Conference

BIO Conference Set for May in Boston, Offers a Wide Variety of Programming and Networking Opportunities

On May 19–21, the annual BIO Conference returns to Boston, where the organization held its first gathering in 2010. The conference will offer research workshops, a full day of panels, numerous networking opportunities, a conversation between two highly respected biographers, and a keynote address by the 2017 BIO Award winner, whose name will be revealed in February.

“This year’s program is bound to please the membership,” said James McGrath Morris, co-chair of the Program Planning Committee. “The wide variety of topics, terrific panelists, and workshop leaders is both a testimony to the hard work of the program committee and to the excitement generated by our annual conference. If you are a biographer, or aspire to be one, you’ll want to be in Boston.”

Registration for the conference is scheduled to begin on February 1. Current BIO members will receive an email with a link to the registration site to take advantage of the early-bird discount, which runs through February 20. For more information on the agenda and panelists, go here.

Biography Beyond Borders Panelists Shine Light on Different Aspects of Biography and History

unnamedMore than two dozen distinguished biographers from the United States and Europe met to talk about their work on  November 4-5 at a conference co-sponsored by BIO and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. The weekend-long conference, called Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography, took place in Oxford and London and included a pre-conference lecture by Carla Kaplan and a keynote address by Hermione Lee. Her Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life won BIO’s Plutarch Award for best biography of 2014.

Last month, TBC featured photos from the weekend sent by consulting editor, past president, and BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris. He called the colloquium “a remarkable moment in our organization’s history. Biographers from around Europe broke intellectual and literary bread with their American colleagues in the storied setting of Oxford.” Morris added, “Almost all the credit for putting together this remarkable gathering goes to BIO’s vice president, Deirdre David.” Plans are now underway for another such meeting in 2018.

To read recaps of the panel discussions and some comments from some of the BIO members who toured two historic homes before the colloquium, go here.

Biography Beyond Borders Brings Together US and European Biographers

On November 4-5, BIO and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing co-sponsored Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography. The weekend in Oxford and London featured 29 distinguished biographers from across the United States and Europe examining their craft in lectures and panel discussions. Look for more news on the weekend next month.

 Carla Kaplan opened the weekend on November 4 with a talk on the life of Jessica Mitford, the famous American muckraking journalist who grew up in a British aristocratic family.

Carla Kaplan opened the weekend on November 4 with a talk on the life of Jessica Mitford, the famous American muckraking journalist who grew up in a British aristocratic family.

Hermione Lee spoke during lunch on November 5. Lee, who is president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford, where the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing is located, won BIO’s Plutarch Award in 2015.

Hermione Lee spoke during lunch on November 5. Lee, who is president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford, where the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing is located, won BIO’s Plutarch Award in 2015.

Left to right are British professor and biographer Iwan Morgan, French doctoral student Maryam Thirriard, American professor and biographer Sonja Williams, Dutch professor Dennis Kersten, and American biographer Gayle Feldman, who moderated the panel discussing history and biography. The panel was one of four looking at American and European biography during the day-long conference.

Left to right are British professor and biographer Iwan Morgan, French doctoral student Maryam Thirriard, American professor and biographer Sonja Williams, Dutch professor Dennis Kersten, and American biographer Gayle Feldman, who moderated the panel discussing history and biography. The panel was one of four looking at American and European biography during the day-long conference.

BIO Announces Panelists for Biography Beyond Borders

unnamedBiography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography,
will feature 29 distinguished biographers from across the United States and
Europe. In alphabetical order, they are: James Atlas, Betty Boyd-Caroli, Anne de
Courcy, Natalie Dykstra, Robert Douglas-Farihurst, Gayle Feldman, Rebecca
Fraser, Anne C. Heller, Carla Kaplan, Dennis Kersten, Robert Lacey, Zachary
Leader, Andrew Lownie, Jana Wohlmuth Markupova, Iwan Morgan, James
McGrath Morris, Joanny Moulin, Catherine Reef, Harriet Reisen, Jane Ridley,
Anne Boyd Rioux, Carl Rollyson, Max Saunders, Anne Sebba, Will Swift,
Maryam Thirriard, Amanda Vaill, Qunicy Whitney, and Sonja D. Williams. You
can read their biographies here.

Presented by BIO in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at
Oxford, Biography Beyond Borders will take place on Saturday, November 5. The
lunchtime keynote speaker will be the 2014 BIO Plutarch Award Best Biography
winner and director of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Hermione Lee.
The $100 fee for the colloquium also includes a Friday afternoon lecture and
reception at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College, London,
featuring Carla Kaplan as the speaker. Her lecture is titled, “‘Something to Offend Everyone’: The Muckraking Life of Jessica Mitford.” In addition, anyone who wants to go on the BIO November 3 group tour of the Jacobean home of Rudyard Kipling and romantic Scotney Castle with royal guide Harold Brown and Will Swift should email Swift. Learn more about the tours and the entire weekend and register here.

