Biography

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.

A Tribute to James Atlas (1949–2019)

By Anne C. Heller

He could be seen among gatherings of biographers wherever we meet: at festivals and symposia, on prize committees, at literary parties, leading panels of his distinguished friends in explorations of their craft, gallantly introducing new biographers to colleagues and readers with a keen and generous word of praise. His standards were old fashioned, unusually high, and deeply literary, and his praise will be remembered and cherished by the unknowable number of lucky ones who received it and found in it new resources of stimulation and perseverance.

His own perseverance was legendary. James Atlas, who died of a rare chronic lung disease on September 4, at the age of 70, published two biographies, each the first on its subject. Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet appeared in 1977, when Jim was 28, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. He had begun to conceive it on a winter’s afternoon six years earlier at the Bodleian Library when, as a Rhodes Scholar studying under the great James Joyce biographer Richard Ellman at Oxford, he set aside Finnegan’s Wake and asked the librarian to bring him Delmore’s poems and stories, and then sat “marveling at the way [Delmore] managed to transform the idiom of immigrant Jews into the formal, echoic language of the English literary tradition.”

Later, at the Beinecke Library at Yale, he got his first look at Delmore’s papers, including a letter to the 25-year-old poet (“the exact age I was at this moment”) from T. S. Eliot. Speaking for every electrified biographer with an archival box before him, Jim wrote, “I felt like Keats in his poem about discovering Chapman’s translation of Homer, ‘some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.’ I was there with the young poet, tearing open the envelope with eager hands, tipped off to the identity of its author by the return address, scanning it quickly, breathing hard as he came to the sentence about his poems, then setting the letter down gently on his desk and smoothing it out to read again and—or so I imagined—again and again and again. T. S. Eliot!

Bellow: A Biography , the work of 10 years, appeared 23 years after Delmore . Stalled and stymied at times by Bellow—by the famous novelist’s cat-and-mouse game of beckoning the biographer and then slyly rebuffing him—Jim took time to cofound and edit the celebrated Penguin Lives series, perhaps the best compendium of short biographies ever published, by superb writers of every description on subjects they were drawn to, including R. W. B. Lewis on Dante and Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc. Wildly successful, the series continued to appear, later produced by Jim’s firm Atlas & Company and published by Norton, HarperCollins, and Houghton Mifflin. Bellow was wildly successful, too, at first—and then less so. In his brilliantly candid book about biography, A Shadow in the Garden (Bellow’s phrase for the biographer), Jim recalled reading the first, seemingly spectacular review of his book, by John Leonard in The New York Times Book Review : “It occupied two whole pages within [the Review ] and showed, as always with Leonard, a tremendous depth of learning, casually displayed.” And yet “a phrase from Leonard’s review—‘wary disapproval’—should have put me on alert; he was describing my general attitude toward my subject. Then there was this arresting sentence toward the end, after an ecstatic riff on his love of Bellow’s prose: ‘Atlas must have felt the same way before he began this long journey into knowing too much.’ Yes, I thought: If only I could have preserved that innocence of early discovery.” Soon “it all blew up. Flames of rage engulfed my book.” Read now, the book is scintillating, meticulous, personable, mostly judicious, and a model of turning every page and tracking every breathing witness to a subject’s life.

He wrote and published other books, including an early novel, The Great Pretender , which biographer and critic Phyllis Rose has recently urged everyone to read, or read again, and two memoirs, My Life in the Middle Ages and The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographers Tale , a practitioner’s droll and learned history of our craft and his adventures in it.

He joined BIO early and gave it his all, as he did with every worthy literary enterprise. He knew everyone and had an ineffable glamour, gifts he deployed to help BIO thrive—adroitly matchmaking on panels and committees, advising on recipients of prizes, conceiving and inspiring an international BIO conference at the University of Groningen in 2018, and acting as the impresario of a series of fundraising dinners called the Biographers Circle, the first one of which took place last week, at the home of Gayfryd Steinberg and Michael Shnayerson in New York. He couldn’t be there, not in body, but the elegant shadow of this diminutive but soaring figure of literary writer, esteemed editor, unstinting mentor, hilarious friend, and honorable combatant in the struggle to tell the story truly and well was palpable and, we trust, won’t ever be forgotten.

