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Highlights of Spring and Summer Biographies

While publishing insiders may say that the overall selection of new biographies coming out this spring and summer is not as impressive as last year’s stellar crop, the range of subjects—some tried and true, some getting their first major due—should satisfy the most discriminating readers. Here are some books most likely to receive considerable attention in the coming months. You can see a longer list of upcoming releases here

A literary biography is one of the most notable books in March, Clair Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart. Another March release garnering attention is Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America by Douglas Brinkley.

Books about two literary figures, one from each side of the manuscript, are among the highlights for April: The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire by Laura Claridge and Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks. April also brings us biographies on two of Hollywood’s most talented stars, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep by Michael Schulman and Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power by Neal Gabler. Staying in the world of entertainment, Simon Callow publishes the third volume of his biography of Orson Welles, One-Man Band (a fourth volume is still to come). 

Moving to magazine publishing, the first of two battling bios about Helen Gurley Brown comes out in April, Brooke Hauser’s Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman. (Its competitor, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey comes out in July.) Rounding out April, the long shelf of books about TR gets another addition with The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History by Darrin Lunde.

Speaking of subjects whom readers can’t seem to get enough of, May’s highlights include Sidney Blumenthal’s A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1849. A less-well known subject is sure to draw attention this spring with Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth. A notable university press release is Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots by Laura Visser-Maessen. And turning to the world of pop culture, a musical titan gets time in the spotlight in Philip Norman’s Paul McCartney: The Life. Later in the season, Mark Ribowsky looks at another pop music icon in Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: The Life and Music of James Taylor.

Heading into the summer months, June sees new works on two great military minds, William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life by James Lee McDonough and Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman. Moving from war to affairs of the heart, Michael Shelden brings us Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick. Another notable book in June is The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower by Robert Wyss.

Another group of subjects who inspire no shortage of biographies is the Kennedy family. July brings Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, and the first of two books this summer on Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, who died in 1948 at 28: Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth by Paula Byrne. The competing title, Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter by Barbara Leaming, comes out in August. The death of a subject can stir interest in a biography, so the passing of Harper Lee last month should bring attention to Charles J. Shields’s Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee: From Scout to Go Set a Watchman, an updating of his earlier Lee biography.

Finally, while for most sports fans August means heated pennant races and the coming of football season, Roland Lazenby’s new book should have them thinking about basketball with his Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant.


Scott Saul Goes “Deep” with Richard Pryor

Saul dug deep into  Pryor's early years in Peoria, Illinois.

Saul dug deep into Pryor’s early years in Peoria, Illinois.

Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor appeared as the biography of another iconic African American comedian was stirring controversy, as TBC explores below. Saul’s book has been praised for its thorough examination of Pryor’s life, with Kirkus Reviews calling it “the place to start” for anyone curious about the comedian’s life.

Saul is a professor of English at Berkeley. His first book, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, came out in 2003 and won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. TBC contacted Saul before his new book’s release; we were especially curious about the companion website he created for the book and how other biographers might learn from his experience with it.

What drew you to Pryor?
I can’t think of a deeper subject. How deep you are—that’s how deep Pryor will go with you.

When I was ten and growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I saw Silver Streak and identified with the Gene Wilder character, who needs Richard Pryor to jolt him out of his nebbishhood; I sensed that Pryor was taking me to another universe of knowledge and experience, giving me a new world view. Then, as a teenager, I listened to his comedy and was captivated by how he handled, without kid gloves, sensitive subjects like sex and race. In my twenties, I returned to his stand-up comedy and his Hollywood films from the 1970s—and was struck by his virtuosity as a performer and actor, the mix of subtlety and audacity. This was a comedian who had better chops than anyone, but who also was incredibly experimental—not unlike the jazz musicians who were at the center of my first book.

Then, in my thirties I was living and teaching in Berkeley, and noticed that Pryor’s “Berkeley interlude” was a big hole in the story his previous biographers had told. So, as a sort of pilot project for a larger biography, I decided to research the time he’d spent in Berkeley. And what I found blew my mind: There was a much more complex and fascinating story buried within the conventional wisdom about his life.