BIO Conference Highlights

Read highlights of the Seventh Annual BIO Conference, held in Richmond, Virginia, on June 3-5, here.

Several videos are also available. We will post more in the coming weeks. Anyone can see excerpts on the Conference page, while BIO members can access complete videos in the Member Area.

BIO Sponsors Biography Beyond Borders Colloquium in Oxford

unnamedIn collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Oxford, housed at Wolfson College and directed by Professor Dame Hermione Lee, Biography International Organization (BIO) is hosting Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography. The colloquium is 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 5. Lee will deliver the afternoon’s keynote address, and distinguished American biographer Carla Kaplan will give  lecture the previous evening at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College, London.

Click here for more information and to register.

Biographers Grapple with the Many Facets of Nixon

In a preview of the BIO Conference panel “Three Ways of Looking at a Subject: Richard Nixon, moderator John A. Farrell explores the presidential subject with two of the panelists.

Lincoln, we know. The Roosevelts, we get. Of Kennedy, we probably know too much. But the roster of American presidents still presents a few white whales for biographers to chase—chief executives whose lives don’t yield characterization easily. Jefferson has been called a sphinx. Reagan opaque. And then there is Richard Nixon.

The challenge in writing a life of Nixon is not a shortage of material; it’s partly that there is so much: millions of documents and thousands of hours of tape recordings; archives chock-full of videotape from the Vietnam War and Watergate; countless newspaper articles and columns and books about the Tricky Dick of the 1950s, the various New Nixons that ran for president, and the tragic chief executive who went to China, signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, won a landslide re-election, and resigned in disgrace. The vast sea of material makes fishing for Nixon an arduous task. So does his personality, which aide H. R. Haldeman compared to a piece of quartz, with its many, many facets.

Compounding the difficulty is the polarizing nature of the man, and of his times. For most of his political career, often deliberately, he divided the citizenry into those that loved Nixon, and them that hated him with unyielding passion. He came on the scene as an ally of Joe McCarthy. He implied that Harry Truman was a traitor, and was throughout an unforgiving partisan hatchet man. “If the dry rot of corruption and Communism, which has eaten deep into our body politic during the past seven years, can only be chopped out with a hatchet, let’s call for a hatchet,” he said, campaigning, in 1952.

And his enemies—the liberals, academics, Democrats and journalists who Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked as impudent snobs and effete intellectuals—gave as good as they got.

“The American lower middle class in the person of this man moved to engrave into the history of the United States, as the voice of America, its own faltering spirit, its self-pity and its envy…its whole peevish, resentful whine,” the liberal New York columnist Murray Kempton wrote.

For the upcoming BIO conference in Richmond, three recent Nixon biographers—Evan Thomas, Being Nixon; Jeffrey Frank, Ike and Dick; and Irwin Gellman, The Contender and The President and the Apprentice—will join me on a Saturday afternoon panel, and talk about our turns as Captain Ahab. I quizzed two of them about the hunt last month.

Q: What special challenge does a polarizing figure like Nixon present? Is the historic record accurate, or does it reflect the political bias about Nixon from his era? How do you navigate these shoals?
Jeffrey Frank: The challenge is not to start off regarding him as a ‘polarizing’ figure, but rather to try to see him plainly—to let his life and times guide.
Evan Thomas: I worked for The Washington Post for 24 years, and…Nixon was the devil—an evil figure, corrupter of the Constitution, Tricky Dick. That is pretty much the view that has taken hold in the public generally, certainly in the so-called liberal establishment.
The Watergate era record makes Nixon look like a madman. The fuller record is more complex.
His reputation and standing will never escape Watergate, nor should it. But I wanted to humanize him. I tried to look at Nixon from the inside out. To understand his own sense of outsider-ness. To see what it was like, literally, to be Nixon.
“I can’t pretend to know with anything approaching certainty what Nixon was really feeling and thinking. I’m not sure Nixon himself did. He was, as far as I could tell from the record he left, remarkably un-self aware. He brooded constantly—about his enemies—and he felt deep insecurity. But he did not know his own weaknesses, not in a way he could control.
I once asked (Nixon aide) Brent Scowcroft if Nixon could see himself. No, answered Scowcroft, “but sometimes, I think, he took a peek.” That sounds about right to me.

