Plutarch Award

2024 Plutarch Award Longlist Announced

The longlist for the 2024 Plutarch Award has been determined, and you are the first to know. The committee for this year’s prize is composed of Carol Sklenicka (chair), Patricia Albers, Vanda Krefft, William Souder, and Ethelene Whitmire. Sklenicka said of their work, “The 2024 Plutarch Award Committee received some 200 books by first-time and experienced biographers, issued by small and large publishers, on subjects who made their lives in worlds as vastly different as ancient Greece and Silicon Valley.  During months of reading and discussions by email and on Zoom, we five jurors looked for books that met the standard set by earlier Plutarch winners for ‘the quality of research, the literary merit of the writing, and the originality and significance of the project.’ We pulled back from books that fill holes in the available research with fiction but welcomed unconventional group subjects and timelines. We admired biographers who could find the sweet spot where facts speak plainly yet powerfully. Each biography on our longlist evinces intellectual curiosity, rigorous research, and a distinct narrative voice that tells a story and wins readers’ trust.”

BIO President Steve Paul added, “We are all grateful for the committee’s obvious care, devotion to quality, and astute thought in handling this assignment.”

The titles, in alphabetical order by author’s last name, are as follows:

Jonathan Eig, King: A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. has been central to American public life since his assassination in 1968, though it is usually remembered as a tableau of brief, grainy film clips and indelible utterances that took place between the spaces in which his actual life unfolded. In this sweeping and humane biography, Jonathan Eig closely examines King’s whole story, including aspects of its private side revealed by recently released FBI wiretaps. Eig pays particular attention to King’s early life in Atlanta, where he became aware of segregation at the age of six, when a white boy he was friends with went off to a different school and they were no longer permitted to play with each other—an event King would later say shaped him for life. Eig also illuminates the tensions within the leadership of the civil rights movement, where not everyone tolerated King’s patience and belief in nonviolence, especially as the imperatives of Black Power became more central to the cause. Eig, a prudent and judicious observer, wisely stays out of the way of his own narrative, letting the events of King’s life speak for themselves. Often, those events threatened his very life. Once, handcuffed during a six-hour nighttime car ride with two hostile white police officers, King could do nothing but wonder what was about to happen to him. “It was a long ride,” King said. “I didn’t know where they were taking me.” Of course, that’s different from knowing where you’re going, which as Eig shows in this fine book, is something King never doubted.

Howard Fishman, To Anyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse (Dutton)

When writer and musician Howard Fishman first heard a recording of Connie Converse, time seemed to stop. Who was she? What became of her? Fishman brings both passion and expertise to bear in trying to answer those questions in this expansive and searching biography of a gifted singer-songwriter who never made it. Fishman argues that, with her twangy guitar and plaintive voice, Converse was a pre-Dylan oddity who wrote folk songs before that was a thing, and skillfully examines her place as a missing link in the evolution of popular music. A high-school valedictorian and college dropout, Converse arrived in New York City in 1944, restless, eccentric, and far ahead of the folk tidal wave she might have ridden to success had her timing been better. Instead, Converse retreated to Michigan where she tried to write a novel, landed a job editing an academic journal, and grappled with depression. Eventually, she told friends she was returning to New York, then got in her car and vanished without a trace. Fishman takes readers along on a tenacious quest to find a ghost and understand what happened to her.

Lisa M. Hamilton, The Hungry Season: A Journey of War, Love, and Survival  (Little, Brown and Company)

Photographer and agriculture reporter Lisa M. Hamilton took an unexpected leap into biography when she met Ia Moua on her irrigated farm plot near Fresno, California. Hamilton needed an angle for a book about rice that she’d already sold to a publisher. Moua, a Laotian Hmong who spoke no English and could not read any language but had a story to tell, needed a listener. Thus began an arduous, seven-year collaboration among Moua, Hamilton, and interpreter Lor Xiong. Born in 1964, Moua survived years in a Thai refugee camp where she had eight children before immigrating to Fresno in 1993. In the parched, unfamiliar climate of the San Joaquin Valley, Moua learned to grow a strain of rice traditionally prepared by Hmong people to celebrate their new year. Hamilton supports her meticulous reporting with immersion in Hmong culture (she accompanied Moua and her children to Laos three times) and research into Southeast Asian agricultural and political history. At the center of this intimate biography, Ia Moua comes alive, a personification of the qualities of adaptability and resilience that Hamilton perceived in rice. A model of nuanced biographical writing that transforms an unknown subject into an extraordinary one, The Hungry Season is compelling, lyrical, and humane.