Did you face any special challenges dealing with his family?
Pryor led a fascinating but messy life, and he didn’t tie up all the loose ends when he died. His will made his last wife Jennifer the executor of his estate—a fact that rankled several of his children, who felt that they’d lost ownership of their father’s legacy. They took legal action against Jennifer, arguing that as his caretaker she had unfairly manipulated a dying man into marriage. Jennifer prevailed in court.

What this meant for me as a biographer looking to tell Pryor’s full story is that I needed to talk to people who basically refuse to talk with one another. Fortunately, I found that my approach to Pryor—which is more historical than journalistic—was well-received. Jennifer is, among other things, a descendant of the fiery abolitionist John Brown, and she liked the fact that I was bringing a historical depth to her husband’s story. Likewise his daughter Elizabeth is actually a professor of history at Smith College. She appreciated how I was delving through archives and setting her family’s story in the context of WWII, black life in the 1950s and so on.

What was it like writing about a person who touched on so many taboo topics and led such a sensational life?
I think every biographer has to struggle with questions of voice and tone. There were some earlier writers on Pryor who had adopted a sort of hopped-up tone that, I think, was their attempt to approximate the energy of Pryor’s stand-up. “Check out this wild and crazy guy!” they seemed to shout. I thought that such an approach wouldn’t work over the span of a 600-page book: readers would feel like I was getting in the way of the story. So I tried to make my tone as narrator more measured. I let Pryor, and the people around him, speak for themselves—and what they say, in their own words, stands out more clearly against the backdrop of the steadier tone of the narrator. I’m reminded of the advice I heard from a historian I admire: “You write not to shout, but to get your reader to shout.”

You’ve built a big digital companion to the book that curates over 200 documents related to Pryor’s formative years in Peoria, Illinois. What inspired you to create the website and what do you hope to accomplish with it? What led you to include primary sources?
There was no historical monograph on the history of Peoria, so I had to do a lot of spade work myself to reconstruct what it was like for a black boy, born in 1940, to grow up in the red light district of Peoria. It was research that was sometimes oriented around the story of his family (which ran a set of brothels and a tavern in that district) but also stretched out to encompass a larger set of issues, like the history of segregation and urban reform in the city.

After I had written the five chapters that trace Pryor from his birth to the moment, in his early twenties, when he leaves Peoria for New York City, I felt like I had, in effect, done the research for another book, too: a study of a so-called “typical” mid-sized, middle-American city (and here Peoria’s use in shorthand to stand for middle America was just too perfect) as it evolved from the 1930s to the 1960s, jolted by World War II, “cleaned up” during the 1950s, and shaken by the gathering Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

I didn’t want to write another book, but I did want to share my research—and get people to engage with the complexity of Richard Pryor’s story, and of the story of his hometown. To my mind, there’s no better way to get people to engage with complexity than to have them parse primary documents. For example: a reader might begin just by being curious about Richard Pryor’s school records. But if they look at the school records more closely, they’ll start to delve into how conventional schools, in the 1950s, handled children with unconventional talents. And they might then connect Pryor’s experience with the experience of other black kids in Peoria schools—kids who, in the 1960s, started protesting the limits of their educational environment.

With all the detail at the site, do you worry some people might go through it and feel they don’t have to buy the book? How do you establish that balance of too little/too much info? Or because the site focuses on Peoria years that is not a concern?
I’m not worried that the site “gives away the store” because it’s only a companion to the first section of the biography—which has five sections. And I think that many fans of Pryor come to the book most disposed to be interested in the other sections of the book—i.e., the story of how he became a revolutionary figure in stand-up comedy, or how he came to Hollywood and upended it.

In terms of sales, the website is a bit of an experiment, but my hunch (on the eve of my book’s publication) is that the website will give the book a longer life than it would otherwise have and will lead many more people to buy the book. Five years from now, HarperCollins will have long stopped promoting the book, but teachers in fields like US history, African American history, and urban studies might still have considerable use for it. It’s helping to keep Pryor alive in the culture.

Is the site basically done, or do you imagine that it’ll evolve over time?
Because of way the site is organized, it would be easy to upload more images and documents to it, so I imagine that it will expand in the future. If, say, one of Pryor’s relatives were to offer to share more of her family photos, I would be very happy to put them up, annotate them, and organize them on the site. Or if, say, the Peoria Public Library wanted to send me some material from their Jaycees collection (the Jaycees were a big part of the coalition fighting the city’s red light district), then I would love to curate that material on the site, too. All that said, I think that the archive is pretty extensive as it is!

