Biography

BIO Workshop on Biography of Creation

Biography of Creation: Writing about Artists, Musicians and Culture

In our next BIO online workshop, which is free and open to anyone, three biographers with a tantalizing variety of books discuss the special challenges associated with writing about artists and other creative talents. They’ll address topics of use to any veteran or aspiring biographer, but will also focus on writing with authority on the arts and cultural history. Who are you writing for and how technical should your language be? How important is historical context and how best to incorporate it?

Zoom attendees are encouraged to suggest questions in advance; please keep them pertinent and as brief as possible and email them to moderator Steve Paul by January 25.

This event will be recorded and made available on the BIO website for those unable to attend.

When: Wednesday, Jan. 27, at 6 p.m. Eastern

Register here.

The Panel
Jonathan Gould is a writer and a former professional musician who spent many years working in bands and recording studios. He is the author of Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America (Crown, 2008), and Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life (Crown Archetype, 2017). He is currently at work on a biography of the rock group Talking Heads (HarperCollins, 2023). The book focuses on the band’s remarkable musical evolution and their role as the figureheads, in popular music, of the unlikely emergence of Lower Manhattan as the cultural epicenter of New York City during the last quarter of the 20th Century.

Marcus J. Moore is an award-winning music journalist, editor, curator, pundit, and author of The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2020). He is a contributing writer with The Nation and a contributing editor with Bandcamp Daily. His coverage of soul, jazz, hip-hop, and rock can be found at The New York Times, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, NPR, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic, among many other outlets. He was originally from the Washington, DC, area, and now lives in Brooklyn. On the web: marcusjmoore.media.

Celia Stahr, PhD, a native of California, is the author of Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist (St. Martin’s Press, 2020). Her love for art and culture stemmed from extensive travels to Cuba, Mexico, East and Southern Africa, Western Europe, China, and every region of the United States. She has a background in modern and contemporary art history (with a particular focus on issues of race and gender) as well as in African art and the diaspora. She is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. On the web: fridakahlojourney.com; Instagram: @frida.in.america.

Moderator
Steve Paul, a member of the BIO board, is the author of Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year that Launched an American Legend (Chicago Review Press, 2017) and a biography of the writer Evan S. Connell, forthcoming from the University of Missouri Press. In his long newspaper career he served, among other roles, as book critic, arts editor and ultimately editorial page editor and columnist before retiring in 2016. He’s a contributing columnist at KC Studio, a regional arts magazine.

BIO Virtual Workshop: BIO’s Coaches Answer First-Time Biographers’ Questions about Proposal Writing and Promotion

Three accomplished biographers who have worked with other writers to help bring their biographies to life answered questions about proposal writing and promotion. You see the video here.

Moderator: Marlene Trestman is the author of Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin, and is now writing Most Fortunate Unfortunates: New Orleans’s Jewish Orphans’ Home, 1855-1946 for LSU Press. The former Special Assistant to Maryland’s Attorney General, Trestman enforced consumer and public health laws, twice earning Exceptional Service awards. For her writing, Trestman has received funding from NEH, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Supreme Court Historical Society, American Jewish Archives, and Texas Jewish Historical Society.

Panel: Gretchen H. Gerzina is the Paul Murray Kendall Professor of Biography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Previously she was the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography at Dartmouth College. She has published nine books, four of them biographies of people who crossed lines of geography, culture, and/or race. She has held grants or fellowships from NEH, Fulbright, and Oxford University, and has twice served on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in biography, once as chair. She is currently working on two new books.

Carla Kaplan, Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Northeastern University and Founding Director of its Humanities Center, has received fellowships from the NEH, Guggenheim Foundation, Schomburg Center, and elsewhere, and has published seven books, including Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance and Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (Doubleday, 2002), both New York Times Notable Books. Her current project, forthcoming from HarperCollins, is a biography of Jessica Mitford.

Anne Boyd Rioux is a member of BIO’s Board of Directors. Her books include the biography Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (Norton, 2016). She is a two-time recipient of the NEH Public Scholar Award, currently working on a biographical narrative of the American writer Kay Boyle.

 

Gayatri Patnaik to Receive Editorial Excellence Award

At Beacon Press, Gayatri Patnaik co-edited The King Legacy series, a partnership between Beacon and Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate.

Gayatri Patnaik will receive BIO’s 2020 Editorial Excellence Award on Monday evening, November 9, at an online event featuring three of her authors: Imani Perry, Marcus Rediker, and Jeanne Theoharis, along with literary agent Tanya McKinnon.