Sally H. Jacobs, Althea: The Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson (St. Martin’s Press)

Althea Gibson was an astonishing tennis player and all-around athlete who brought her competitive drive to every sport she played. Standing nearly six feet tall, Gibson was the first Black woman permitted to play in the U.S. Tennis Association, won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon championships by the time she reached 30, and was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press for 1957 and 1958. But breaking color barriers did not pay the bills, and Gibson struggled financially for much of her life. Gibson’s athletic career began when, after making her name as a tough fighter against both girls and boys in her Harlem neighborhood, she won the New York citywide pingpong championship and was adopted and coached by two Black Southern doctors. She flourished as a competitive amateur tennis player, graduated from college, and became the world’s top-ranked player for two years in a row. She worked as a professor, traveled for the U.S. State Department, played exhibition games with the Harlem Globetrotters, made a record album, and became the first Black woman in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Sally H. Jacobs narrates Gibson’s personal battles and triumphs with appreciation for her subject’s strong personality, including her resistance to being defined as a representative of her race, and surrounds Gibson’s story with a rich sense of place, social and political context, and class distinctions. Gibson’s two memoirs and more than a hundred interviews conducted by the author endow this biography with a familiarity often missing from stories about famous firsts.

Prudence Peiffer, The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever (Harper)

Prudence Peiffer’s riveting The Slip follows the lives of seven artists who, in the mid-1950s, converged on a warren of derelict sailmaking warehouses on lower Manhattan’s Coenties Slip. In that obscure corner of the city, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Lenore Tawney, and Jack Youngerman created paintings, sculptures, and weavings that sent American art in new directions, Peiffer argues, while Delphine Seyrig launched an inspired acting career. This astutely researched and richly anecdotal group biography is steeped in a strong sense of place. It weaves together a history of the waterfront, tales of its raucous denizens, and explorations of their brilliant art. Eclectic though their achievements were, all were nourished by the material conditions of Coenties Slip and the collective solitude it provided.

Larry Rohter, Into the Amazon: The Life of Cândido Rondon, Trailblazing Explorer, Scientist, Statesman, and Conservationist (W. W. Norton & Company)

To the extent that Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon is known in this country, it is as Theodore Roosevelt’s co-leader of the harrowing 1914 expedition on the River of Doubt, in a remote section of the sprawling Amazon jungle. Larry Rohter’s stirring biography fills in the rest of Rondon’s remarkable story. Rohter writes that no other tropical explorer rivals Rondon in miles traveled, mountain ranges traversed, hostile and uncontacted peoples encountered, and technological feats accomplished. Trained as a scientist and engineer, Rondon oversaw the construction of thousands of miles of telegraph lines deep into the Brazilian jungle, eventually across the far reaches of the Amazon basin and into Bolivia and Peru. Roosevelt declared Rondon’s telegraph project an achievement equal to the Panama Canal. Rondon, who was of Indigenous, European, and African descent, was also an ethnographer and fierce defender of the rights of the Indigenous people living in the most inaccessible parts of the Amazon. Rohter argues that Rondon’s reputation would be far greater if not for racism and resistance to his belief in the humanity of all people. Engaging and uplifting, the book is biography at its best. And no surprise. As Rohter reveals—in a passage casual readers might skim, but which will spark envy among biographers—wherever he went in his long, meaningful life, Cândido Rondon kept a journal.