Anne Heller is the author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times, which was commissioned and edited by James Atlas and published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015.

First-time Biographers, Apply Now for the Rowley Prize!

Barbara Fisher, winner of the 2019 Hazel Rowley Prize.

Biographers International Organization (BIO) is now accepting applications for the Hazel Rowley Prize. The prize rewards a biography book proposal from a first-time biographer with: funding (a $2,000 award); a careful reading from an established agent; one year’s membership in BIO (along with registration to the annual conference); and publicity for the author and project through the BIO website, The Biographer’s Craft newsletter, etc. The prize is a way for BIO—an organization of biographers, agents, editors, and biography devotees—to advance its mission and extend its reach to talented new practitioners.

The prize is open to all first-time biographers anywhere in the world who are writing in English; who are working on a biography that has not been commissioned, contracted, or self-published; and who have never published a book-length biography, history, or work of narrative nonfiction. Biography is defined for this prize as a narrative of an individual’s life or the story of a group of lives. Innovative ways of treating a life (or lives) will be considered at the committee’s discretion. Memoirs, however, are not eligible. The deadline for applying is March 1, 2020 . You can find more information about the prize and the application process.

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Ileene Smith Wins Editorial Excellence Award

Ileene Smith is the winner of the 2019 Editorial Excellence Award, given each year by BIO to an outstanding editor, from nominations submitted by BIO members. 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.

The event honoring Smith will be held on Wednesday, November 13, starting at 6:30 p.m., in the Skylight Room at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York City. The evening will include remarks from some of Smith’s authors, along with a reception. The event is free but registration is required and is limited to 70 people. You can register here.

Morgan Voeltz Swanson Wins Mayborn Fellowship

Morgan Voeltz Swanson won the Biography Fellowship awarded annually at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, held in July at the University of North Texas. The fellowship is cosponsored by BIO and BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris. With her fellowship, Swanson receives a two- to three-week residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and mentoring from Morris during her stay. In addition, she will receive complimentary admission to the 2020 BIO Conference and a $500 stipend.

During her stay in New Mexico, Swanson, a BIO member, will be working on To the Edge of Endurance: American Soldier Henry W. Lawton, Apache Leader Geronimo, and a Manhunt Through the Desert. Her previous writings include journal articles about Lawton and his wife, Mamie.

In 2020, the fellowship will be relaunched as the Mayborn/BIO Hidden Figure Fellowship, intended to assist aspiring authors working on books about figures who merit a biography through their actions rather than fame. “The marketplace is a cruel arbiter of who is deserving of a biography, reflecting our worse biases,” said Morris. “The publishing industry will eagerly commission yet another biography of Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt rather than a biography of someone we don’t know but ought to know. The lives and voices of the lesser known need to have their day on the bookshelf.”

The change in focus for the fellowship began following Morris’s address to the 2019 BIO Conference, where he received this year’s BIO Award. “This issue has implications far beyond a writer’s personal writing ambitions,” Morris said at the conference. “It bolsters a leader-centric view of history. In this manner wars are won by generals, economic crises solved by presidents, and industries built by moguls. In turn this elevation of leaders creates historically inaccurate expectations.”

The fellowship provides for a grant of $1,000, a two-week stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a casita at the historic Acequia Madre House in cooperation with the Women’s International Studies Center (WISC), dinner five nights a week in the home of James McGrath Morris and Patty Morris, a public reading, and a meeting with an agent. Time will also be set aside for consultation with biographer Morris regarding research and writing techniques for a book on a hidden figure. Morris is the author, among other books, of The New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, which was awarded the Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize, given annually for the best book in Civil Rights History.