Patnaik is Associate Director and Editorial Director of Beacon Press, where for 18 years she has edited and published many books on race, ethnicity, and immigration. A native of India who emigrated with her family to the United States as a child, she has focused on African American history, creating Beacon’s “ReVisioning American History” series and its “Queer Action / Queer Ideas” series.

Kai Bird, chair of BIOs Award Committee, with Tim Duggan, Peniel Joseph, Kitty Kelley, and Megan Marshall, praised Patnaik for her work as a very gutsy, courageous editor who has taken on some high-risk, controversial biographies and published so many outstanding authors.”

Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, is the author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radical Life of Lorraine Hansbury, winner of the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, and other awards.

Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, is the award-winning author of numerous books including The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.   

Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, is the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, winner of the NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award of the Association of Black Women Historians.

Tanya McKinnon, founder and principal of McKinnon Literary, represents New York Times bestselling and award-winning nonfiction that amplifies progressive voices, as well as fiction, childrens books, and graphic novels.

BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award is presented annually to an outstanding editor from nominations submitted by BIO members. Past recipients are Tim Duggan, Robert Gottlieb, Jonathan Segal, Ileene Smith, Nan A. Talese, and Robert Weil.

Register for free tickets on Eventbrite and receive a link to join the event on Zoom on Monday, November 9, at 7 p.m. ET.

BIO Workshop: Coaches Answer First-Time Biographers’ Questions about Research and Writing

If  you missed this live Zoom workshop, you can watch the video here.

Three accomplished biographers who have worked with other BIO members to help bring their biographies to life answer questions about research and writing.
Panelists: Kate Buford, Carl Rollyson, and Carol Sklenicka
Moderator: Anne Boyd Rioux

BIO Announces New Fellowship in Support of African American Lives

Frances Rollin kept one of the earliest known diaries written by a southern Black woman. Her 1868 diary covers the publication of her biography of Martin R. Delany; a transcript of it is available online through the Smithsonian Institution. Click the image to go to the diary.

By Eric K. Washington, with Sarah Kilborne, Anne Boyd Rioux, and Sonja Williams

BIO is pleased to announce the new Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship for African American Biography. The Rollin Fellowship will award $2,000 to an author working on a biographical work about an African American figure (or figures) whose story provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the Black experience. The deadline for applications is February 1, 2021.

The Rollin Fellowship is named for the first known African American biographer—Frances “Frank” Rollin—and aims to remediate the disproportionate scarcity and even suppression of Black lives and voices in the broad catalog of published biography. At its September meeting, the Board of Directors unanimously approved the new fellowship, which reinforces BIOs mission to encourage diversity in the field.

The fellowship’s namesake, Frances Anne Rollin Whipper (1845–1901)—who published as “Frank A. Rollin”—was a 19th-century author and activist. Her groundbreaking 1868 biography, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany, presented the life of a Black abolitionist journalist, physician, and Union Army officer. The Black press recognized the significance of the precedent Rollin set and called for more biographies of African Americans. This fellowship seeks to carry forth that call into the 21st century.

The Rollin Fellowship aims to foster the development of biographical works that encourage deeper insight into the complexity of race relations at the bedrock of American history. This fellowship will support any biography that highlights the Black experience in the Americas, and that is set within the vast time period between (and even before) 1619 and the present. It will support any aspect of African American inhabitancy, dispersion, immigration, or emigration. It will support biographies of Black lives often marginalized by gender, gender-orientation, sexuality, or disability.

Please spread the word about the Rollin Fellowship through your networks. For more information, please visit the Rollin Fellowship page on BIO’s website.

Eric K. Washington chairs BIO’s ad hoc Black Lives Matter Committee, on which Anne Boyd Rioux, Sarah Kilborne, and Sonja Williams also serve.

On Being “Frank”

By Eric K. Washington

Carole Ione’s work includes the opera The Nubian Word for Flowers, a co-creation with Pauline Oliveros that debuted in 2017.

One could say Carole Ione, also known professionally as IONE—a playwright, poet, diarist, and frequent co-creator with her longtime spouse, the late composer Pauline Oliveros —has grown accustomed to long waits. As chair of BIO’s Black Lives Matter Committee, I recently had the privilege of informing Ione that Frances Anne Rollin Whipper (1845–1901) would be the namesake of a new $2,000 fellowship next spring, to be offered for a biography-in-progress of an African American figure. Whipper claimed the distinction of being the first known African American biographer in 1868, when just before her marriage she published—under the pen name “Frank A. Rollin”—Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany, about a Black abolitionist journalist, physician, and Union Army officer.