The technical side: did you create the website and handle the tech issues? Did you pay for it yourself?
Creating a customized website like this one is pretty darn complicated and labor-intensive—and is necessarily collaborative because it involves so many skill sets: web design, web development and coding, the art of historical annotation and essay writing, cartography, even filmmaking (we made a four-minute film that’s mounted on the homepage and available on Youtube). I served as the “editor-publisher” and was finicky about the writing and design of the site, but the credit for the site rests with the enormously talented team that gave their all to build it.

All told, the website cost about $20,000, though that doesn’t include the time I invested in it. I started by putting up several thousand dollars from a research fund to pay a former student of mine to design a template. (Remarkably, it was the first site he ever designed; he’s insanely talented.) Then Stanford University’s Spatial History Project funded a summer of site-building and development. Then I engaged two Berkeley history PhDs, with considerable coding expertise, to bring the site to the next level.

Though $20K is a considerable amount of money, it compares very well to other, similar projects (i.e., our process of building the site was cheaper than most). And I think that now that “Richard Pryor’s Peoria” offers a model for this sort of site, other historians and biographers will have a much easier time generating a template—and perhaps getting outside funding—to do similar digital companions. I’m sure your readers would have a lot of great ideas. Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, Langston Hughes’s Harlem: there’s really no end to what could be done in this line.

Anything interesting you’d like to add about the research/writing process that other biographers might find useful or entertaining?
Writing a biography is a marathon, I think. I sometimes tired of writing my book, but I never tired of Richard Pryor as a subject. He remains electrifying—the ultimate uninsulated wire.

Gems to be Found on 2014 Spring List of Biographies

Updike bio

Begley was the books editor at the New York Observer before starting his Updike biography.

The 2014 spring list of forthcoming biographies is not as robust as that of previous spring seasons. Yet there are plenty of works that will attract attention and readers.

As usual, BIO is posting a complete list of the works on its website and, as in the past, the list will be continually updated as we learn about forthcoming books that we may have missed. Here, however, are some from the list bound to attract considerable notice:

A literary figure’s life is expected to garner the bulk of biographical attention this spring when Harper publishes the long-awaited biography of writer John Updike by Adam Begley in April. Simply called Updike, the book is the first biography of the late writer to cover his entire life.

Among other books this spring that focus on literary lives are The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West: A Biography by Lona Gibb, which Counterpoint will publish in May, Maeve Binchy: The Biography by Piers Dudgeon, coming from Thomas Dunne in July, and The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff, a March book from Penguin.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt as war leader will be the subject of two works this spring. First out will be No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation Into War by David Kaiser from Basic Books. Nigel Hamilton, former BIO President, will offer the first of what is expected to be a two-volume look at FDR at war. His Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 will be published by Houghton Mifflin in May.

Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Kai Bird will be out with his The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, which Crown will publish in late May.

Washington writer Mark Perry will publish his take on one of the twentieth century’s most controversial military leaders. His The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur will be in stores in April from Basic Books.

Carmichael bio

Joseph’s previous book was
Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama.

Stokely, Peniel E. Joseph’s biography of civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, will be published by Basic Book in March. Joseph was a Compleat Biographer panelist in 2013 and is previously the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama.

Those who have wondered how a mausoleum-like building on Capitol Hill in Washington came to house one of the world’s great depositories of William Shakespeare’s works will find their answer in Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger by Stephen Grant that Johns Hopkins University Press will bring out in March. The same month Thomas Dunne will publish Joan Barthel’s American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton.

Conservative columnist, occasional candidate for president, and former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan will be out and about with a new look at his former boss. His The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from the Dead to Create America’s New Majority will be out from Crown in July.

Sports fans are likely to grab copies of Michael Jordan by Roland Lazenby when Little, Brown and Company brings out the title in May. And watchers of another kind of court will be on the lookout for Scalia: A Court of One by Bruce Allen Murphy from Simon & Schuster.

Not on this list, but to be added to the growing number of books using the subtitle “biography” will be the May book, The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmitt, detailing the 700-year “life” of the English-language novel.