Barbara D. Savage, Merze Tate: The Global Odyssey of a Black Woman Scholar (Yale University Press)

Barbara Savage’s biography of the audacious diplomatic historian Merze Tate, the first Black woman to earn a degree from Oxford and the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in Government from Harvard, forcefully shows that the pleasure of intellectual work can be—and in Tate’s case, was—the motivating desire in a woman’s life. Born in white, rural central Michigan in 1927, Tate dazzled high-school oratory judges with a demand for racial equality. Surmounting barriers through college and beyond, the intrepid Tate never took no for an answer. Solo travel, first to Europe, then to India as an early Fulbright scholar, and later to Africa, fostered Tate’s antiracist geopolitics. As a professor and prolific scholar at Howard University, Tate defied the expected research fields for Black historians by focusing on post­-World War II international relations, insisting that American power be held to account and presciently arguing that infrastructure investments and weapons production were a form of neocolonialism. Savage, an academic historian who describes herself as a “reluctant biographer,” spent ten years immersing herself in a new genre and writing this book. Lifting Tate’s life story from a richly layered palimpsest of archival materials, Savage conveys the intense commitment and joy of a life devoted to learning, thinking, and teaching.

Willard Spiegelman, Nothing Stays Put: The Life and Poetry of Amy Clampitt

(Alfred A. Knopf)

A sumptuous and compassionate biography of the brilliant poet Amy Clampitt, Nothing Stays Put follows Clampitt from her humble Iowa farm beginnings to her days of acclaim at the epicenter of New York’s literary scene. Clampitt’s genius remained unseen for decades—until a colleague submitted a handful of her poems to the New Yorker without telling her. The magazine’s acceptance of one of them launched a career that rose like a rocket. At 58, Clampitt became, in Spiegelman’s words, “the country’s oldest young poet.” An English professor turned critic and essayist, Spiegelman writes with grace and a disarmingly fluid sense of chronology, pulling together the disparate threads of Clampitt’s life, including her disillusionment with religion (she was raised a Quaker) and her political activism. He is also an expert and generous interpreter of Clampitt’s sometimes complex and always exquisite poetry.

Jonny Steinberg, Winnie and NelsonPortrait of a Marriage  (Alfred A. Knopf)

South African novelist J. M. Coetzee rightly calls this dual biography of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Nelson Mandela “a massive essay in political biography.” Steinberg’s book relies on a voluminous, recently uncovered file stolen by the apartheid regime’s last minister of justice and prisons when he left office. With the insights provided by that archive, Steinberg fulfills the promise of his title: this is truly a biography of a marriage. The Mandelas lived together just four years after marrying in 1958; they were not allowed to touch each other for years after Nelson was imprisoned for treason. During that time, both fought to end apartheid and to burnish the myth of their beautiful partnership despite growing ideological differences. They divorced in 1996 while Nelson was serving as South Africa’s first post-apartheid president. Steinberg deftly arranges complex historical information, yet what sets this book apart as a biography is his tone. “A biographer ought to be wary of the idea that any document reveals his subject’s essence,” he writes after quoting a particularly raw letter by Winnie. In his final chapter, Steinberg recounts an occasion when he, a white college student, shook Nelson Mandela’s hand. Maybe that incident explains the author’s fascination with his subjects; more importantly, his analysis of the episode displays his impartiality and wisdom. Throughout this powerful biography, Steinberg imbues a painful, sometimes lurid story with the love and respect its subjects deserve.

Yepoka Yeebo, Anansi’s Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World (Bloomsbury)

In a captivating, genre-bending debut, Yepoka Yeebo reconstructs the strange life of John Ackah Blay-Miezah, a big, cigar-chomping flim-flam man from Ghana who masterminded one of the largest, longest-running con jobs the world has ever seen. Yeebo sets the stage in the tumultuous early days of independence from British rule when most of Ghana’s considerable wealth was still held in London. When Ghana asked for its money, much of it had disappeared in bad investments. The scandal lodged in Blay-Miezah’s brain, where it morphed over time into a bold plan glued together with criminal intent. For years, Blay-Miezah lived lavishly and outwitted his investors, Ghanaian governments, Swiss bankers, British businessmen, and the FBI. To research this brilliant study of human duplicity and greed, Yeebo sought obscure and far-flung sources. She found people willing to talk and documents that had survived war, fire, and rampages. Yeebo skillfully pulls back Blay-Miezah’s curtain of lies and fake identities to reveal how he charmed his victims out of millions. Wry, penetrating, and unfailingly entertaining, the book sits at the intersection of biography, history, and investigative journalism.

Jennifer Homans’s Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century wins the 2023 BIO Plutarch Award

Jennifer Homans’s Mr. B: George Balanchines 20th Century(Random House) is the winner of BIO’s 2023 Plutarch Award for the Best Biography of 2022. The Plutarch is the only international prize of its kind. Named after the famous Greek writer, the Plutarch is awarded to the best biography of the year by a committee of five distinguished biographers, and this prestigious prize comes with a $2,000 honorarium.

