BIO Award

David Levering Lewis Looks at Two Black American Leaders in BIO Conference Keynote

David Levering Lewis accepts the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk.

After receiving the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk, David Levering Lewis spoke on “Black Biography Matters: A Prophet and A President.” The prophet was W. E. B. Du Bois, the subject of Levering’s two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The president was Barack Obama.

Levering started his talk by giving a mini-bio of an unnamed figure: A biracial American who did not face the extreme discrimination other Blacks did, thanks in part to having one white parent and living in a relatively tolerant state. This figure, though, came to embrace his Black roots as well as the culture and aspirations of Black Americans.

Levering said that if his audience assumed he was talking about the first Black president of the United States, they were correct. But Levering pointed out that many of the details of Obama’s life as a biracial American applied to Du Bois as well, another man who embraced his Blackness and achieved greatness. The two, Levering said, shared “strikingly similar biographical profiles,” and his introduction featured the “interweaving of like-minded quotations” from Obama’s and Du Bois’s autobiographical writings.

Levering’s goal with this introduction was to illustrate “the significance of a largely unsuspected parallelism in the racial coming of age of two of the most influential American men of the last 100 years.” But as Levering went on to show, Obama’s career as president ultimately diverged from the path Du Bois took as a scholar and activist, though he also noted that there would have been “no Obama presidency without the Du Bois civil rights legacy.”

After adding a few more details to each man’s biography (noting that in Du Bois’s hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “black families were rarer than Democrats”), Levering turned to Obama’s idea of the “audacity of hope,” the title of the book Obama wrote before announcing his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Levering called that expression an example of political optimism—an optimism reflected in candidate Obama’s belief that racism was an old problem that the country had transcended. Levering said he “had seemed to resolve those dilemmas of nationality and color unforgettably proposed by Du Bois in his foundational text The Souls of Black Folk.” And Americans seemed eager to embrace the idea of a “post-racial” future.

But then, in not so few words, Levering said, “Not so fast.” He explained Du Bois would not have accepted that the country had transcended race. “Rather, he could remind us that he predicted that race still would remain the predicate of our American experience long after the formal dismantling of segregation.”

Levering recounted how, as a presidential candidate, Obama tried to generate universal appeal by not being threatening to white voters, while winking reassuredly at Black ones. And he might have been “just progressive enough to intrigue old troublemaker Du Bois.” But Obama didn’t live up to the promise of the “audacity of hope” and become a transformational president. And Black scholars who pointed out that John McCain won the white vote in 2008 by 10 points over Obama had their op-eds dismissed as being out of sync with the supposed post-racial era the country had entered.

Levering said that Obama didn’t seize the opportunity the Great Recession presented when he took office in 2009. Obama was economically timid and pursued a “futile strategy” of conciliation with his Republican critics. Though there were critics on the left, too, who berated Obama’s timidity. Still, Levering said Obama had notable first-term successes, such as saving the auto industry and signing legislation that created the first federal consumer protection bureau. And Levering called passage of the Affordable Care Act the signature accomplishment of Obama’s presidency (while noting it was a bonanza for the insurance industry).

Turning back to Du Bois, Levering said he should avoid speculating on what his subject might have made of the Obama presidency. But he said he would any way, given that Du Bois had “spoken rather presciently to our times” in the 1950s about what he saw as a lingering American problem: too many people were willing to live in comfort “even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellow men.” Du Bois, Levering said, moved from seeing racism as the central American problem to a broader economic emphasis on class discrimination, while still recognizing that race was a “component of America’s DNA.” Obama, on the other hand, saw race “as of limited value in formulating an economics of redress.”

In the end, Levering suggested, Obama and DuBois stood at opposite poles. “For Du Bois, racism defined the American social contract.” For Obama, “the less said about race relations, the better.”  Levering admitted that the Obama presidency ended “with much to its credit.” But the idea of a post-racial reset for the nation “had already been fatally belied by worsening disparities now become irrevocably color coded,” by a Supreme Court decision that hamstrung the voting rights of Black and Latinx voters, and by criminal justice misdeeds and police violence that fueled protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these problems were only exacerbated during the Trump presidency.

Levering closed with words from Du Bois, which he believes are relevant for the 2022 elections. Du Bois wrote that the majority of voters had to challenge a political system run by a minority based on their wealth and power. Du Bois said some might call his ideas for change “socialism, communism, reformed capitalism or holy rolling. Call it anything—but get it done.”