Ione had played a key role in reviving her predecessor’s nearly forgotten merit. In 1991, 90 years after Whipper’s death, Ione traversed uncharted bloodlines to an unknown great-grandmother—her book, Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, was at once biography and memoir. (The book was edited by Ileene Smith, winner of BIO’s 2019 Editorial Excellence Award.) Ione’s personally, long-awaited book received good reviews, yet nevertheless seemed ill-timed, for her publisher (Summit Books) went out of business right after its release. But nearly three decades later, Carole Ione appears no less heartened for good news.

Carole Ione’s Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color was a New York Times Notable Book.

Eric K. Washington: What was your thought when you heard your great-grandmother, Frances Rollin, was to be the namesake of a biography fellowship?
Carole Ione
: Oh, it really was like a dream coming true through centuries. When I was working on my book I was obsessed with her. There’s this line in her diary in which she said she wanted to “make her mark in literature,” but many things prevented that from happening fully. She was acclaimed for the book when it came out, and then she had much other writing that was interrupted by the difficulties of the Reconstruction Congress. Her political activism remained intact, and she gave her all [to] raising kids in Washington. Yet I’ve always felt the sort of longing in her remark. And when I heard the news, I felt that it had happened.

EKW: Frances Rollin was a remarkable woman, with whom you had much in common as a writer and a diarist. Yet somehow you didn’t become acquainted with her until adulthood?
CI: Yes, my mother had mentioned that there was someone, but it was very vague. I was a freelance writer in the 70s, scrambling for all kinds of stories. Ms. magazine was happening, and I remembered something about the women in my family . . . something about a diary. My mother had sent the diary to Dorothy Sterling [another writer, then working on We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, W. W. Norton, 1984], who sent me the diary.

So I discovered my great-grandmother [Frances Rollin, who married lawyer William J. Whipper] as an adult with children. I had a good education, but there were no African American studies at the time. When I opened the book, I said “how could I have not known about this woman my whole life?” So part of my research was in finding out, you know, why the women in my family were not forthcoming about their own lives.

The men in the family were quite renowned in their way—William S. Whipper [noted abolitionist, not to be confused with Frances’s husband, William J. Whipper], and my grandfather, Leigh Whipper [Frances’s son, the legendary stage and screen actor] . . . but when I tried to find out about the women, [the family] had very little to say. So as I began to write I looked toward this woman, Frances Anne Rollin, as the mother who would share with me all of her secrets and her needs.

EKW: Did the nonfiction genres of biography or memoir particularly interest you prior to learning of your great-grandmother’s contribution to the field?
CI: Well, I was always interested in personal writing and personal life stories. Colette, for example, was my muse from early childhood, because my mother had a book of hers, and what mother had on her shelf I gobbled up. They were not African American stories, but they were biographies. So, yes, I was very interested.

EKW: Tell us about Frances’s nom de plume, “Frank.” Literary history abounds with instances of women writers masking their gender behind male pen names. Was this her story?
CI: You know, when I was discovering her, I was involved with the early feminist movement in a very deep way. I really was incensed that she had to publish under a man’s name. But as I deepened into my research, I found evidence that the family called her “Frank,” her nickname. Frank A. Rollin was a part of who she really was. I was relieved to find that out, and from then on, she became Frank to me, and I always wrote about her in that way.

EKW: What do you see as the lasting legacy of a 19th-century Black woman first-time biographer on a generation of 21st-century biographers?
CI: I think her perseverance in writing about a very important subject—there have been other biographies of Martin Delany, but her book is the primary source of information. And the concept of her money drying up, which happens to so many writers, then persevering through the harsh times of the political climate. Also, I think her position . . .

[Here Ione evokes her great-grandmother’s rectitude by citing a diary entry on George Washington’s birthday in 1868.]

If things continue as they are, there will be but little country to celebrate it. For myself I am no enthusiast over patriotic celebrations as I am counted out of the body politic.

CI: “Frank” was acutely aware of the worldly events around her, and of taking a stand toward better elements of life for writers and for people of color and for women.

It seems that what Ione once felt to be her great-grandmother’s unfulfilled longing to “make her mark in literature” might now be a source of inspiration. She’s thrilled by the news that next year some writer will receive BIO’s first Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship. “It happened!” she exclaims, conveying a sense that her patience, over a century and a half in the making, has been well rewarded.

Eric K. Washington is a BIO board member and chair of the Black Lives Matter Committee. The New York Academy of History recently awarded his biography, Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, its Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York History.