“For the Plutarch judges, Jennifer Homans’s magnificent biography of the choreographer George Balanchine presented a perfect model of seamless narrative integration of the life with the work,” says 2023 Plutarch Award Committee Chair Deirdre David. “With impeccable research, Homans traces Balanchine’s life from joining the Imperial Ballet School in Revolutionary St. Petersburg at nine years old to becoming in 1948 the co-founder (with Lincoln Kirstein) of the New York City Ballet. Drawing upon her experience as a trained dancer and her distinction as a ballet critic, Homans creates a thrilling narrative of choreographic innovation that was developed, displayed, and applauded in Russia, in Weimar Germany, in Paris, and eventually in New York. As she puts it, ‘his entire life was ballet’: the women he loved (and there were many), the music he chose, the dancers he worked with, his ‘keen sensuality,’ all served the world of ballet. Beautifully crafted, Homans’s gorgeous tribute to a twentieth-century artistic genius enthralls, educates, and dazzles the reader.”
 
Jennifer Homans responded to news of her win, saying, “I couldn’t be more honored and thrilled by this recognition for Mr. B, especially since it comes from writers who know what it is to attempt to capture a life that is not your own.” 

Homans is the dance critic for The New Yorker and a former dancer herself who trained at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She spent more than a decade researching Balanchine’s life and times to write a vast history of the 20th century through the lens of one of its greatest artists. Mr. B was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award and was selected as a best book of the year by The New York TimesThe New YorkerVanity Fair, Oprah Daily, and NPR.
 
The 2023 Plutarch Committee consisted of five esteemed biographers: Deirdre David (chair), Roy Foster, Charlotte Jacobs, Tamara Payne, and Will Swift. Together they considered over 150 titles from the United States and the United Kingdom. The top 10 biographies were announced in January 2023, and from those were chosen the five finalists, announced in April. 

The five finalists: Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (Viking); Jennifer Homans, Mr. B: George Balanchines 20th Century (Random House); Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle (Random House); Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment (Harper Collins); and Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
 
The five semi-finalists: Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality (Pantheon Books); John A. Farrell, Ted Kennedy: A Life (Penguin Press); Paul Fisher, The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams (Little, Brown and Company); and Miranda Seymour, I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys (W.W. Norton & Company).

BIO Announces Shortlist for The 2023 Plutarch Award

The best biography of 2022 to be announced on
May 20, 2023 during the 13th Annual BIO Conference

New York, NY – A distinguished panel of judges from the Biographers International Organization (BIO) is proud to announce their five finalists  for the 2023  Plutarch Award, the only international literary award for biography judged exclusively by biographers. These biographies showcase a diversity of subjects, intrepid scholarship, and an admirable illumination of both cultural and political achievement in an historical context.

This year’s five finalists, in alphabetical order by author’s name, are:

Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (Viking)

Jennifer Homans, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century (Random House)

Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle (Random House)

Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment (HarperCollins)

Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

2023 Plutarch Award Longlist Announced

A distinguished panel of judges from the Biographers International Organization (BIO) has selected 10 nominees for the 10th annual Plutarch Award, the only international literary award for biography judged exclusively by biographers. This year’s Plutarch Award Committee members are Deirdre David, Roy Foster, Charlotte Jacobs, Tamara Payne, and Will Swift.

Deirdre David, chair of the committee, says, “The judges this year were impressed by the remarkable variety and stellar quality of the books on our longlist. They showcase a diversity of subjects, intrepid scholarship, and an admirable illumination of both cultural and political achievement in an historical context. They also offer examples of the skills that enhance the art and craft of biography: how to work around black holes in a subject’s life and how to present a fresh portrait of a well-known figure in addition to bringing forth relatively unknown subjects to vivid life. The longlist [books] provide splendid evidence of how to write movingly and creatively about vastly different personalities representing many fields of accomplishment. We are pleased to present biographies about a poet, a novelist, a choreographer, a portrait painter, a civil rights lawyer, an iconic US president, a revolutionary, a US senator, an FBI G-man, and a misunderstood British monarch.”

