Interview

Pulitzer Stirs Controversy by Awarding the Biography/ Autobiography Prize to Memoirs

By James McGrath Morris

This year the Pulitzer Prize for “a distinguished and appropriately documented biography or autobiography by an American author” was awarded to an author who wrote neither a biography nor an autobiography. In fact, neither did the two finalists in this category. The prizewinner and the finalists all wrote memoirs.

The prize was awarded to The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar. The two finalists were In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi and When Breath Becomes Air by the late Paul Kalanithi.

Further muddying the water was that in 2016 the prize for Biography/Autobiography went to William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, and one of the two finalists was also a memoir. The other finalist, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles, was moved by the board to the History category and given that prize.

The Pulitzer Prize board’s selection of memoirs two years running for the Biography/Autobiography category has sparked a debate among biographers. Most believe that memoir is a fundamentally different form of writing about a life in that it does not require any form of documentation, especially the kind of research that often distinguishes biographies.

BIO’s board is requesting to meet with the Pulitzer Prize administrator to discuss the continued commingling of biography, autobiography, and memoir. Currently, the Pulitzer Prize organization is seeking a new administrator, since Mike Pride announced his retirement.

To help sort out this this issue, TBC turned to David Nasaw, the distinguished historian, accomplished biographer, and chairman of the advisory board of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at City University of New York. Nasaw is the author of three biographies: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst; Andrew Carnegie; and The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. The latter two were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the Biography/Autobiography category.

James McGrath Morris: You were invited to chair the Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015 for the prize awarded in April 2016, isn’t that right?
David Nasaw: I was sort of surprised that they gave it to me, if only because I had been a finalist twice but never a winner. Of my three biographies, The Chief was never submitted to the Pulitzer committee, which was a bit of a scandal with Houghton Mifflin. The New York Times wrote about it. Houghton Mifflin just forgot to give them the book. My next two books were finalists. So, everything I say about the Pulitzers should be taken with a grain of salt, because I have a particular history with the prizes.
JMM: Nonetheless, you were chosen as the chairperson for the 2015 awards and you began work by studying the guidelines.
DN: We, the three of us who were on the committee, read the guidelines that we were given very, very, very carefully. And, we interpreted the guidelines as ruling out of competition any memoirs that were not documented. The guidelines that we were given said that for the nonfiction awards it was very important that the materials in these books be appropriately documented. And, they said that there should be some references, footnotes, endnotes, or in the text itself, which gave the reader the confidence that what was being said, or what was being reported, had actually taken place. The Pulitzer guidelines made that abundantly clear.
JMM: Did you have other things by which to guide your deliberations?
DN: In addition to those guidelines, I did a little bit of research, and we all did, on what was an autobiography. How is this defined? And, it was the opinion of the three of us that an autobiography was distinct from a memoir. An autobiography is the writing of a life by the person who lived that life. It does not necessarily have to be cradle-to-grave, but it is written to show how influences of place and time, childhood, adolescence, parenthood, affect the coming-to-age, and the activities, character, personality, and achievements of the adult. It is, in other words, a biography written by the person who is the subject of that biography.

It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.
JMM: What did you do then?
DN: So, we made our determinations clear to the administrator, who was in contact with us. And, we let it be known that after studying and applying the guidelines, we were not considering 30 percent or 40 percent of the books (I don’t know the exact number) that had been submitted under this category. When we finished our deliberations, we were asked to write a report. In it, we explained how we had made our decisions.

