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Notable Biographers on the People Who Shaped Our World

by Brian Lamb

Pub Date: March 15th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8129-3081-9
Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

The successor to Booknotes: Writers and Their Stories from C-SPAN’s Author Interviews (1997) is more unified and satisfying. Scouring ten years of interviews from his C-SPAN program, Lamb has assembled a collection of subjects spanning three centuries and two continents. While the emphasis falls on US statesmen and public figures (Will Rogers, Thomas Edison), international names like Marcel Proust and F.A. Hayek also appear, as well as a young heroin addict named Rosa Lee Cunningham. The focus on one genre unifies the work neatly, and insights into the subjects and biographers keep the work surprising. For example, Susan B. Anthony was a youthful beauty; Rutherford B. Hayes is an underappreciated president who prefigured the Progressive era; Calvin Coolidge was a fine writer, even in the opinion of Mencken. Common threads among the biographers are many. One is time invested: several years is not uncommon. Another is intimacy with the subject. The result for some, like Walter Isaacson (on Henry Kissinger), is equivocation: praise for Kissinger’s “ability to understand linkages in foreign policy,” but criticism of his shortsightedness in not grasping the power of “the openness and the values of our [democratic] system.” For others there is a fearful closeness. Sylvia Jukes Morris dreamed for months of her subject Clare Boothe Luce, with one dream making Luce a stripper in a vaudeville show, ready to expose herself as Morris was exposing her in the biography. But many left their books with increased respect for their subject. “I think I would have loved him,” said Denis Bryan of Albert Einstein. Concluded David McCullough of Harry S. Truman, “I would not only vote for him, I’d go out and work hard to see that he was elected. . . . He accomplished things.” Everyone in the book’subjects and biographers—accomplished things, and their endeavors make this book appealing. (Author tour,)