Below is a synopsis of the biographies on the Plutarch Award longlist:

Tomiko Brown-NaginCivil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

(Pantheon Books)

In Civil Rights Queen, Tomiko Brown-Nagin illuminates the career of the first African American woman appointed to the federal bench. During the opening remarks of her confirmation hearing in March 2022, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson cited Motley as the judge whose legal shoulders she stands upon. In this exhaustively researched biography, Brown-Nagin convincingly demonstrates how instrumental Motley’s work was in the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. She provides a riveting depiction of James Meredith’s battle to desegregate the University of Mississippi and shows how, in one of her most crucial cases, Motley assisted Meredith through a mental breakdown, until they won in court. Brown-Nagin details the pain and trauma of those who stood up and fought segregation, while exposing the courtroom antics of segregationist lawyers and judges. Highlighting Judge Constance Baker Motley’s personal and historical importance, Brown-Nagin unveils how Motley won some of her most important civil rights cases and examines the impact of many of the other decisions she handed down during her judgeship.

 

John A. Farrell, Ted Kennedy: A Life

(Penguin Press)

In his fresh, briskly paced, and novelistic Ted Kennedy, prize-winning biographer John Farrell brings the “Lion of the Senate” to his own place at the center of the Kennedy political dynasty and the conflicts between the forces of liberalism and conservatism in late 20th-century and early 21st-century America. Through meticulous research, including delving into Kennedy’s diary entries, family papers, and interviews with family members, Farrell crafts an even-handed but ultimately sympathetic account of the insecurities and recklessness that led Kennedy to the edge of self-destruction. In his masterful account of backroom deal-making, he shows us how Kennedy led the way with empathy and determination in championing AIDS funding, gay rights, healthcare reform, voting rights, and anti-apartheid activism. This is an edifying story of the expiation of personal failings through committed political action.

 

Paul Fisher, The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In The Grand Affair, Paul Fisher, a professor of American studies at Wellesley College, presents a bold, enthralling narrative of the life of legendary painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), whose audacious and sensual portraits brought him fame and notoriety. Within his vivid depiction of the fin-de-siècle world Sargent inhabited, Fisher illuminates Sargent’s expatriate family in Europe, the evolution of his artistry, and the divergent aesthetic circles in which he moved. Fisher also offers compelling insights into the multi-layered process of making great art. In addition, he is circumspect in examining the ambiguities and uncertainties of Sargent’s sexuality and adept at exploring the profound complexities of human intimacy.

 

Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century

(Viking)

In G-Man, Beverly Gage examines the man who was the face of the FBI for 48 years (1924–1971). Through extensive research, which includes newly released documents of Hoover’s personal and official files, Gage peels back the layers to reveal the world and the forces that shaped Hoover. Through this exploration of his views on masculinity, racism, and what he deemed as threats to American security both externally and internally (e.g., communism, organized crime, and Black agitators such as Martin Luther King Jr.), we gain a deeper understanding of Hoover—the man, the country he served, the tactics he used to serve it—and how his legacy looms over us today.

 

Jennifer Homans, Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century

(Random House)

In this brilliantly researched biographical journey, Jennifer Homans takes Balanchine from being a nine-year-old student at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, scavenging for food in the early days of the revolution, to his emergence as the world-renowned magnificent choreographer who in 1948 co-founded (with Lincoln Kirstein) the New York City Ballet. Drawing on her experience as a trained dancer, Homans elegantly integrates analysis of Balanchine’s choreography with historical research to demonstrate Balanchine’s tumultuous, 20th-century artistic life. She creates a thrilling narrative of choreographic innovation that was developed, displayed, and applauded in Russia, Weimar Germany, Paris, and eventually New York. Attuned to Balanchine’s lifelong devotion to seeing everything in his life to an expression of his art (he was an impresario of cooking and ironing, as well as much else), she explores how his friends, his lovers, and the dancers he worked with (and often adored) were all seen as serving the world of ballet. Mr. B presents us with a splendid tribute to a dazzling 20th-century genius.