Twice afterwards I wrote to the administrator of the prize and I said, “We consider this very important, that the Pulitzer board has to make a decision as to what it’s going to do.”
JMM: What can it do?
DN: We recommended a number of changes to the Pulitzer board to remedy the situation we had encountered. It could establish memoir as a separate category; it could add memoir to the Biography/Autobiography category, so it’s Autobiography/Memoir/Biography; or, it could let publishers know that memoirs should be submitted in the general Nonfiction category. Whatever it decided to do, we argued against it continuing to accept “memoir” nominations in the Autobiography/Biography category because we thought that other jurors would do as we had done, would read the guidelines as we had read them, and not consider the memoir submissions for the prize.
JMM: Then the subsequent selections in 2016 and 2017 must have been a shock?
DN: You can imagine my surprise when, the following year, a book that we would not even have considered for the award, given our reading of Finnegan’s book, was given the prize. And the Stiles book, which was a biography, was moved out of the category, into History. And the second runner-up was a memoir. The following year, this year, there were no autobiographies or biographies. The prize was given to another memoir, and again the runners-up were memoirs.

So, I, having been a judge, I’m not saying the jurors were wrong to do this, I would never say that. But I will say that the guidelines are so written that one committee could read them in a way that appears to be almost diametrically opposed to the way the other committees read them. There’s got to be something wrong there.
JMM: If you were made emperor of the Pulitzer Prize, what would you do to fix this?
DN: I’d simply make a category for memoir. When these categories were first designed, there were very few memoirs. The committee has adjusted all the other awards, certainly all the journalism awards.
JMM: Very often they have.
DN: On a regular basis. Why can’t it pay the same attention to the arts and letters awards?
JMM: And you would be okay with keeping autobiography and biography together as one?
DN: Sure. Sure. And, if the Pulitzer board doesn’t want to do that, then it should add memoir to that list. The fact that Amazon puts memoir into the same category as autobiography and biography doesn’t mean that we should do the same. There has historically been a difference between autobiography and memoir. And a memoir, as we know, is not in the same genre, I don’t think, as biography.
JMM: I was a judge recently on the Western Writers of American prize for best biography. I took out a memoir from the pile of books I was to judge because I didn’t see how you could compare it to biography.
DN: That’s exactly what we did for the 2015 awards. And, I assume from looking at the judging, that’s what had happened earlier.
JMM: When you think of presidential autobiographies, they have a staff who uses all these memoirs and calendars to get the dates right. Their autobiographies may be self-serving, but still, they are biographies of their lives.
DN: Yeah. So, I don’t know what’s going on. I think it is an extraordinary disservice to memoir and to biography. Because these are separate literary genres. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And again, memoirs are important enough as a genre in the twenty-first century, that they should have their own award.

Bringing the Ghosts to Life: An Interview with Candice Millard

BIO Board member Cathy Curtis asked Candice Millard, winner of the 2017 BIO Award, to respond to a list of questions about her experiences as a biographer. Her thoughtful emailed replies appear below. You won’t want to miss Millard’s keynote speech at this year’s BIO Conference, on May 20 in Boston.