David Levering Lewis Wins 2021 BIO Award

By Kitty Kelley

Among his honors, David Levering Lewis received the 2009 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at the White House on February 25, 2010.

David Levering Lewis is the winner of the 12th BIO Award. This prize is bestowed annually to a distinguished colleague who has made major contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography.

Lewis, 85, an American historian, is the Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History at New York University. He is the first author to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography for his successive volumes on W. E. B. Du Bois: W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography Of A Race, 1868–1919 and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and The American Century, 1919–1963.

Lewis also won the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his two-volume biography of Du Bois, 15 years in the research and writing, and hailed by critics as “definitive” and “magisterial.” Kirkus wrote: “Du Bois has finally found a Boswell worthy of his achievements as an African-American reformer who fought for human rights in the US and the wider world.”

A spectacular scholar who has written eight books and edited two, Lewis was educated at Fisk and Columbia Universities, and received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has taught at Morgan State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of the District of Columbia. He was professor of history at the University of California at San Diego from 1980–1984 and, in 1985, he joined Rutgers University as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History. He served as “distinguished visiting professor” in the history department of Harvard in 2001 and, in 2003, he was appointed to his current position at NYU.

Throughout his career Lewis has received prestigious fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Humanities Center, the American Philosophical Society, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has served as a trustee of the National Humanities Center; the commissioner of the National Portrait Gallery; a former senator of Phi Beta Kappa; and former president of the Society of American Historians. He currently serves on the board of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine.

“The BIO Award is the highest honor that our organization bestows, and David Levering Lewis is an obvious choice,” said Linda Leavell, president of BIO. “His spectacular lifetime of work—his biography of Martin Luther King Jr., his two volumes of W. E. B. Du Bois, and his most recent biography of Wendell Willkie—inspires all of us and adds immensely to the genre of biography.”

Previous BIO Award winners are Taylor Branch, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Richard Holmes, Hermione Lee, Candice Millard, James McGrath Morris, Arnold Rampersad, Stacy Schiff, Jean Strouse, and Claire Tomalin.

Kitty Kelley, who has written seven biographies, serves on the BIO Board of Directors.

Hermione Lee Wins 2020 BIO Award

By Justin Spring

Dame Hermione Lee, Emeritus Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford, is the winner of the 11th annual BIO Award, a prize bestowed yearly by the Biographers International Organization to a distinguished colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Lee will receive the honor on May 16, at the 2020 BIO Conference at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she will also deliver the conference’s keynote address.

One of the leading literary scholars and critics of our time, Lee is best known for her Virginia Woolf (1996), widely considered the definitive biography of that author. The book won the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay Prize.

Comfortable with literature from both sides of the Atlantic, Lee has written biographies of two American novelists, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, and also a critical study of Philip Roth. In addition, she has written a biography of the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen and, most recently, of the British novelist, poet, essayist, and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life was the winner of the 2013 James Tait Black Prize and BIO’s 2015 Plutarch Award.

Lee has written extensively on the art and craft of what she calls “life-writing,” most notably in her books Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography (2005) and Biography: A Very Short Introduction (2009). She is a fine critical reviewer and judge of biographies, and her reviews have appeared regularly in The Guardian and The New York Review of Books, among many other publications. She was chair of the judges for the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2006 and has judged many other literary prizes throughout her career. In her work as a scholar of literature, she has edited and introduced numerous editions and anthologies of works by major English and American writers, including Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Hermione Lee has worked hard to raise the academic perception of biography. As president of Wolfson College, Oxford, she founded the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, in 2011. Nearly 10 years later, the Centre has become a busy hub of activities relating to many kinds of life-writing and interdisciplinary inquiry. Through its sponsorship of talks, lectures, performances, panel discussions, conferences, seminars, and workshops the Centre has helped raise public awareness about various forms of life-writing. It also fosters biographical research through postdoctoral research fellowships, postgraduate scholarships, visiting scholarships, and visiting doctoral studentships.

Lee’s honors are almost too many to list. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2003 for services to literature, and in 2013 was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), also for services to literary scholarship.

“I am delighted, honored, and amazed,” Lee wrote BIO President Linda Leavell when informed she had won the BIO Award. “Thank you so much, and thanks to the committee. It is particularly exciting to be given this prize for the Life-Writing Centre here in Oxford as well as for my writing. I accept with pleasure.”