 

Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle 

(Random House)

In undertaking this admirable biography, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham said he set out to determine not only how Lincoln did what he did but also why. As a result, he demystifies Abraham Lincoln as a saintly hero, portraying him as an imperfect human being. Meacham details the early experiences that shaped Lincoln’s moral vision and the challenges he faced balancing pragmatic compromises with higher goals in his political career. Despite his foibles and his inconsistencies regarding racial differences, the president’s belief in a covenant with God, who created all men equal, ultimately forged his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Meacham shows us how profoundly Lincoln relied upon religious language in some of his most important public speeches, notably his second inaugural address. In this intensely soulful and moving biography, Meacham allows us a greater window into the deepest dimensions of one of our greatest presidents.

 

Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment

(HarperCollins)

In her new biography, Jane Ridley seizes upon the paradox observed by one of King George V’s advisers—that although the monarch seemed a dull man, his reign (1910–1936) spanned a period of continuous crisis and upheaval, both internationally and domestically. Illuminating the relationship between the apparently limited and unimaginative sovereign and his tumultuous times requires formidable abilities of psychological perception, as well as heavyweight scholarship, and Ridley possesses these in full measure. She also displays a witty comprehension of significant minor incidents and foibles of character: the bizarre rituals and practices of royal lives are woven into the larger human comedy, above all in her portrait of the marriage that underpinned the creation of the first “family monarchy,” and the implications of this for the future of democracy in Britain. This is a long book, exploring a wide range of original sources including an impressively thorough use of the legendary Royal Archives. Nonetheless, it is rivetingly readable, often very funny, and fully lives up to its quizzical subtitle—as well as showing that the lives of crowned heads can be treated in a way that breaks new ground in the treatment of major historical themes.

 

Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Using superbly vivid prose, Katherine Rundell gives us this joyful, scholarly, and informative biography of the poet she declares to be “the greatest writer of desire”  in the English language. She takes us from Donne’s Catholic boyhood, through his various secretarial positions to aristocrats in both the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts, to his eventual celebrity as Dean of St. Paul’s, in 1615, where thousands clamored to hear him preach. From her flawless research, we learn fascinating details of how his poems were circulated to his friends (often on tiny scraps of paper), of how he studied the law, and of how he married a sixteen-year-old girl and struggled to support a family of 10 children. For Rundell, Donne was a poet who in the process of constantly transforming himself and his art, reconciled the sacred and the profane, the soul and the body. And, in her strikingly creative biography, she herself transforms familiar images of Donne as distantly mysterious, even unknowable, into a portrait of glorious poetic genius that is present both on the page and in his life.

 

Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams

(Little, Brown and Company)

In this luminous, often dazzling work of art, Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff conducts a master class in dealing with black holes in biography. She resurrects Samuel Adams, an elusive and crucial revolutionary who changed world history. Adams destroyed his documents and letters and reveled in secretly masterminding the greatest campaign of civil resistance in American history. Schiff’s exemplary research reveals him to be a virtuous, persuasive, and devious political activist who had the fortitude to “wire a continent for rebellion.” In creating a brilliant sense of place, she brings us a fresh view of Colonial New England and the seminal events in the birth of our nation, while illuminating Adams and the world he transformed.

 

Miranda Seymour, I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys

(W. W. Norton)

Miranda Seymour describes her subject’s life as “haunted”—and therefore, the considerable achievement of this compelling book is to trace the ghosts of an unhappy existence back to their origins and bring them into the light of day, showing how they impelled an original writer to produce a small but classic oeuvre. Despite the cult status now rightly accorded to Rhys’s fiction, it seems extraordinary that no previous biographer has fully investigated her roots and background in Dominica, which is illuminated here. So are the obscure years between her first publications and her life in literary Paris during the 1920s, and her extraordinary renaissance and rediscovery in the 1970s. Seymour conveys the grit and creative commitment, as well as the addictions and deliberately “impossible” behavior that lay behind “the Jean Rhys woman”—a figure who appears and reappears in the novels. She indicates with delicacy as well as decisiveness the points at which Rhys’ life and books diverge, and she further navigates a careful course between the many figures in Rhys’s later literary life who claimed responsibility for bringing her back to notice. This kind of empathetic disentanglement is what literary biography must do, and this book is an example of the best kind of that genre.

