Biography

BIO Workshop: Making Full Use of Fair Use

A workshop facilitated by Biographers International Organization. June 9, 2020. 5:30 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

This meeting is free and open to all who register. Register here.

Fair use—the right of biographers and other writers, under limited conditions, to quote, paraphrase, summarize, and reproduce the copyrighted words and images of our subjects and others, without paying fees—is embedded in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. Our distinguished panel of experts cuts through the almost universal confusion about fair use to illuminate this necessary and vital tool of our core work.

Panel: Brandon Butler is the director of information policy at the University of Virginia Libraries and was the co-principle investigator on the widely respected Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries.

John A. Glusman is the vice president and editor-in-chief of W. W. Norton & Company.

Peter Jaszi is a Professor Emeritus at American University’s Washington College of Law, where he helped to found the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Clinic. He has served as a trustee of the Copyright Society of the USA and as a member of the Librarian of Congress’s Committee on Copyright Registration and Deposit. He is the co-author of the groundbreaking book, Reclaiming Copyright.

Participants are encouraged to read BIO’s statement on fair use and to email their questions ahead of time to Anne Heller.

Sonia Purnell Wins 2020 Plutarch Award

Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II (Viking/Penguin) has won the 2020 Plutarch Award for the Best Biography of 2019.

The Plutarch is the world’s only literary award given to biographers by biographers. Named after the famous Greek writer, BIO awards the honor to the best biography of the year, chosen by a committee of five distinguished biographers. The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium.

Caroline Fraser, Plutarch Award Committee Chair, stated, “The life of an obscure figure, Virginia Hall, rose to the top of the Plutarch list this year in Sonia Purnell’s remarkable feat of research and storytelling. Combing Resistance files in Lyon and archives in London, Paris, and Washington, DC, Purnell retraced Hall’s well-concealed life, revealing the extreme perils and betrayals she faced, including the misogyny of handlers who nearly got her killed. Vulnerable, reckless, and ruthless, Hall emerges as a character of great complexity: an American woman who survived behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France with a wooden leg and a questionable French accent, setting up spy networks for Churchill’s government and refusing to evacuate as the Gestapo closed in. With the propulsive power of an espionage thriller, A Woman of No Importance sheds new light on the role of women in warfare.”

Photo by Charlie Hopkinson

Sonia Purnell is a biographer and journalist who has worked at The Economist, The Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. Her previous book, Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, was chosen as Book of the Year by The Telegraph and The Independent and was a finalist for the 2019 Plutarch. NPR chose A Woman of No Importance as their Best Book of the Year, and film rights have been sold to Paramount.

Purnell responded to news of her win, saying: “Virginia Hall was a hero in the true sense of the word, and I am thrilled beyond words to receive the Plutarch Award as a tribute to her legacy. I see myself as the lucky one who got to tell her story. She didn’t always make it easy, but we got there in the end! Thank you for this incredible honor, which is a treasure to me.”

In addition to Caroline Fraser, members of the 2020 Plutarch Award Committee are Peniel E. Joseph, Hans Renders, John Richetti, and Susan Ware. The Plutarch Award Committee originally chose ten semi-finalists before selecting five finalists for the 2020 prize. You can see all of this year’s finalists and the long list here.

 

 

Mayborn/BIO Fellow Looks at Two Subjects, Two Cultures

Working on a dual biography of a relative who crossed paths with the Chiricahua Apache chief Geronimo, Morgan Voeltz has faced several challenges. She has also come to a conclusion that is probably familiar to many biographers: “Neither of these characters is entirely a hero,” she said, “and neither is entirely a villain.”

Voeltz spoke about her experience working on the biography (her first), at a talk on February 20, at the Women’s International Study Center (WISC) in Santa Fe. The event culminated her two-week stay in New Mexico as the Mayborn/BIO Biography Fellow. The fellowship was initiated by BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris nine years go. (The fellowship is being restructured for next year; you can read about that here.)

While all the Mayborn/BIO fellows have benefited from the chance to put aside daily demands and devote time to researching and writing (and to receive mentoring from Morris), Voeltz found her New Mexico stay especially helpful. During her residency at WISC, she met with some of the Southwest historians whose works she had already read, contacted Apache sources, explored the region’s topography, and saw artifacts from Geronimo’s time. Meeting with a representative of the Mescalero Apache tribe, Voeltz could ask a key question: “What should I know, what should I understand, if I want to write about this culture that is not my own?”