Previous BIO Award winners are James McGrath Morris, Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, Candice Millard, and Richard Holmes.

Justin Spring, chairman of this year’s Awards Committee, is the author of Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (FSG, 2011), The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (FSG, 2017), and Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale University Press, 1999). A Finalist for the National Book Award and the recipient of many other prizes and honors, he has also held a Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction Writing and a Leon Levy Fellowship in biography. He specializes in interdisciplinary and cross-cultural subjects.

Video Highlights from the 2019 BIO Conference

Here are some highlights from the 2019 BIO Conference, held in New York City on May 17-19. You can see the morning plenary with David Remnick, Stacy Schiff, and Judith Thurman, and Nigel Hamilton introducing 2019 BIO Award winner James McGrath Morris, who gave the keynote speech.

A Writer’s Walk Spurred the Creation of BIO: An Interview with 2019 BIO Award-Winner James McGrath Morris

By Kitty Kelley
From the beginning of BIO, the organization and one person have been inextricably linked: this year’s BIO Award winner, James McGrath Morris. Even before he helped launch BIO, Morris was linking biographers through the newsletter he created, The Biographer’s Craft. He will receive his award on May 18, during the 10th Annual BIO Conference. When it came time to interview Morris, Kitty Kelley was an obvious choice. She took part in the first BIO Conference in 2010 and has known Morris since they met during a writers’ event supporting the players during the 1982 NFL strike (at least that’s Morris’s recollection). Kelley called him “my hero and beloved friend,” and let TBC know that she would have kicked and screamed if she hadn’t gotten the assignment.

Kitty Kelley: How did you come to start BIO?
James McGrath Morris: People often call me the founder of BIO, but I don’t think that’s really an accurate term because it was actually 50 of us who gathered in New York City in 2009 to found BIO. It’s more accurate to describe me as the progenitor of the idea.

KK: Where did the idea come from?
JMM: A walk. I was taking a walk on the dirt roads of my then-neighborhood, in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains above Santa Fe. Walks provide time for contemplation and I was giving thought to the success of The Biographer’s Craft, a newsletter I launched in 2006. It had 1,700 subscribers who seemed to enjoy the connection to other fellow biographers that the newsletter provided.

I got to thinking that we biographers work alone but we could benefit from getting together as mystery, science fiction, romance, and thriller writers do. In fact, my friend David Morrel helped launch International Thriller Writers. So, I thought biographers needed their own organization. I wrote an open letter about this idea at the top of an issue The Biographer’s Craft that essentially said, if folks were interested in doing this, we should have a meeting. David Nasaw, who had just created the Leon Levy Center for Biography, offered space at CUNY. And 50 people showed up for the meeting.

KK: What happened then?
JMM: We decided to create an organization and, as you might imagine, we had animated discussions, especially about whether or not we would include memoirists. No, we decided.

I said that I would help facilitate the creation of this organization and stay with it until it was established, but that I did not want to stay with it forever. And there was a very important reason for that thinking. I’ve seen a lot of organizations come and go, and usually the ones that fail are the ones that are too centered on the person who helped create the organization. I felt that it would only succeed if other folks took on the responsibility of running the organization. So, I served as the executive director and then as president and then as a member of the board. Since these various tours of duty, my role has been limited to being a contributing editor to TBC and occasionally serving on a committee, like the Hazel Rowley Prize committee.

I’ve been thrilled to see that the original plan worked. If you look at the program for the conference or go to its website, you see that BIO is really a grassroots organization staffed and sustained by volunteers from all around the world. And that’s what makes BIO a healthy organization.

KK: What do you think BIO’s most important role is?
JMM: When we started BIO, we decided to hold an annual conference, and I will tell stories about this when I give my talk. I think the conference, the newsletter, the grants and prizes, and the networking BIO provides are the critically important components of its work. We have remained true to BIO’s original mission of being an organization where anyone can find help, assistance, collegiality, and support in pursuing the craft of writing a biography.

KK: What drove you to create BIO?
JMM: A bad habit. In high school, I organized Students for a Better Environment—with the catchy initials SBE—and when I worked as a freelance writer, I recruited writers for the National Writers Union. I have a drive, a tendency, or a bad habit to be a mother hen organizing folks collectively. Heck, I was even a member of the Teamsters once.

KK: How’d you first get interested in biography?
JMM: I first got interested in biography because of obituaries. I developed what some people might think is a lugubrious habit when I was very young. By that I mean, 11 or 12 years old. I loved to read obituaries in the newspaper. Not the paid announcements, although I do read those, especially in small-town newspapers, but obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist are
my favorites.