Frances Wilson Wins 2022 Plutarch Award

Frances Wilson’s Burning Man: The Trials of D. H. Lawrence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) has won the 2022 Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2021. Wilson, a biographer and critic, is also the author of The Courtesan’s Revenge: The Life of Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King (Faber & Faber, 2003) How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay (Harper, 2011), and Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Guilty Thing was a finalist for the 2017 Plutarch Award.  

Named after the famous Greek writer, the Plutarch Award is presented annually by the Biographers International Organization to the best biography of the year, chosen by a committee of five distinguished biographers. The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium. 

In his remarks for the Plutarch Award ceremony, filmed in advance of and debuted at the 2022 BIO conference, Plutarch Award Committee Chair Nigel Hamilton said that the nearly 200 books reviewed for this year’s award were “a real testament to the ongoing golden age of biography that we still live in, despite the many trials our democracy is undergoing, especially, I might add, the assault on something we used to take for granted: telling the truth, the very viable truth based on real, not completely imaginary, facts.” 

In her acceptance remarks, Wilson said: “I see Burning Man as my American book. It was written for the most part when I was fortunate enough to be a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library in 2018. And I benefitted while I was living in New York, I benefitted enormously from the conviviality and generosity of other biographers, including the late great James Atlas, who I miss very much.” 

Wilson also spoke of the important influence New Mexico had upon both herself and Lawrence: “Lawrence rested all his hopes in America, which he saw as his paradise after the years in Hell. And while he of course inevitably quarreled with America, his experience of New Mexico was, he said, one of the most important in his life. I just want to quote what Lawrence said about New Mexico, because it’s so stunning and I absolutely agree with him: ‘The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul and I started to attend.’” 

In conclusion, BIO President Linda Leavell remarked upon the importance of Santa Fe to the founding of the organization, which Wilson agreed was a pleasant irony.  

Along with Hamilton, members of the 2022 Plutarch Award Committee were Heather Clark, Gretchen Gerzina, Catherine Reef, and Carl Rollyson. You can see the 2022 longlist here and the 2022 shortlist here.  

BIO Announces Finalists for 2022 Plutarch Award

The Plutarch Committee of Biographers International Organization (BIO) is proud to announce their Shortlist for the 2022 prize for the best biography of the year, published in English–the only award of its kind made by fellow biographers.

In the opinion of the Committee, the five finalists demonstrate virtues of fine narrative, deep research, outstanding and artful literary construction, as well as a determination to tell the truth about the subject that are a model for practitioners of our craft.

The Shortlist is as follows, in alphabetical (author) order:

 

Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (Little, Brown, 576 pages)

This is a stylistically innovative, deeply researched, and passionately written biography of Mildred Harnack, an American who was part of the German resistance during WWII and who was beheaded by personal order of Hitler. Harnack’s great-great niece, Rebecca Donner, takes an enormous risk by writing novelistically and setting her story in the present tense. The risk pays off: Part historical drama, part spy novel, Donner’s book expands the parameters of biography itself. This is an extraordinary portrait of a woman who made the ultimate sacrifice for justice, and whose name deserves greater recognition.

Robert Elder, Calhoun: American Heretic (Basic Books, 640pp)

In Calhoun: American Heretic, Robert Elder provides a brilliant revisionist biography of the scorned proponent of nullification, and of slavery as a “positive good.” Historians have swept aside U.S. antebellum Senator Calhoun as an outmoded figure, but Elder suggests we ignore at our own peril the challenge to federal power that originated in the founding generation of this country.

Fiona Sampson, Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (W.W. Norton, 322pp)

Rescuing Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the reductive legend of the sickly lady lying on her sofa on Wimpole Street, Fiona Sampson’s Two-Way Mirror offers an impressive reevaluation of a woman whose poetry made her one of the most-admired writers of her time. A woman oppressed for years by her controlling father, Barrett Browning made herself into a poet so accomplished that she rivalled Tennyson in praise and popularity, ultimately forging a life in Italy, with a husband and son, and inventing herself anew. Sampson’s writing and interpretation rivals that of her subject, in this compelling work.

Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Francis Bacon: Revelations (Knopf, 880 pp)

A finely written, illustrated and exhaustively researched life of the artist Francis Bacon by Pulitzer Prize winners Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. The authors have tracked down many obscure sources and conducted nearly 150 interviews to help us understand the psychological, artistic, and romantic pressure points that made Bacon one of the twentieth century’s great artists. The smells, sights, and sounds of Bacon’s world are vividly rendered in Revelations, while the many high-quality reproductions of his paintings provide important artistic context throughout.