Finding a Focus
The impetus for exploring the intersection of the lives of Geronimo and Voeltz’s great-grandfather, Captain Henry Lawton, came from Voeltz’s grandmother. She suggested that Lawton’s life was worth researching and writing about. A native of Indiana, Lawton joined the army at 18 and fought in the Civil War, the Indian Wars of the West, and the Philippine-American War of 1898. He died in combat during that latter conflict. Voeltz began examining her relative’s life while working on an M.A. in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University. She was struck by how “his life crossed paths with some really formative events for U.S. history during that entire era of the late 1800s.”

Her literary agent convinced Voeltz that instead of giving Lawton’s life a cradle-to-grave treatment, she should focus on one part of his life: the manhunt Lawton led to track down and arrest Geronimo and his Apache followers. But for Voeltz, the story is more than an adventure tale that follows the two men across the Southwest and into Mexico. She also wants to explore the two cultures at play. “Lawton and Geronimo come into the situation with completely different realities,” Voeltz said. “And I want readers to feel that.”

Part of Geronimo’s reality was growing up in the Gila Mountains of southwest New Mexico. That’s where he learned the survival skills that would help him elude capture for some four months in 1886, as Lawton and his men pursued the Apaches over mountainous desert terrain. For Lawton, a motivation in his life was uniting and then protecting the Union he loved.

Shared Traits
During her research, Voeltz learned that her great-grandfather and Geronimo had, as she put it, “a number of commonalities at a very deep human level.” Both chose the warrior life and saw violent conflict at an early age—Lawton during the Civil War and Geronimo while taking part on raids. Both became respected leaders because of their military skill (while Geronimo’s status was bolstered by his role as a medicine man). Lawton and the Apache chief also had strong family and community ties.

Finally, Voeltz said, both men “experienced profound loss in their lives, the kind of loss that knocks you loose from your foundation.” Each lost a parent before the age of 10, and each lost their first three children. Despite those losses, Lawton and Geronimo also had great physical and psychological resilience. Voeltz said the chase through the mountains—the backbone of her story—“puts both of their physical resilience to the test, as well as their emotional resilience.”

Challenges and Conundrums
Finding the sources to give each subject’s perspectives and experience equal weight has presented Voeltz with some challenges. It’s much easier for Lawton’s side, as his letters to his wife are in the Library of Congress. They give Voeltz insight into his character as well as details about life on the trail. But for Geronimo’s side of the tale, there are no written sources from his time when he was trying to evade Lawton. Voeltz is trying to piece together things by knowing how the Apaches lived and traveled in the region at that time. In one example, she noted how Geronimo had been given tips when he was a boy on how to survive in a hostile environment—tips that likely came into play in 1886.

For the Apache side, Voeltz has also turned to accounts left by Apache scouts who traveled with Lawton and his men, though they were recorded years later, as told to white men. Geronimo, likewise, dictated an autobiography later in life to a white notetaker. Voeltz also relies on Apache oral histories, including some from men who lived with Geronimo after his capture.

Voeltz is also considering the language she uses. Geronimo has often been described as a renegade, but is that the proper word, she wonders: “Can you really be a renegade if you’re traveling through a region that you perceive to be your own land?” And Voeltz has tried to find the proper description for Geronimo and his men, and has ended up using ApachesIndians, and Native Americans interchangeably.

Perhaps her biggest conundrum, Voeltz said, is how to grapple with issues of privacy and taboo. She said, “To the Apache, one does not speak someone’s name after that person has died. My book is full of the names of people who died. How do I navigate this?” Along with that, she is wrestling with how to do justice to Geronimo’s world view, one that included his belief that he could communicate with the elements and stop time.

Voeltz will continue to sort out these and other concerns as she works on her book. In the meantime, her fellowship in New Mexico has prepared her for the next phase of research and writing, even as she juggles a full-time job and raising a family. After the fellowship, she said, “the pump is primed.”

BIO Announces Finalists for 2020 Plutarch Award

BIOs Plutarch Award Committee has chosen five finalists for the 2020 Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2019.  The selected titles include the third book in a multi-volume biography of Lincoln, a look at the lives of renegade anthropologists, and the story of an American spy during World War II.

“It’ been a remarkable year for biography,” said Caroline Fraser, Plutarch Award Committee Chair. The finalists have emerged from an exceptional long list that “reflects biographers’ wide-ranging interests and talents, showcasing the best of the genre’s originality, diversity, deep scholarship, and excellent writing.” See the five finalists here.