Cathy Curtis: What prompted you to start writing biographies?
Candice Millard:
I have always been interested in biography. In fact, one of the best parts of my job at National Geographic was looking for story ideas that focused on human history rather than natural history. So, when I thought of writing my first book, I immediately knew that I wanted it to be about someone, not something. But I also wanted a story, not a subject. I didn’t want to begin at the beginning and end at the end. I was looking for a story within a life.
CC: Are there biographers who have helped shape your own style or approach?
CM: The list of biographers I admire is extremely long, so I’ll start with those who have perhaps had the greatest impact on my own work: Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Martin Gilbert, Robert Caro, William Manchester, Laura Hillenbrand, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Antony Beevor, Andrew Roberts. I could keep going. . . .
CC: Do you tend to sift through numerous potential subjects before you find “the one”?
CM: I spend a great deal of time looking for the right subject. In fact, I think it’s the most important part of writing a book. I’m looking for not only a great story, but one that comes with enormous amounts of primary resources, so much that I despair of ever getting through it all.
Without mountains of letters, journals, newspaper articles, it’s difficult to have dialogue; all the little details that, I hope, make readers feel as if they’re there; and a deep understanding of the story and the people within it. I’ve fallen in love with book ideas in the past and spent months, even years researching them, only to realize that there just wasn’t enough primary source material. As difficult as it was, I had to walk away.
CC: You have written, “What interests me more than moments of public triumph or infamy are instances of private trial and struggle, when no one can hide their weaknesses—or indeed their strengths.” Is this the thinking that led you to “slice of life” biographies, as opposed to the traditional cradle-to-grave format?
CM: Like any thinking person, I highly value biographies that take in the full expanse of a person’s life, and I read a lot of them. But when I’m looking for a subject for myself, I’m interested in stories that are intimate, focused, and, I hope, illuminating. To me, the most illuminating moments in a life are when a person is at his or her most vulnerable, when they’re searching for a foothold, unsure of the path forward, frightened, grieving, even desperate. These are emotions we’ve all experienced, and they help us understand each other, help us find that thread of common humanity.
CC: Are there key research or writing tips you gleaned from working on The River of Doubt that you were able to use in writing your next two books?
CM: The greatest lesson The River of Doubt taught me is the importance of outlining. I don’t know if this is true for other writers, but I am lost without an outline, and not just a basic sketch of how the book will unfold but a long, incredibly detailed outline that helps me think through every step of the story.
CC: How have events in your own life contributed to your understanding of your subjects?
CM: As I get older, I feel like I understand my subjects a little better because I’ve had more of those shared experiences. I’ve seen more of the world, experienced more joy, more sorrow, even tragedy, and because of that when I peer into someone else’s life I can see a little of myself. Maybe because of that I have more compassion, I hope, and am not as quick to judge. I don’t know anyone who’s perfect. I’m certainly not. And that’s what interests me—not the perfect person, but the person who struggles, as we all do.
CC: I’ve read that you align work on your books with your children’s school schedules—an inspiration to all of us who have other demands on our time. Was it difficult at first to use your limited time wisely?
CM: While I love my work, and feel incredibly lucky to be able to do it, it comes in a very distant second place to my children. Surprisingly, however, what I’ve realized over the past 15 years is that being forced to work around my kids’ schedules is actually not a bad thing. I don’t know that I would have the discipline to get right to work every morning if I knew that I had all day to get it done. Knowing that I only have between drop off and pick up is incredibly helpful. I get up, get dressed, take the kids to school, and then go to work.
My office is in my husband’s company, so I’m not home, thinking about the laundry waiting to be done or the Legos that are scattered all over the floor. As soon as I step into my office and close the door, I’m in another place and time. To be honest, it’s a little disorienting when I have to go pick up the kids, but I leave myself notes so that I can pretty easily jump back in the next morning.
CC: What has been your biggest challenge as a biographer?
CM: Wrapping up the research. There’s always another lead to follow, another archive to visit, another storyline to investigate and that, to me, is the best part of the job. I love doing research, and I would be very happy to keep doing it for years on end, but eventually I have to start writing or I will never finish the book.
CC: Tell us about a memorable moment on one of your book tours.
CM: I have been very fortunate to be able to meet many of the descendants of the people I’ve written about, not just the central characters but the people surrounding them, from Candido Rondon’s grandchildren to Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. I’ve really enjoyed meeting them all, but no one has made a stronger impression on me than Bob Garfield, James Garfield’s great-grandson.
I spent some time with Bob, who is now the patriarch of the Garfield family, while I was doing research, and I remember thinking that he was one of the finest people I had ever met—kind, smart, a skilled pianist, and the consummate gentleman. When Destiny of the Republic was released, Bob attended a talk that I gave at Garfield’s farmhouse in Ohio, where Bob had spent much of his childhood. After I spoke, he stood up and said that the book had meant a great deal to him and his family and that it had “brought a ghost to life.” I will never forget that moment. It made me very proud.
CC: What are you working on now?
CM: I just started work on a book about the discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story that I fell in love with many years ago, when I was still working at National Geographic, so I’m thrilled to finally have the chance to really dig in and understand it.

