This week’s episode features highlights from a panel from the 2019 BIO Conference, “Fire Up Your Narrative,” with moderator Linda Leavell and panelists John A. Farrell, Ruth Franklin, Caroline Fraser, and Tom Reiss.
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.
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.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee won the Plutarch Award for best biography of 2014, as selected by members of Biographers International Organization. The winning book was announced at the Sixth Annual BIO Conference in Washington, DC.
- The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandria by Helen Rappaport
- The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 by Nigel Hamilton
- Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr
Named after the ancient Greek biographer, the prize is the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar, in that BIO members chose the winner by secret ballot from nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft. This year marked the third time BIO bestowed the award. Previous winners were Linda Leavell for Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore and Robert Caro for The Passage of Power.
Linda Leavell’s Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) won the Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2013. The winner and the three finalists were revealed at a ceremony held at the closing of the fifth annual Compleat Biographer conference at UMass Boston on May 17.
“I’m truly humbled by this award, and I’m also humbled by my company here, the fellow nominees,” Leavell said after Plutarch Nominating Committee member Vanda Krefft opened the sealed envelope that contained the name of the winner. Leavell was a charter member of BIO and attended the first conference, which was also held at UMass Boston five years ago. “It was amazing to me, as I was writing a biography in Oklahoma and Arkansas, to have the opportunity to be with other biographers and meet people and talk about the things that I was doing and the things that they were doing, so I’m very grateful to this organization.”
Named after the Ancient Greek biographer, the prize is the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar, in that Biographers International Organization (BIO) members chose the winner by secret ballot from nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft.
- Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf)
- Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography (Ballantine Books)
- Ray Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Random House)
Prior to the Plutarch ceremonies, Board member Will Swift presented retiring President James McGrath Morris with the unique “Founding Father Award” for his role in “creating, supporting, and inspiring Biographers International Organization.” BIO’s Secretary Barbara Burkhardt followed by giving Morris a beautiful bound book of tributes from members of BIO.
BIO members Megan Marshall and Linda Leavell will present “Making Modernism: A Conversation Between Biographers” at the BIO conference on May 17. As a prelude to that, Marshal interviwed Leavell about her new book and a recent honor.
Linda Leavell: Thank you, Megan. Moore didn’t like to be called a “poetess” but was too polite to protest the term. Although second-wave feminism made little sense to the elderly poet, feminism was a norm for her from early adolescence. She grew up among single, well-educated women like her mother and graduated from Bryn Mawr, the most socially progressive women’s college of the time. She campaigned for suffrage and participated in the famous 1913 suffrage march in Washington, D.C. Throughout her life and continually in her poetry she sides with the oppressed and marginalized, and some poems such as “Marriage” are overtly feminist.
MM: Before you began work on Holding On Upside Down, you had written critical studies of Moore’s poetry. What challenges did you experience in mastering the biographical form? Any advice for others attempting to make this transition?
LL: I not only knew how to develop an academic argument but had taught thesis-driven writing for several decades when I started the biography. Biography, however, is essentially storytelling, and fluid prose matters more than it does in other forms of scholarship. I welcomed these challenges. I would advise others making this transition not to get too attached to the particulars of their research. I had to omit much that I had learned in order to keep the story moving.
MM: The Moore estate selected you as Marianne’s authorized biographer and gave you full access to the Moore archive. What was it like to work on the biography knowing that family members had placed this trust in you?
LL: Trust is key. The Moore family had had some bad experiences with the unscrupulous and had become wary of scholars. They were eager to find a trustworthy biographer, and I felt honored to earn their trust. Fortunately, they were as committed to accuracy as Moore herself was. I never felt constrained to withhold what I learned, even things that surprised them, but I wanted to honor their trust by treating the family members with dignity and the nuances of their relationships with precision.
MM: You draw particular attention to Moore’s ambitious early poem “An Octopus,” which isn’t, like many of her other poems, about an animal but instead about an “octopus of ice”—Mount Rainier. You find in it an optimistic rejoinder to Eliot’s The Waste Land, an expression of Moore’s particular form of patriotism. What did it mean to Moore, with her famous love of baseball and the Ringling Brothers circus, to be an American and how do we see that in her writing?
LL: The question of American identity was important for artists after World War I. In “An Octopus,” Moore presents a distinctly American landscape in Mount Rainier National Park. Beginning with the title and first line: “An Octopus // of ice,” she shows how the experience of the wilderness constantly undercuts one’s expectations. And she thus advocates American pragmatism as an alternative to what she called a “macabre” failure of imagination in “The Waste Land.” Late in her career, she became a campy patriot in her tricorn hat, assuming the role of model citizen and unofficial poet laureate.
MM: Finally, how do you pronounce “Marianne”? I listened recently to a recording of Elizabeth Bishop reading “Efforts of Affection,” her recollection of Moore, at the 92nd Street Y in New York in the 1970s. To my surprise, Bishop pronounced the name as “Marian.” Is that correct, or just the result of Bishop’s particular accent or rushed way of speaking before an audience?
LL: Moore pronounced her name Marian. Her mother spelled her name this way for the first year of her life and then changed the spelling to Marianne, perhaps to honor the two great aunts, Mary and Anne, for whom the child was named.
Megan Marshall is the author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. She is at work on a short biography of Elizabeth Bishop for the Amazon “Icons” series.