2021 Plutarch Award Longlist

Longlisted for BIO’s 2021 Plutarch Award–the only major award made by fellow biographers for the year’s best biography, published in English–are the following titles.

The judges were deeply impressed by the level of biographical professionalism, intelligence, research, style and originality as demonstrated in the nearly 200 biographies that were carefully considered for the prize. These were books published in a time not only of a global pandemic, but of an ongoing cultural war on fact and civilized discussion in our media and society, epitomized in recent book bannings. We congratulate the authors and publishers of all the works we read. Here, though, are the 10 biographies we have ultimately longlisted for the prize for their outstanding merits: qualities that included fairness, honesty, heart and respect for truth, in alphabetical author-order:

Claude A. Clegg III, The Black President: Hope and Fury in the Age of Obama
(Johns Hopkins University Press)

Claude Clegg’s The Black President presents a slice-of-life biography of Barack Obama as a two-term President of the United States. And what a slice it was–racially, politically, economically! Engagingly written, the book is unique in using the filter of a black author–a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill–to narrate and assess compassionately but critically the trajectory of first Black Chief Executive of the nation, living with his family in the White House. Remarkable for its heart, the book paints what seems today a lost age of inspiring American global leadership, amid ever-deepening tribulations at home and abroad.

Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler
(Little, Brown)

This is a stylistically innovative, deeply researched, and passionately written biography of Mildred Harnack, an American who was part of the German resistance during WWII and who was beheaded by personal order of Hitler. Harnack’s great-great niece, Rebecca Donner, takes an enormous risk by writing novelistically and setting her story in the present tense. The risk pays off: Part historical drama, part spy novel, Donner’s book expands the parameters of biography itself. This is an extraordinary portrait of a woman who made the ultimate sacrifice for justice, and whose name deserves greater recognition.

Robert Elder, Calhoun: American Heretic
(Basic Books)

In Calhoun: American Heretic, Robert Elder provides a brilliant revisionist biography of the scorned proponent of nullification, and of slavery as a “positive good.” Historians have swept aside antebellum U.S. Senator Calhoun as an outmoded figure, but Elder suggests we ignore at our own peril the challenge to federal power that originated in the founding generation of this country.

Janice P. Nimura, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine
(W. W. Norton)

Janice P. Nimura digs deeply into the diaries and letters of the Blackwell sisters, who were among the first women in America to receive medical degrees. The book reads like a novel without sacrificing historical accuracy and scholarly rigor. Nimura immerses us in the sisters’ 19th-century world, conjuring up candlelit lodgings, muddy roads, and creaking wagons as Elizabeth and Emily travel through America, France, and Britain on their quest to practice medicine. Jeered in lecture halls and treated as curiosities off-campus, they maintained a dignified courage and a relentless work ethic. Eventually, they shamed their skeptics and opened the doors for future generations of women doctors.

Fiona Sampson, Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
(W.W. Norton)

Rescuing Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the reductive legend of the sickly lady lying on her sofa on Wimpole Street, Fiona Sampson’s Two-Way Mirror offers an impressive reevaluation of a woman whose poetry made her one of the most-admired writers of her time. A woman oppressed for years by her controlling father, Barrett Browning made herself into a poet so accomplished that she rivaled Tennyson in praise and popularity, ultimately forging a life in Italy, with a husband and son, and inventing herself anew. Sampson’s writing and interpretation rivals that of her subject, in this compelling work.

Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Francis Bacon: Revelations

A finely written, illustrated and exhaustively researched life of the artist Francis Bacon by Pulitzer Prize winners Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. The authors have tracked down many obscure sources and conducted nearly 150 interviews to help us understand the psychological, artistic, and romantic pressure points that made Bacon one of the twentieth century’s great artists. The smells, sights, and sounds of Bacon’s world are vividly rendered in Revelations, while the many high-quality reproductions of his paintings provide important artistic context throughout.

Matthew Sturgis, Oscar Wilde: A Life

Taking a deeply historical approach in Oscar Wilde: A Life, Matthew Sturgis presents the whole man as revealed in documents discovered over the last several decades. Sturgis not only corrects the errors of previous biographies, he creates a compelling and comprehensive narrative of how the man and his persona evolved.

Dorothy Wickenden, The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights

Common goals brought three women together in 19th-century America and made them friends. In The Agitators, Dorothy Wickenden deftly interweaves the disparate lives of Martha Wright, a Quaker wife and mother; Frances Seward, spouse of William H. Seward, who was secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln; and Harriet Tubman, the great hero of the Underground Railroad. All three were activists for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. In telling this story, Wickenden offers insight into 19th-century womanhood and key issues of the period.

Frances Wilson, Burning Man: The Trials of D. H. Lawrence
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Frances Wilson’s brilliantly conceived and executed biography of D. H. Lawrence presents his life through the surprising structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which follows the poet’s struggles through hell, purgatory, and paradise in search of, and accompanied by, Beatrice. Lawrence’s peripatetic life, traveling and writing his way from England to Europe, Ceylon, New Mexico, and Mexico, reflect his battles with personal relationships, muses, and physicality, all while compulsively writing them into his changing visions of the world.

Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography

Richard Zenith’s Pessoa: A Biography is a masterful account of the life of a writer who, Zenith and others believe, deserves to be more widely known. Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) was a Portuguese poet who employed fictitious identities (which he called heteronyms) to explore the concept of self. Zenith’s book is sweeping in its presentation of the world Pessoa inhabited, and detailed in its exploration of his development as a writer. Scholarly and authoritative yet always accessible, this traditional biography has value for readers new to Pessoa’s poetry and for those familiar with it.


2021 Plutarch Award Committee:
Nigel Hamilton (chair)
Heather Clark
Gretchen Gerzina
Catherine Reef
Carl Rollyson