BIO Honors Nan A. Talese

Biographers International Organization will present its third annual Editorial Excellence Award to the legendary editor Nan A. Talese, senior vice president of Doubleday and publisher and editorial director of her own imprint, Nan A. Talese Books at Doubleday, at an evening reception on October 5 in New York City.

talese2In the course of fifty years, Nan Talese has edited and published some of the most distinguished biographiess and nonfiction works of our time, including A. Alvarez’s enduring classic, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide; Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List; Phyllis Rose’s Josephine Baker in Her Time; François Gilot’s Matisse and Picasso; Benita Eisler’s O’Keeffe and Stieglitz; Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette; many books by Peter Ackroyd, including The Life of Thomas More, Shakespeare, Chaucer, J. M. W. Turner, Newton, Poe, Chaplin, and London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets; and Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg and the forthcoming Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, among many others. We spoke with Nan briefly about the experience of editing biography and what she looks for when considering the acquisition of a book.

TBC: Can you provide us with a telling example of how working actively with an author improved one of the biographies you published?
Talese: The best example may be the first biography I edited, A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway (1966). The author and I sat together with the manuscript. I pointed out scenes that seemed less interesting than other scenes or that did not contribute to the reader’s understanding of the character of Hemingway. I asked him questions: “What is going on there? What do you want to convey?” and he answered and I would say, “Put that in!” We ended by cutting one fifth of the manuscript and adding another one fifth in.
TBC: What do you look for in a proposal or a manuscript?
Talese: The first thing I consider is whether the subject is well known and well respected, and what the crucial scenes were in his or her life. What caused a subject to change his mind or direction? Then I look for whether the author has a gift for storytelling and whether the writer’s voice transfers his or her passion to the reader and the page. I look for the ability to tell a powerful story while being very careful to stay within the facts.
TBC: What are editors looking for today?
Talese: Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a great deal of interest in pop stars and in celebrities of all kinds. This is cyclical, and—if fifty years of editing is any guide—this interest will go and come again.

If you will be in or near New York on October 5, do consider joining Nan and a number of the biographers she has published for an evening of lively conversation. The event takes place at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public.

Buy tickets here.

Biographer Explores the Life of a Film Pioneer—Her Father

Radha Chadha is a brand consultant as well as a first-time biographer.

Radha Chadha is a brand consultant as well as a first-time biographer.

If BIO gave an award to the member who ventured the farthest for its annual conference, Radha Chadha would have taken it for 2016. Originally from India, Chadha traveled from her current home in Dubai to Richmond for this year’s event, after being introduced to BIO by TBCNew York correspondent Dona Munker. The path to meeting Munker intersected with Chadha’s effort to write a biography of her father, the documentary filmmaker and producer Jagat Murari.

As Chadha told TBC via email, she was going through her late father’s papers in Pune, a city near Mumbai, when she discovered diaries going back to his days as a film student at USC shortly after World War II. The diaries mentioned a Persian princess named Sattareh Farman Farmaian, whom Murari had met at the school. Farmaian, Chadha learned, had written an autobiography with Dona Munker’s assistance, so Chadha contacted the BIO member, starting a relationship that has been very fruitful for the rookie biographer. Chadha said that Munker “has been amazing—very generous and full of helpful advice that a first-time biographer like me thirsts for. I found the same generous spirit at the BIO conference in Richmond. I am simply delighted to be part of this group.”

What led Chadha to tackle the challenge of writing about her father’s life? Part of it was wanting to tell the story of a key figure in postwar India filmmaking. “He has a fascinating story of achievements that even I didn’t know properly,” Chadha said. “He is a pioneer in the Indian cinema world, both as a documentary filmmaker and a film educator.

Murari directed nearly 50 films, and many of them won national and international awards and were screened at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. As an educator, Chadha said, her father was “in a sense…the man who changed Bollywood, who injected a steady stream of professionally trained directors, technicians, and actors into India’s prolific but chaotic film industry from the 1960s onwards.” Murari did that work as the head of the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), which he created. “Think about it,” Chadha said. “Just a dozen years after India’s independence, in a desperately underdeveloped country, he builds the finest film school in India; it becomes the largest in Asia. His students become the who’s who of Bollywood, as well as the instigators and key players in the New Wave cinema movement that picked up steam in the late 1960s in India.”

