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The Best Biographies: the 2021 NBCC Shortlist

recommended by Elizabeth Taylor

Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley

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Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World
by Amy Stanley

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Elizabeth Taylor, the author, critic and chair of the National Book Critics' Circle biography committee, discusses their 2021 shortlist for the title of the best biography—including a revelatory new book about the life of Malcolm X, a group biography of artists in the 1960s, and a book built from a cache of letters written in Japan's shogun era.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley

winner

Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World
by Amy Stanley

Read

Welcome back to Five Books! This is the third year in a row that we’ve come together to discuss the National Book Critics Circle finalists for biography. Before we look at the 2021 shortlist, could you reflect on the qualities that unite the best biographies?

Wonderful to be here! We last spoke pre-pandemic, but in this blur of a terrible year, it really has been a spectacular year for biographies. There were far fewer cradle-to-grave biographies or hit-and-runs by armchair psychiatrists. There has been more innovation in form, fewer biographies that read like long Wikipedia entries, and more that even the crankiest critic wishes to press into the hands of eager readers. Biographers are writing real books, not products. Biographers revisit some subjects but bring new perspectives and sources to bear. There’s no rubric for what makes a great biography—they just provide a sense of what it means to be human.

Biographies have a special antenna for what’s happening in the world. This year, three excellent biographies about living men dealt directly with politics that provided a bit of a refuge from current personalities but, at the same time, elucidated the present day: His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life by Jonathan Alter, The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser and Man of Tomorrow: The Restless Life of Jerry Brown by James Newton.

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The best biographies adapt form to subject—they come from an angle, tell the story of a group, focus on a moment. They can do this because they inhabit the people and times about which they are writing. Most of all, readers respond to a special alchemy of subject and biographer, and while I think Janet Malcolm is brilliant, I don’t quite endorse her idea that the biographer at work “is like the professional burglar.”

Biographies often have to contend with or respond to how their subject or subjects have been defined by previous works of biography. Of the books we’re looking at here, that’s certainly true of the Plath and Malcolm X biographies. Keynes too.

To some extent, with the exception of Amy Stanley, each biography finalist wrestles with the interpretations of previous biographies. Heather Clark responds more deliberately in Red Comet because she is contending not only with Plath, but the myth of Plath. Les Payne challenges interpretations of biographies about Malcolm X, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Manning Marable. As an investigative reporter, Payne not only challenges interpretations but also corrects the historic record and Malcom X’s own autobiography. Biographers live with their subjects, and the shadows of their subjects.

The subjects of all of these biographies, in some way were very much ahead of their times. In very different ways, they pushed boundaries and transcended their worlds.

Shall we start off by discussing the first of your 2021 finalists for the title of best biography? This is Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World. It’s very much a life-and-times book, as it uses the story of a single woman to offer a sweep of 19th-century Japanese society.

You have that just right: Amy Stanley tells the story of how Edo became Tokyo through the life of Tsuneno, daughter of a Buddhist priest in a rural province at a moment that Japan’s transformation is taking root.

Just to be clear for those who don’t know: the city we call Tokyo was known as ‘Edo’ until 1869. 

Tsuneno attends school, learns to sew and dreams of the big city. At age 12, she is married off and dispatched to an even more remote province. Three failed marriages later, she literally walks for weeks on a horrific journey to reach Edo where, impoverished and degraded, she proves to be a skilful survivor, finding a form of independence to which she clings, even after she marries a louche of a samurai. She dies in 1853, just before Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan.

She was remarkably resilient and tenacious, but Tsuneno was also rebellious, troublesome and not entirely likeable. And her death brought me to tears. Stanley renders Tsuneno’s messy life, unique struggles and the quotidian particulars of her world so richly that this Japanese woman from another era becomes achingly human and resonant. Tsuneno emerges as a sort of everywoman who transcends time and is more than a vessel to represent Edo’s transformation into Tokyo and Japan’s path to power.

“It’s a biography of a woman, but also a portrait of what would become a great world city”

Stanley, an historian of early and modern Japan, happened to find a letter from Tsuneno hidden in an archive online which led her to Japan and the discovery of a rich archive of letters written by Tsuneno which had been saved by her family, along with a trove of documents. Stanley is quite understated about this dedication and accomplishment. As she explains in the book, she reads and speaks Japanese, but the brushstrokes of 200 years ago posed quite a challenge. Stanley photographed everything from the archive, and painstakingly translated it all to create a narrative of Tsuneno’s life through her very detailed and personal letters.

Stanley has recovered a lost world. Drawing on her knowledge of the history, Stanley contextualizes the letters, which enhances their power. So, it’s a biography of a woman, but also a portrait of what would become a great world city and its evolving culture.

I’m really interested in the decision Stanley has made to focus on a subject who is herself not famous or historically significant. I guess by its nature the book gives us insight into what it was like to be a ‘normal’ person during that period, in that society.

This biography is such a sharp reminder of the importance of archives. I fear that we will soon face a future in which we will have to rely on redacted government documents. The victors will dominate the narrative, and the stories of the powerless will vanish unless we work to preserve them. With email replacing letters and so much news disappearing online, we need a coordinated effort to create new archives, especially for those who may not have reached a moment of fame, or infamy.

Do you think this would have been a difficult book to find a publisher for, because of Stanley’s low-key choice of subject?

