,’” in another era of “enormous American cultural ferment:” Paris after World War II.

Interesting as the six were as individuals, Spring said, “these people were not coming together” as a possible group biography until he found a key in Alice B. Toklas’s second book on cooking, and their shared love of French cuisine. Among the subjects in The Gourmands’ Way is Julia Child, to many Americans the doyenne of the Gallic way with food.
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From left to right: Marc Leepson, Kai Bird, Max Boot, and
Heath Lee. Photo by Jane O’Connor

Writing About the Vietnam War

Moderator Marc Leepson, a Vietnam War veteran, began the session by providing some background. The Vietnam War was the longest U.S. war before the twenty-first century and the country’s most controversial overseas war. After the war, Leepson said, “Nobody really wanted to talk about it” because of its divisive nature. But as panelists Kai Bird, Max Boot, and Heath Lee showed, there is a market today for certain biographies relating to the Vietnam War era, even if there are challenges in writing them.

For Bird, one challenge was getting one of his subjects, McGeorge Bundy, to open up about his involvement in the war. Bird’s The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms looked at the role both Bundy brothers played in setting U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Bird, a former Vietnam War protester, wanted to explore how smart, liberal intellectuals came to get America into and then defend the war. He was able to meet with both Bundys. William, he said, “was much more of a gentleman and a scholar” and more generous with his time. On the other hand, Bird said, “I feared Mac Bundy”—a man Bird once considered a war criminal. McGeorge was sometimes dismissive of Bird’s questions. The Color of Truth came out in 1991, and Bird said he had no trouble getting it published, but he was still dealing with his own anger about the war as he wrote it.

Both Max Boot and Heath Lee are of a younger generation than Leepson and Bird; their experiences of the Vietnam War were not nearly as direct. Boot said that with younger writers of Vietnam books “you lose some of that sense of immediacy” that came from authors writing just after the war. “But,” he added, “I think what you gain is some more perspective.” Boot brought that perspective to his recent biography of Edward Lansdale, the first complete look at the life of a military officer and CIA agent who helped shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Lansdale often appeared as a character in other books about the war, and Boot said he was usually presented in a one-dimensional way, as a con artist or malevolent figure. Boot wanted to present Lansdale in a more balanced way, while still presenting his flaws.

Heath Lee’s Vietnam book, The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the President, the Pentagon and the Rest of the US Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, which will be published April 2, 2019, is a group biography of civilians who have been overlooked: the wives of American POWs/MIAs. While writing the book, she said, she came to “love the ladies,” but she knew a biographer should not fall in love with her subjects. She interviewed most of the women featured, and they were eager to share a story that had not been told before. Another major source was the diary of Sybil Stockdale, one of the key figures in the book.
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Caroline Fraser Wins Plutarch Award

Caroline Fraser won the 2018 Plutarch Award for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, among other honors. Fraser received her award at the ninth annual BIO Conference on May 20.

The Plutarch is the world’s only literary award given to biography by biographers. Named after the famous Ancient Greek biographer, the Plutarch is determined by secret ballot from a formal list of nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft. The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium.

BIO’s Plutarch Award Committee for 2018 was:

Anne C. Heller, chair
Kate Buford
Nassir Ghaemi
Brian Jay Jones
Andrew Lownie
Julia Markus
J.W. (Hans) Renders
Ray Shepard
Will Swift, ex-officio

You can find out more information about the Plutarch Award here.

James Atlas Interviews 2018 BIO Award Winner Richard Holmes

Photo: Stuart Clarke

Acclaimed literary biographer Richard Holmes will receive the 2018 BIO Award at BIO’s upcoming conference in New York and give the keynote speech on May 19. As a preview of that, James Atlas interviewed Holmes; you can read the interview here.

Departing BIO President Will Swift Reflects on His Accomplishments

The recent election for the BIO board of directors marked the end of Will Swift’s two-year term as president. Will shared some thoughts with The Biographer’s Craft on his achievements, the future of BIO, and what lies ahead for him. You can read the interview here.

BIO Conference Preview: Writing Multiple Lives

By Linda Leavell

“All biographies are group biographies. All lives are surrounded by a constellation of other lives,” said Susan Hertog, at a previous BIO Conference. “Every biographer must choose how much space to devote to each person.”

So why foreground several lives at once instead of making most of them secondary in a conventional biography or else subsuming them all in a history? What draws writers and readers to group biography? What particular challenges does group biography entail?

These are some of the questions to be addressed by the “Writing Multiple Lives” session at the 2018 BIO Conference in New York. The three panelists—Lisa Cohen, Carla Kaplan, and Justin Spring—generously gave a preview of their remarks.

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives (2012), first planned to write a biography of Madge Garland, an influential fashion editor of British Vogue. But Cohen realized that even though she had enough material to write a whole book about Garland, “such a book would—ironically—not quite do her justice. And that it would not hold my interest.”

“I realized,” said Cohen, “that I had to grapple with the idea of ephemeral achievement more broadly. And that challenge also meant a different approach to the form of biography.”

All We Know juxtaposes Garland with two other lesbian women, Esther Murphy and Mercedes de Acosta, whose lives were both “central and marginal to their time.” The structure of the group biography allowed Cohen “to keep asking: what is failure and what is accomplishment?” Cohen never draws connections among the three lives explicitly. Rather, as in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, she lets readers discover parallels on their own.

Carla Kaplan decided to write Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013), because no such book existed when she looked for one. While the involvement of white men in the Harlem Renaissance is well documented, the many white women who “volunteered for blackness were either obscured or dismissed.

Kaplan focused on the lives of six women, some with motives that were honorable and some not. But even if she did not like them, Kaplan “still wanted to treat them with respect.”

The magnitude of research surprised her. “It was like writing six biographies—more really, because a couple of the women who’d been slated for the book just didn’t pan out. I didn’t feel I could bring them to life or make them interesting enough.”

She chose to write a group biography to allow her six women to “speak for themselves” whenever possible. They each needed “some space of their own.”

Justin Spring, author of The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (2017), compares writing a group biography to “composing an orchestral piece rather than a solo piece.”

Like Kaplan, he started with an idea—“the effect of French foodways and French culture on the American understanding of good food, wine, and fine dining”—and then chose six American writers who played a role in that phenomenon. The six contemporaries vary in their personalities, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and relationships to French cuisine, and “their lives were full of overlapping dramas (and a good deal of antagonism).”

“Each of the six lives has a specific dramatic arc,” Spring said, “and the period itself has a dramatic arc, and at the same time there is much that needed explaining both in the USA of that period and in France of that period—so getting it right took a lot of arranging, trimming, and rearranging.”

The session on “Writing Multiple Lives” at the 2018 BIO Conference will engage not only those writing or contemplating a group biography per se but also anyone whose work encompasses multiple lives.

Linda Leavell, the moderator of the panel, won the Plutarch Award for her biography of Marianne Moore. Her current project is a group biography of the Stieglitz Circle.

(Photos above, from left to right, by Vanessa Haney, Robin Hultgren, and Jason Puris)