Frances Wilson, Burning Man: The Trials of D.H. Lawrence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 488pp)

Frances Wilson’s brilliantly conceived and executed biography of D.H. Lawrence presents his life through the surprising structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which follows the poet’s struggles through hell, purgatory and paradise in search of, and accompanied by, Beatrice. Lawrence’s peripatetic life, traveling and writing his way from England to Europe, Ceylon, New Mexico and Mexico, reflect his battles with personal relationships, muses, and physicality, all while compulsively writing them into his changing visions of the world.

 

 

2022 Plutarch Award Committee:

Nigel Hamilton (chair)

Heather Clark

Gretchen Gerzina

Catherine Reef

Carl Rollyson

 

BIO Announces Longlist for 2022 Plutarch Award

Longlisted for BIO’s 2022 Plutarch Award—the only major award made by fellow biographers for the year’s best biography, published in English—are the 10 titles listed at the link below.

2021 Plutarch Award Committee Chair Nigel Hamilton said of assembling the longlist: “The judges were deeply impressed by the level of biographical professionalism, intelligence, research, style, and originality demonstrated in the nearly 200 biographies that were carefully considered for the prize. These were books published in a time not only of a global pandemic, but of an ongoing cultural war on fact and civilized discussion in our media and society, epitomized in the recent banning of books. We congratulate the authors and publishers of all the works we read. Here, though, are the 10 biographies we have ultimately longlisted for the prize for their outstanding merits—qualities that included fairness, honesty, heart, and respect for truth—arranged in alphabetical order by authors’ surnames.”

You can see the longlist for the award here.

Following the announcement of the nominees, the Plutarch Award Committee will narrow the list to five finalists. The Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2021—honoring a writer who has achieved distinction in the craft—will be revealed during the 12th  BIO Conference on May 15, 2022, which is being held virtually this year.

2021 Plutarch Jury members:
Nigel Hamilton (Chair), Heather Clark, Gretchen Gerzina, Catherine Reef, Carl Rollyson

A. N. Wilson Wins 2021 Plutarch Award

A. N. Wilson’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens (HarperCollins) has won the 2021 Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2020. Wilson is a prolific writer, whose previous books include biographies of Charles Darwin, Prince Albert, C. S. Lewis, and Queen Elizabeth II, among many others. He is also a prize-winning novelist.

Named after the famous Greek writer, BIO awards the Plutarch to the best biography of the year, chosen by a committee of five distinguished biographers. The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium.

“During an unprecedented year marked by political upheavals, the COVID pandemic and many publishing challenges,” said Kate Buford, chair of the Plutarch Committee, “we were struck by the compelling humanity and deft artistry of Wilson’s biography. It is a biographer’s biography.”

Buford added in her taped remarks for the 2021 BIO Conference that Wilson “passionately and elegantly manipulated the genre, the form [of biography] to get at the mystery of Dickens’s craft.”

Photo by Sam Ardley

In his acceptance remarks, Wilson said he was “left speechless to have been put in such wonderful company”—both the biographers judging the award and the other writers who made the Plutarch longlist. Although Dickens might seem like a character from the distant past, Wilson said, he was “constantly arrested by how much he is our contemporary, how much he realizes that we carry around in ourselves our own childhoods, which never leaves us; the inner child is always directing us.”

In addition to honoring Wilson, the Plutarch Award Committee gave a Special Citation to Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (Crown), in recognition of its summoning of Baldwin’s penetrating voice and eyes that remind us of the post–Civil War and post-civil rights betrayals of racial justice. In announcing the citation, committee member Ray Shepard said that Glaude “reminds us of the post-Civil War, post-civil rights betrayals of racial justice. He warns us of slipping into a 21st century betrayal unless we begin again and heed Baldwin’s prophetic words.”

Along with Shepard and Buford, members of the 2021 Plutarch Award Committee were Barbara Burkhardt, Andrew Lownie, and Holly Van Leuven. The committee originally chose ten semi-finalists before selecting five finalists for the 2021 prize and then choosing Wilson’s book as the winner. You can see all of this year’s semi-finalists and finalists here.