Only half way into 2014, historical biographies are already having a banner year. Adam Begley’s Updike—a “superb achievement” and “brilliant new biography”—is perhaps the most lauded title so far this year in any genre, Ramachandra Guha’s just-published Gandhi Before India is garnering similar buzz, and an armload of other big bios are making waves.
Here are 12 of the best biographies—three civil rights activists, two presidents, two musicians, a general, an actor, a sports legend, a writer, and one of the most fascinating and controversial Supreme Court justices in history—published through the first six months of 2014:
The reviews of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike—the prolific novelist, short story writer, critic, poet, and serial philanderer—approach universal acclaim. Wall Street Journal: “Begley has a great many strengths—concision, eloquence, an eagle eye—and few of the usual shortcomings.” Washington Post: “[A] convincing interpretative biography, one characterized by suavity, wit, and independent judgment throughout.” Newsday: “Thoroughly researched, written with intelligence, sympathy and grace, it is a model of first-rate literary biography.” New York Observer: “[A] monumental treatment of a towering American writer.”
The first installment of a two-volume biography, Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India covers the life of Mohandas Gandhi—“Mahatma” was an honorific applied later in his life—from his childhood in India to his legal training in London through his two decades as a lawyer and civil rights activist in South Africa. The Economist: “Mr. Guha has unearthed a wealth of previously overlooked school reports, diaries, letters and articles by collaborators and opponents of Gandhi. The result is a striking depiction of his transformation into mid-adulthood.” San Francisco Chronicle: “Guha is a brilliant historian who combines the gift of a storyteller, the discipline of an academic and the critical ability of seeing Gandhi as a fascinating human being, by not placing him on a pedestal.”
He could have led the Union or the Rebels into the Civil War, and Robert E. Lee chose his home-team Rebels. That he chose the South did not diminish the respect for him then (especially in the South) and does not diminish it now. Michael Korda, former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, has written the best single-volume treatment of Lee’s life in a generation—possibly ever. Boston Globe: “Its length and range is matched by the depth of its examination of the important moral issues—loyalty and redemption, among others—wrapped inside the moral issues of slavery and the Civil War.”
The Michael Jordan moment that always comes to mind for me is The Shrug—his hey-I-can’t-explain-it gesture to the broadcast table after hitting six three-pointers in the first half of a game in the 1992 NBA Finals. Roland Lazenby goes far deeper in the most ambitious Jordan biography to date. Chicago Tribune: A “massive and utterly definitive biography” and “the most comprehensive attempt yet made to explain the factors that have gone into producing the most famous basketball player and marketing phenom in the history of world sports.”
Weeks before its publication, Bruce Allen Murphy’s Scalia—a prodigious biography of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—was already the subject of an eight-part (and counting) blog barrage in National Review. The book’s strong suggestion of results-driven intellectual dishonesty will do that. The Atlantic: “In Bruce Allen Murphy, Scalia has met a timely and unintimidated biographer ready to probe.” The Week: “Scalia’s many supporters will see in it evidence of a man finding through faith the strength and the wisdom to hew to a jurisprudential doctrine that he believes is both neutral and sensible. His many detractors will see here evidence of a man who is a fraud.”
In the ’60s, Cesar Chavez rose from migrant farmworker to national prominence as an activist for the rights of migrant workers. Miriam Pawel’s characterization blends shades of Upton Sinclair’s focused activism with Howard Hughes’ odd personal flourishes. Los Angeles Magazine: “Powerful and captivating, this first comprehensive biography of Latino leader Cesar Chavez… doesn’t shy away from Chavez’s moral blemishes, but paints him as a man of deep humanity.”
The Staple Singers—there was no “s” at the end of “Staple” in the Staples family singing group’s name—rose through the church circuit in the ’60s and were frequently the warm-up act for Martin Luther King Jr. Greg Kot’s group portrait of Mavis and the rest of the clan is both a family story and an original approach to the African-American experience in the civil rights era and beyond. Booklist: “a moving tribute to a very talented family and one gracious woman, in particular[.]” NPR: “Emotional honesty resonates throughout.”
Once upon a time the superheroes of American film didn’t wear capes or masks. In the ’50s and ’60s, they wore boots and spurs. They were cowboys, and John Wayne was the biggest star of them all. Scott Eyman emphasizes the importance of director John Ford in Wayne’s film career. Director Peter Bogdanovich wrote in the New York Times Book Review that John Wayne is “authoritative and thoroughly engaging.” Wall Street Journal: “[D]eeply researched and totally absorbing[.]”
Lynne Cheney’s James Madison is as fluid, insightful, and readable as anything I have picked up so far this year. It is time, she declares in the prologue, “to clear away misconceptions about Madison, brush off cobwebs that have accumulated around his achievements, and seek a deeper understanding of the man who did more than any other to conceive and establish the nation we know.” She delivers. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood wrote in the New York Times Book Review that James Madison is the best biography of this Founding Father in 40 years.
Stokely Carmichael was a charismatic firebrand who pushed the civil rights movement from the nonviolent resistance of the ’60s to the Black Power of the ’70s, changed his name to Kwame Ture, and spent the last three decades of his life in West Africa. Peniel E. Joseph’s Stokely: A Life is an unflinching look at an unflinching man. Boston Globe: “In this passionate, thoughtful new biography, historian Peniel E. Joseph seeks to reintroduce Carmichael and reposition his legacy.”
Our sixth president should get a bit more credit as a biography subject: John Quincy Adams may not crack the presidential A-list, but he had a long and interesting career as a diplomat, United States senator, and then—after he was president—served in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he dramatically collapsed and died at age 80. Washington Post: “There is much to praise in this extensively researched book, which is certainly one of the finest biographies of a sadly underrated man.” New York Times Book Review called Fred Kaplan’s biography “a valuable book about an important American figure.”
The first volume of jazz historian Thomas Brothers’s biography of Louis Armstrong covered the legendary singer/trumpeter’s life to age 21. The second volume, Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism, takes that story through the next decade and—as with the earlier book—is as much about race and music in America in the first half of the 20th century as it is about Armstrong. Financial Times: “Brothers captures the complexities of Armstrong’s world from the outset” and crafts “a rounded, rigorous, vivid portrait.”
Yet to come…
Here are the most buzz-worthy biographies publishing between now and the end of 2014:
Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O’Connell (Random House); Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces (Simon & Schuster).
America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation by Grant Wacker (Belknap); Eisenhower: A Life by Paul Johnson (Viking).
The Return of George Washington: How the United States Was Reborn by Edward J. Larson (William Morrow); Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson (Penguin Press); Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich (Random House); Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin (Penguin Press); George Marshall by Debi Unger and Irwin Unger (Harper); Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice by Joan Biskupic (Sarah Crichton).
November: Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz (Little, Brown); Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts (Viking); Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford); Victoria: A Life by A. N. Wilson (Penguin Press); Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (Knopf); On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller by Richard Norton Smith (Random House).