Chadha was also drawn to her father’s story because his work in cinema is a part of modern India’s history that has largely gone untold. His documentaries, she said, “tell the story of India’s attempts to develop and unite a fragile nation, they capture a certain innocence or idealism of the times as India tried to ingrain the spirit of democracy in a vast, far-flung, diverse, poor, largely illiterate country.”

 Jagat Murari (right) receives an honor from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956.


Jagat Murari (right) receives an honor from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956.

Adding some spice to the story, it doesn’t hurt that Murari did an internship with Orson Welles while the director was making Macbeth¸ and that he later met world-famous directors as they passed through India. And for a time, Indira Gandhi’s role as the country’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting effectively made her Murari’s boss.

Asked how to balance the desire to be objective while writing about a parent, Chadha called that “the heart of the dilemma I face—how to do your duty as a biographer (by being as objective as possible) while doing your duty as a daughter (by presenting him in the best light possible).” Chadha is turning to her father’s filmmaking as a guide of sorts. Above all, she said, her father was a dramatic storyteller, “and every good story is ultimately a tussle between the forces of good and bad… the forces that propel your character forward and the forces that prevent him from getting where he wants to…. Fortunately, my material has plenty of drama built in—he was strong-willed, he was a visionary, he was in a tearing hurry, he made things happen against formidable odds…. He made enemies along the way, he made mistakes, there were ups, yes, but there were some pretty awful downs. Much as I love him, it would be totally counterproductive to write an I-love-my-daddy puff piece. I just have to get out of the way and tell the story.”

Chadha has some advice and caveats for other biographers thinking of writing about a close relative: “Of course, talking to other people is a great help. But people are not forthcoming about the negative stuff—in fact, one of my surprising learnings is that many elderly people haven’t told me the truth. I had naively imagined that “age equals honesty”—it doesn’t. But if you talk to enough people, you will get to the truth, a few will spill the beans. And every interview, even the sketchy ones, gives you a sense of what might have happened. Soon you begin to notice contradictions, and that leads to many ‘aha’ moments. It is detective work, but so much fun when you figure out someone’s motives. More importantly, it helps you develop a considered viewpoint, and ultimately, that’s what matters. I think the only way to write convincingly is to be convinced.”

Many of the people Chadha hoped to interview had passed away, but even talking to their surviving spouses or children helped. “It has led me to books/articles/speeches (often in languages that have needed translation) that I would not have found without the family’s help. Even better, it has led me to colleagues who are alive. For example, I stumbled upon a 94-year-old man who had studied with my father at USC—they had even shared a room for a short period.”

Chadha also benefited from her father’s being something of a celebrity for most of his career, so newspapers covered his activities. “But again,” she added, “I have learned that they don’t necessarily tell the truth—there are vested interests, there is careless reporting—you have to test the information with your other sources.” Her father was a controversial figure, Chadha said, as some critics accused him of being too enamored of a commercial, Hollywood style of filmmaking when other countries were moving toward the French New Wave approach. As Murari got caught up in the debates, the reporting on him was a “mixed bag.” Overall, Chadha said, trying to remain objective while writing about a famous parent put her on high alert: “You simply try harder. You try to get multiple viewpoints from multiple sources.”

The sources included, of course, Murari’s films, which Chadha said helped her learn who he was as both a filmmaker and a human being. She also studied the films of his students. In the Bollywood vs. New Wave debate, she thinks her father saw value in both approaches. “His aim was to make ‘better cinema’—through professionally trained filmmakers—never mind which side of the fence that cinema came from.”