Q: Is there a difference in how the generations of Americans view Nixon?
Jeffrey Frank: I’ve found that the Boomers still pretty much loathe him, although some try to see his better side. The Millennials see him as a cartoon —the Evil President, a little comic, too.

Q: After publication, did you find critics and readers open to your interpretation, or were they bound by their own political viewpoint?
Jeffrey Frank: I wondered whether some would see me as too sympathetic to Nixon, but in fact I think most were pretty open to what I was doing—not to sound pompous but trying to be, ahem, fair and balanced.
Evan Thomas: A mixed or somewhat forgiving picture of Nixon is not going to satisfy the large population of Nixon haters, especially those whose careers have been wrapped up in the view of Nixon as Monster. Since those same people were likely to review my book, I feared I would take my lumps, and I did. But I never had so much fun writing a book.”

Q: What are you hoping to learn from the other members of our panel?
Jeffrey Frank: I’m interested in hearing how the picture of Nixon began to change as other biographers drew closer to him—learning more about him, good and bad. Did he become more a “rounded” figure, and therefore more interesting, or did he simply seem to remain an unwavering partisan, and therefore increasingly tedious? Or a little of both?

John A. Farrell’s single-volume biography of Nixon will be published early next year.

Conference Panel Offers Look at How to Choose Subjects

In the first of several previews of panels offered at the Seventh Annual BIO Conference, moderator James Atlas takes a look at some of his panelists’ views on their topic, “Choosing a Subject.”

 

Maybe another way to look at this question is to ask: Do biographers actually choose their subjects at all? Do they have agency over the process of determining how they will spend the next five or ten or—in the famous case of Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ—forty years of their lives as they immerse themselves in a life that will inevitably remain unknown once their labors are done? Or do our subjects choose us? I pose this possibility not in some mystical spirit, but in a practical sense. The subject is there, signaling to the prospective biographer that he is available, if only, as in the case of the dead, in a subliminal sense—the biographer in collusion with his own unconscious.

For Dan Max, the biographer of David Foster Wallace, the chosen subject wasn’t chosen by him, but by his editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, who suggested he write a piece on Wallace for the magazine. “Pretty soon I found myself in the presence of the most amazing, not just writer but mind, that I had ever met,” Max recalls. “Wallace’s speed-of-thought take on the world had me hooked. I fell in love. And one of the first things I learned was that his despair was tightly linked to his wish to be a great writer. Who, as a writer, isn’t drawn to that particular accident site?”

Two words leap out here: I learned. It’s that invigorating experience that motivates us—no, inspires us—to go deeper into our subjects, to unlock their secrets and give a narrative order to their lives. But we have to be open, to recognize opportunity when it’s there. Blake Bailey is now at work on the authorized biography of Philip Roth, an assignment he feels lucky to have gotten. As Bailey recounts the genesis of this arrangement, a fellow biographer [the present writer, hereafter known as “I”] happened to mention to him over breakfast at Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side of New York (I strongly recommend the challah French toast) that Roth and his appointed biographer, Ross Miller, had parted ways. Bailey suggested that I would be an ideal candidate for the job, upon which, in Bailey’s fanciful recollection, I “recoiled as if I’d tossed a cobra at his foot.”

If so, it was less out of fear than out of a sense that, as the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, I had traversed the territory of the Jewish-American writer, inexhaustibly rich but by now rather familiar; Blake was more versatile, and required only a large canvas. (Among his previous subjects was John Cheever.) “Whereupon, for my part,” he wrote when I asked him about the sequence of events, “I made a mental note to write a letter to PR as soon as I returned to Virginia [he teaches at William & Mary], and the rest is history.”

For Stacy Schiff, as for Max and Bailey, the biographer is less the instigating force than a Ouija board through which the spirit dictates: “It isn’t so much that your subject chooses you as that you express some mild curiosity about her life and she retaliates by infiltrating yours.” Schiff, too, sees the biographer as a passive figure, the empty vessel for a subject—any subject—so charismatic and seductive that he demands to be written about: “A door prize to anyone who can find the connection among my subjects; I can’t, aside from a stubborn unwillingness to repeat myself.” I doubt a prize will be awarded: she has written biographies of Antoine de Saint-Exupery; Nabokov’s wife Vera; Ben Franklin and Cleopatra. Her most recent book, The Witches, isn’t a biography at all, but a work of history and sociology.

Biographers face multiple choices when they set out in quest of a new subject. We can choose not to choose; we can go in search of new subjects unlike the ones we’ve written about before; or we can prepare ourselves for “choosing” by going through life in a state of receptivity, until we find the subject that is uniquely ours. This is how writers of all kinds, not just biographers, have always worked. The success rate has been high.

James Atlas is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet and Bellow: A Biography.