 

Bio Announces Longlist for 2020 Plutarch Award

BIO’s Plutarch Award jury has nominated 10 books for the Plutarch Award, honoring the best biography of 2019. The Plutarch is the only international literary award judged and presented by biographers. BIO’s Plutarch jury will choose five finalists from the longlist and announce the winner on May 16 at the 11th Annual BIO Conference in New York. This year’s nominees, in alphabetical order by the author’s last name, are:

All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1856–1860, Sidney Blumenthal (Simon & Schuster)

Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter, Kerri K. Greenidge (Liveright)

Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (W.W. Norton)

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, Charles King (Penguin Random House)

Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus, Fiona MacCarthy (Belknap Press-Harvard University Press)

Susan Sontag: Her Life and Work, Benjamin Moser (Ecco)

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, George Packer (Knopf)

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Sonia Purnell (Viking)

George Marshall: Defender of the Republic, David L. Roll (Dutton Caliber-Penguin Random House)

Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer, Carol Sklenicka (Scribner)

“The longlist reflects biographers’ wide-ranging interests and talents, showcasing the best of the genre’s originality, diversity, deep scholarship, and excellent writing,” said Caroline Fraser, Plutarch Award Committee Chair. “It’s been a remarkable year for biography, highlighting individuals from virtually every field and walk of life:  entertainment and the arts, politics, history, literature, philosophy, religion, sports, and science. There’s something for everyone.”

Along with Fraser, the members of this year’s jury are Peniel E. Joseph, Hans Renders, John Richetti, and Susan Ware.

What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Passionate Biographer Talks about Getting to Know Her Subject

By Dona Munker, New York Correspondent

Janice P. Nimura, a BIO member, earned a Master’s Degree in East Asian studies at Columbia University.

Every serious biographer knows that only the most intense engagement with a subject can compel the writer to spend years in the archives and construct a narrative that has the energy it needs to carry both writer and reader across the finish line. Which is why, as Janice P. Nimura suggested to an audience at the City University of New York Graduate Center in October, biographers always long to “find a subject they can fall in love with.”

Speaking at the Fall 2019 Dorothy O. Helly Works-in-Progress Lecture, an event presented twice a year by the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, Nimura offered her first book as an illustration of her point. Daughters of the Samurai (Norton, 2015), the story of three 19th-century Japanese girls sent by their government to the United States to learn Western ways and bring them back to Japan—Nimura’s husband is Japanese and she speaks the language—remembers researching it and telling it as an “ecstatic experience.” When the book was finished, she said, “I wanted to do it all over again—immediately!”

For several years, however, nothing appeared on the horizon and Nimura, who considers herself an impatient reader (“I have the attention span of a gnat”) and likes biographies to have “lots of fast narrative and be crammed with interesting bits of information,” was frustrated and discouraged. Then she came across the story of Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, and her younger sister Emily (1826–1910), who was the third. In 1857, the two collaborated to found the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a full-fledged hospital and the first to train and employ women doctors and nurses exclusively and be dedicated to serving the medical needs of women. (It is now New York University Downtown Hospital.)

Nimura had never heard of either, but she was drawn to stories of female partnerships and had always been interested in science and medicine. Moreover, the Blackwell sisters presented a golden opportunity, since Elizabeth had been written about only in incomplete, prettified accounts for adults and grade-schoolers and Emily was all but absent from the secondary literature.

Nimura was intrigued but also “terrified.” Here was no “bite-sized” story, like the subject of her first book. The Blackwell sisters came from a prominent abolitionist family of nine children; Antoinette Brown, the first American woman to be formally ordained as a minister by a major denomination, was their sister-in-law; another sister-in-law was the suffrage leader Lucy Stone; and their extended circle included many figures about whom volumes have been written. Since “they all wrote letters to each other,” the papers, all told, comprised hundreds of thousands of pages across multiple archives. Moreover, the sisters themselves weren’t exactly designed to warm the heart of a feminist biographer. Elizabeth was domineering and opinionated, and “didn’t like people and wasn’t interested in science,” but had been inspired by reading Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century to fight her way into medical school “in order to make a point”: if she graduated, “no one would be able to claim that she or any other woman couldn’t be a doctor.” She was also deeply conservative, didn’t approve of woman suffrage, and wanted medical schools to instruct all their students in Christian values, as well as medicine. Emily was more modest and self-effacing (and unlike her older sister, Nimura said, “she didn’t blow her own horn about her medical views”), as well as a more devoted medical practitioner, but there was also far less material about her, which made warming up to her difficult. Finally, in general, both dismissed most women as “a lot of ninnies.”