Today, India has the largest film industry in the world, producing up to 2,000 full-length movies each year. Both splashy Bollywood spectacles and more serious art-house films are shown around the globe. Radha Chadha is still uncovering the role her father played in creating that industry. “It is,” she said, “a story that needs to be told.”

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.

Writing a Biography about a Subject Who Left Few Records of His Own

Pamela Newkirk

Newkirk’s 2000 book Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism.

At the beginning of the last century, Ota Benga, a Congolese member of the Mbuti people known for their diminutive height, was brought to the United States and exhibited to Americans including, for a while, at the Bronx Zoo. Author Pamela Newkirk has published an account of Benga’s life and his horrific ordeal. Her book is calledSpectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. “Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground,” said the New York Times Book Review. “Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard.”

(Editor’s note: Morris and Newkirk shared the same editor at Amistad/HarperCollins.)

How does one write a biographical work of someone who left no written records, well, actually almost no self-generated records?
When writing about marginalized people you often have to turn to the papers of powerful people in their lives. I first learned this when working on my epistolary collections. The letters of enslaved African Americans were found with the papers of their masters or government officials who they appealed to. In the case of Ota Benga, letters written by those who had captured or held him in captivity revealed what was going on daily behind the scenes. There were hundreds of letters that offered uncensored snapshots of him. In addition, dozens of newspapers provided first-person accounts of his daily exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair and the zoo, and also of his life once he was released. I then found him in census and ship passenger records, in an anthropologist’s field notes while in the Congo, unpublished and published accounts by those who knew him, institutional catalogues and bulletins, photographs, etc. I was able to use teams of documents to piece together his journey from the Congo, through Europe, and across the United States.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in reconstructing Ota Benga’s life?
The biggest challenge was overcoming the absence of his voice. His voice was captured in a handful of accounts, so that’s all I had to work with. However, I was able to highlight his actions that, at times, spoke louder than words. It was clear that he resisted his captivity at the zoo and that he suffered both there and on the fairgrounds in St. Louis where he was taunted, attacked, and displayed, while barely clad, on the frigid fairgrounds. As human beings, we can imagine his humiliation and degradation.

In a sense, he isn’t the story, rather our treatment of him is the tale. Am I right? If so, how did that guide your writing?
In a sense, he was a mirror of us—of society—at the dawn of the twentieth century. Our humanity and his were inextricably linked and as his was diminished, so too was ours. But we can also take heart in the fact that a handful of people defied the conventions of the time and protested the exhibition at the zoo. In them, we can find our humanity.

What did you hope to accomplish with this book?
So many distortions, half-truths, and outright deception had shrouded the truth of Ota Benga’s story. A hundred years later, the man who most exploited him was, in many accounts, depicted as his friend and savior. I wanted to correct the historical record and, in the process, reassert Ota Benga’s soaring humanity. He was so much more than “the man in the monkey house,” as he had been widely characterized. He was a sensitive, intelligent, and beloved person who had suffered a horrific injustice. But that experience alone did not define him.

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.)

David I. Kertzer on Biography and Writing

By Joseph A. Esposito

The recent selection of his dual biography of Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Biography caught David I. Kertzer of Brown University by surprise. According to a statement released by the university, Kertzer said, “I had no idea the Pulitzer Prizes were about to be announced nor any hint they were considering The Pope and Mussolini, so this is quite a shock.”

David Kertzer, 2015 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

David Kertzer, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

But the award is an appropriate testament to the meticulous research that Kertzer had undertaken for nearly a decade. Crisply written, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe reports on a symbiotic relationship which unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book chronicles how the dictator played on the fears of modernism of the aging pope and the mindset of the Vatican, and crafted a partnership which helped him to maintain his power. The Catholic Church benefited from the support of the fascist regime by strengthening its position in Italy. Anti-Semitism figures prominently in the story.

Kertzer, who is an anthropologist and former provost at Brown, has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian history and politics, including the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, about a Jewish boy seized by papal officials and who later joined the priesthood, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1997. Continue Reading…