Fair Use: Q&A with the Experts

On June 9, Brandon Butler and Peter Jaszi took part in a virtual workshop for BIO on fair use for biographers. Here, Butler and Jaszi answer two follow-up questions on the topic. You can see a recording of the workshop here, and read BIO’s Statement on Best Practices regarding fair use here

Q: Taking into account fair use doctrine, when do we—and when don’t we—have to pay licensing fees in order to use photographs and other illustrations still under copyright in our books? And how do we find out if a photograph or illustration is out of copyright and can be reprinted freely?
A: There are two key contexts in which you don’t have to pay fees to use third-party content (such as photographs or illustrative material). The first is when your use is a fair use. We covered the broad contours of the fair use doctrine, and how it applies to some recurring biographical uses, in some detail during our webinar. Another very useful source of guidance on the scope of fair use is the growing body of best practices documents developed by communities of creators and other frequent users of in-copyright works. If your use is a fair use, you don’t have to get permission or pay licensing fees. An excellent case in point, which we described during the webinar, is the Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley case. Among other useful things, the Second Circuit’s opinion informs us that:

Preliminarily, we recognize, as the district court did, that Illustrated Trip is a biographical work documenting the 30–year history of the Grateful Dead. While there are no categories of presumptively fair use, courts have frequently afforded fair use protection to the use of copyrighted material in biographies, recognizing such works as forms of historic scholarship, criticism, and comment that require incorporation of original source material for optimum treatment of their subjects.

This important case also makes clear that fair uses don’t necessarily involve critique or commentary on the work that is being used. In that case, as in many others, the point of the reproduction was to illustrate the author’s narrative—which can be an entirely legitimate fair use purpose.

The other major context for unlicensed use is when the work you’re using is in the public domain, i.e., the work is no longer protected by copyright (or, in the case of some federal government works, it never was protected by copyright). The best quick reference for determining whether a work is in the public domain is the Cornell University Library’s handy chart. And sometimes, of course, text or images you want to use are available under a general Creative Commons license.

Q: How can we talk to our editors and publishers about a more liberal interpretation of fair use, especially in light of what you told us in the Zoom workshop about courts’ evolving and more expansive views on the law over the last 20 years?
A: Most editors and publishers need to understand four key things:

  • Fair use law has changed very substantially over the last two decades, including (crucially) its treatment of unpublished material. The very bad cases regarding unpublished material in biographies that were decided in the 1980s and early 1990s were overturned by an act of Congress, which added language to the Copyright Act explicitly stating that unpublished material shall be susceptible to the same balanced analysis as published materials. More generally, the law of fair use has become much, much more coherent and much more strongly favorable toward legitimate users than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • This change is now very, very well established. Scholars have shown, repeatedly, that if your use is “transformative,” you will win in court. Cases about biography and related scholarly uses, in particular, show a very clear mode of analysis that any author and publisher can apply favorably to their own typical, recurring uses. Plaintiffs now understand this, and they are wary of bringing lawsuits they know will lose. Courts have become quite willing to dismiss cases at early stages when a strong fair use case is evident on the face of the complaint.
  • Fair use makes books better. Arbitrary omissions and alterations that are rooted in legal fear, rather than in the author’s (and the editor’s) judgment about what best serves the story, will always make a book worse. They will lead you to leave out important context, to make assertions without important evidence, to ask the reader to trust you rather than give them the opportunity to believe their own eyes. The publisher that is willing to flex their fair use rights in support of authors will publish more, better books, and they will attract authors who value the freedom to tell their stories to the fullest extent allowed by their First Amendment rights, rather than having to trim their sails in deference to illusory legal risk. For a while, this will give savvy publishers a competitive advantage. 
  • According to Congress, fair use is a right, and the Supreme Court has weighed in to say that it’s closely related to the First Amendment freedom of expression. So, there is nothing sneaky or disreputable about exercising the fair use right where it applies.
Experience in other fields suggests that once one publisher or editor takes advantage of their rights, others will follow eventually, lest they be left behind. As more join the fair use pack and industry norms catch up to legal reality, there will be safety in numbers and everyone will be better off for it. For this to happen, though, authors may have to take the first step, by insisting that the editors and publishers allow them to make responsible use of this important copyright doctrine. 

Race, Racism, and Biography

Six BIO members shared their views on race and biography for the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft:

Black Lives/Young Readers by Ray Anthony Shepard

Archival Interventions: Reconstructing Life on the Margins of History by Pamela Newkirk

Biography Matters by Patricia Bell-Scott

Before There Was Karen, There Was Miss Anne by Carla Kaplan

The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph

Biography Has Mattered to Black Lives by Eric K. Washington