Fortunately, a passion for telling a life story doesn’t necessarily have to arise from a subject’s innate charms. As Nimura has pointed out elsewhere, “There’s the kind of love that overtakes you unexpectedly and the kind you cultivate, consciously.” With luck, if she drew a mental line around the territory she had to explore and “cultivated” it as though it were a plot of fertile soil in her research, she would come to know the sisters and their lives so intimately that she would have both the detailed information that propels a narrative forward and the enthusiasm that would make it the kind of biography she hoped to write.
For a while, as she “dug through piles of letters and watered the seeds of ideas,” she found herself fighting a persistent fear that the investment of so much time and toil wouldn’t pay off after all. Gradually, however, as scenes and events from letters and other research began to take shape, and as her subjects and their milieu took on greater life and immediacy from the increasingly detailed context that was forming in her mind, she felt more and more connected with “their moods, their doubts, their seven eccentric siblings.” Occasionally, to the annoyance of other researchers, she would even find herself “snorting out loud” over some characteristically sardonic remark, or “gasping” at a gruesome description of a medical procedure, or exulting in the discovery of an amusing anecdote about the indomitable Elizabeth’s storming of the male-only medical barricades. Now she craved opportunities to see what vivid details and scenes would emerge from her research and writing.

Asked if she consciously tries to retain a mental outline of the narrative she is working on, Nimura replied that in general she does not; rather, she prefers to let telling details determine the shape of the narrative. “I do less drawing back than honing in,” she said. “I prefer to focus more on the shiny things. When you do that, the story starts to emerge [by itself].” She has no doubt at all about that story’s importance. In a post-2016, post-#MeToo America, she told her listeners, the Blackwell sisters’ lives and achievements are more relevant than ever to both adult and YA readers. “Elizabeth,” she said, “chose medicine because she wanted to make the point that women could do anything they wanted if they had the talent for it. She believed that it was up to women to make civilization progress.”

Dona Munker is the writer and co-author of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is currently working on a book about the suffragist Sara Bard Field and her “free-love” affair with the lawyer C. E. S. Wood. Her blog, Stalking the Elephant, is about how biographers imagine and tell other people’s lives.

Ileene Smith Receives 2019 Editorial Excellence Award

Ileene Smith, winner of BIO’s 2019 Editorial Excellence Award, received her award on November 13 at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Smith has been vice president and executive editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux since 2012. She is also editorial director of the Jewish Lives series published by Yale University Press and the Leon D. Black Foundation. Smith has previously been the recipient of the PEN/Roger Klein Award, the Tony Godwin Memorial Award, and a Jerusalem Fellowship.

Below is a video of the evening’s events.

The video is courtesy of the Leon Levy Center.

BIO, Other Organizations Issue Statement on Fair Use

By Kai Bird

Perhaps a biographer’s worst nightmare is to be told by his or her publisher’s lawyers that he or she cannot quote from all those colorful diaries and letters and must instead rewrite his or her manuscript so as to only paraphrase or summarize these sources. This happened to Ian Hamilton in 1986, when he was sued by the subject of his biography, J. D. Salinger. Random House compelled Hamilton to rewrite his book, taking out all the quotes. Salinger wasn’t satisfied with even the paraphrased use of his letters and sued Hamilton and his publisher. The courts eventually ruled in Salinger’s favor—a case that made very bad law for biographers and historians. Congress amended the Copyright Act in 1992, explicitly allowing for a “fair use” publication of unpublished works, such as diaries and letters. But ever since the Salinger case, editors and publishers have been overly cautious in dealing with fair use cases. Over the years, the courts have in fact moved away from the draconian implications of the Salinger case.

Biographers International Organization, the New York University Biography Seminar, and the Leon Levy Center for Biography have now adopted a statement on good practices for biographers dealing with fair use issues. The statement was drafted by BIO members Carl Rollyson, Anne Heller, and Kai Bird in consultation with several legal scholars and lawyers representing a number of New York publishers. You can read the statement here.

Kai Bird is the executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography and a BIO board member. He is currently working on a biography of Jimmy Carter.