catching lives


I don’t hear much about biographies anymore–or autobiographies. Now it’s all about memoir. Not the whole life but a slant on it.

Still, biographies are being written. A Pulitzer Prize is given each year for a biography. In 2010, the prize went to The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles.

I recently read a wonderful biography: Spirit in Action: Jane Addams by Louis W. Knight. I was writing away on that post, and then just felt like we needed a little warm-up–something to put us in the right mood. The book is wonderful. Come back tomorrow to read a little about Jane’s passions.

Some other biographies I’ve enjoyed over the years: Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by K.M. Elisabeth Murray, Ferraro: My Story by Geraldine Ferraro, and Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright by Ann Blackman.

Do you read biographies? Do you have any to recommend?

8 thoughts on “catching lives

  1. The most recent biography I’ve read is Hawthorne, a life by Brenda Wineapple. It was beautifully written and captured the complexity of Hawthorne. I enjoyed the book from beginning to end. In fact, I now have a huge crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne and can understand why Herman Melville was a bit in love with him.

  2. I love biographies! Recent highlights for me include Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (I don’t even love Wharton, but Lee is so patient and thorough in her evocation that I now feel I know her as a person), and Elliot Gorn’s Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, which was well-written and, of course, had an amazing subject. Lee’s Virginia Woolf is also fantastic. Oh, and Chris Albertson’s Bessie, on the blues singer Bessie Smith, is pretty great as well, primarily because he had access to Smith’s neice Ruby Walker, who toured with Smith and whose stories really bring the book to life.

    I’ve heard great things about Gerald Clarke’s Capote as well.

    • Emily, that’s the first title I had on this post: “I love biographies!” Now I remember reading your post on Edith Wharton. Thanks for the other recommendations as well. I might start with the one on Virginia Woolf.

  3. Oh, yes. I enjoy well-researched, well-written bios. Some of my favorites:

    Mencken: The American Iconoclast
    Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell
    James Baldwin: A Biography
    Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons
    Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave: The Adventurous Life of America’s Most Glamorous and Courageous War Correspondent (this is by Carl Rollyson; anything he writes is fantastic)
    Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life
    Getrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
    Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President
    Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
    American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
    Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant
    Wodehouse (by Robert McCrum)
    Virginia Wolf A Biography
    Savage Beauty
    LBJ: Architect of American Ambition
    American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson
    Sinclair Lewis
    Marie Antoinette
    Mozart
    and more, including a fabulous bio of Bram Stoker.

    • Lauren, what a wonderful list! Thanks so much for taking the time to add it here. I was writing about Baldwin recently so that one intrigues me. And you and Emily both recommended a Virginia Woolf biography but two different ones: one by Quentin Bell and one by Hermione Lee. Hmmmm….so many lovely, lovely books.

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