An obituary is a biography. It tells you the life story of somebody who is worthy of attention, but it also has to provide the context. So, it gives you a history lesson. For instance, a recent obituary for Charles Sanna, the man who invented Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa, explained how the U.S. Army ordered powdered milk during the Korean war, and how a surplus of this milk led to his invention.

From obituaries, I went to reading biographers like W. A. Swanberg and Catherine Drinker Bowen. And, of course, The Power Broker, published in 1974, made me see the incredible potential of the modern biography.

KK: Of the books you’ve written, which are you most proud of?
JMM: That question is asked to me sometimes at a bookstore event. It’s a tough question because it’s sort of like asking which of your children you like best. Each book has represented something very different in my life. I most like to write about someone that nobody else has written about. Second, I like illuminating the life of someone who is less well known, who might slip through the cracks of history. I accomplished that best with Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press.

KK: What are the challenges facing biographers today?
JMM: I will elaborate on the three problems I see facing our craft when I give my talk at the conference. First, the prevalence of easily accessible biographical information about almost any figure—think Wikipedia here—has diminished the imperative of including biographies in one’s library. Because of this, the quality of the writing has become paramount. Second, it is increasingly hard to find commercial support for doing books about lesser-known subjects. Third, and conversely, it’s become a hostile world for unauthorized biographies of powerful figures. Hagiographical accounts of their lives thrive while independent and unauthorized biographies diminish. The current attacks on the press has compounded this.

KK: How do you feel about winning the BIO Award?
JMM: Obviously, I’m thrilled, touched, and honored at the same time. But it’s sort of an awkward moment. If you look at the list of previous BIO winners, which includes the likes of Claire Tomalin, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Jean Strouse, and Arnold Rampersad, these are some of the most eminent biographers of our times. I’m certainly not among the rank, so it’s clear that part of the reason I was chosen is not because of some turn of phrase or some remarkably good research I did, but for my contribution in creating and launching BIO. (That’s one long sentence.) Because the prize is for somebody who’s helped advance the art and craft of biography, I can see the rationale. But, at the same time, I’m in very lofty company now, and if there’s ever a plaque made with all the winners, I’m sure somebody, when they dust it off, will say, “Oh, Robert Caro, I know him. Stacy Schiff, sure. James McGrath Morris? Who the heck was he?”

Kitty Kelley is an internationally acclaimed writer, having written seven New York Times bestselling biographies, five of which debuted at number one. Her many awards include one from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for “courageous writing on popular culture.” She serves on the BIO Board.

James McGrath Morris Wins 2019 BIO Award

Among his other responsibilities, James McGrath Morris hosts the winner of the annual Mayborn/BIO Fellowship.

BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris, a writer, a teacher, and a mentor to other biographers, is the winner of the 10th annual BIO Award. BIO bestows this honor on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous award winners are Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, Candice Millard, and Richard Holmes. Morris will receive the honor on May 18, at the 2019 BIO Conference at the Graduate City University of New York, where he will deliver the keynote address.

Morris told The Biographer’s Craft that he first fell in love with biography as a child reading newspaper obituaries. In fact, he said, his steady diet of them became an important part of his education in history. In 2005, after a career as a journalist, editor, book publisher, and school teacher, Morris began writing books full time.

Among his works are Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind BarsThe Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism; Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power;Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press (awarded the 2015 Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize for the best work in civil rights history); and The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War. He is also the author of two Amazon Kindle Singles: The Radio Operator and Murder by Revolution.

He taught literary journalism at Texas A&M in 2016, and has also conducted writing workshops at various colleges, universities, and conferences. Morris is currently working on a biography of Tony Hillerman, the late author of ground-breaking mysteries set in the Navajo Nation. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Highlights of the 2018 BIO Conference: Holmes Keynote Address and Husband-and-Wife Team in Conversation

More than 225 established and aspiring biographers from three continents immersed themselves in their craft at the Ninth Annual Biographers International Organization Conference, held May 18 and 19, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Along with the announcement of the Plutarch Award for 2018, conference highlights included a keynote address by Richard Holmes, winner of the 2018 BIO Award, and a discussion between Edmund Morris and Sylvia Jukes Morris, who shared their experiences writing about both living and dead subjects. [more]

Scenes from the 2018 BIO Conference:

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.