I try not to look at the publishing history of books as they come up for awards and, instead, focus on the book itself. So I don’t know the particulars here, but kudos to Scribner on this one. My sense, though, is that there’s increasing enthusiasm to recover forgotten, overlooked figures and histories and that Stanley’s book could find a wide audience.

While we—the NBCC—consider Stranger in the Shogun’s City a biography, if I were pitching this book I could see it as work of history or narrative nonfiction, a book to assign in East Asian history classes, or those involving gender and women. From the publishing perspective, there have been bestselling novels like Shogun by James Clavell and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden that were made into films. And, of course, I would like that the universal quality in Stranger in the Shogun’s City would have publishers clamoring.

Finding that universality in specificity. Well, let’s move on to Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. This is much closer to the ‘great man’ style of biography that you alluded to earlier. How one person impacts the world, rather than how the world impacts upon the person. The Guardian called this “a solid, sombre intellectual biography”—does that sound right to you? Why is it one of the best biographies of 2021?

I’m not sure that the ‘Bloomsberries,’ as Virginia Woolf named them, were sombre in Carter’s vivid depictions! The Price of Peace is a biography of an eminent, visionary economist, the story of how John Maynard Keynes came to his revolutionary ideas, refined and advanced them through his life and how they came to dominate economic thought.

Carter makes a bold move as a biographer: Keynes dies in 1946 on page 390, but Carter gallops on for a good 250 more pages, tracing the battles over Keynesianism as they evolved through the New Deal, McCarthyism and the 2008 financial crisis. Carter captures the ideological warfare between luminary intellectuals like James K. Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger and even extends to the monumental 2015 National Book Critics Circle finalist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

We spoke to Thomas Piketty quite recently.

Carter begins his book with Keynes in midlife, as he’s falling in love with the Russian ballerina who became his wife, a critical turning point that informed his philosophy—and illustrates Keynes as a tangle of paradox. He was a pacifist who advocated for war. He was married to a woman but had serious amorous relationships with men. He’s so interesting, and was, at that time, quite radical. People are still debating his ideas, he was really ahead of his time.

Clearly Keynes is comfortable with contradiction and his ideas are often counterintuitive—the notion, as Paul Krugman put it: “Your income is my expense and my income is your expense.” Spending more to get out of a financial depression continues to be debated. Back to your question about intellectual biography, Carter’s book illustrates that ideas originate in lived experience, and he illuminates Keynes’s experience and shows how it took root.

One may think of Keynes as an economist, but Keynesianism is much more than that—he has views on war, art, culture and a vision of fairness. Keynes had a dream of a fairer and more fulfilling life for all. Carter’s writing about economic theory is so lucid, so colourful, and such a pleasant surprise for me.

The afterlife of Keynesian thinking is interesting, how it continues to thread through contemporary economics.

Indeed, that is right. We can see the drama playing out today in America with the intense battles over President Joe Biden’s Covid stimulus and relief bill. Carter seems to suggest that Keynes would have been frustrated by growing inequality and that his radical vision withered, leaving us with the question of whether good ideas can triumph on their own. The question Carter poses was: did Keynes believe that good ideas would triumph on their own? One comes away from this book thinking that Keynesianism is not a school of thought as much as a spirit of radical optimism.

And how about the Bloomsbury Group? I’m sorry, I’ll always be interested in this. Does it goes into salacious detail?

Perhaps not salacious but absolutely interesting to read about. At Cambridge Lytton Strachey was impressed by Keynes’s “active brain” and recruited him to the group although he was just a freshman. Keynes and Strachey were lovers but it was a rivalrous friendship, and Keynes made a habit of poaching Strachey’s lovers. He wasn’t an artist, as others were in Bloomsbury; Keynes expressed feelings of inferiority and Strachey and Clive Bell sneered at his aesthetic judgement.

Keynes’s time with the Bloomsbury set, Carter argues, was a formative experience in which Keynes became skeptical of rules of conduct and edicts from the ruling elite and developed political sympathies and keen interest in the Liberal Party. His relations with the Bloomsbury crowd seemed to provide him with a keen understanding of the post-World War One world.

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He has this great line: “If Germany is to be milked, she must not first of all be ruined.” Once again, he’s prophetic. Prophecy and history… This reminds me that two of the biographies we’re discussing were written by journalists who toggle between history and journalism. I have read Zachary Carter’s excellent journalism in the Huffington Post and for years read Les Payne’s Pulitzer Prize winning work in Newsday. Both have written biographies that are the richer for their fluid storytelling and research tenacity.

Let’s talk about the Payne book next. This is The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, which is third on our shortlist for the 2021 title of best biography. It’s the result of three decades of research by Les Payne and his daughter Tamara, who completed it after his death. It’s won the National Book Award, and was one of the New York Times’s ‘notable books’ of last year. So a landmark piece of work.

Landmark indeed, and brave. It follows Malcolm Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012 and The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm which was published in 1965 to great acclaim.

The Payne biography is a rebuke to those who insist that if a subject has won the attention of one biographer, it is off the market to others. New evidence can be unearthed, existing evidence can be challenged or lead to other inquiries. Perspective, structure, and expression matter. Payne has elevated oral history and narrative to an art form and excavates Malcolm X’s origin story, from his birth as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska to his assassination in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City’s Washington Heights. Payne captures the winding arc of Malcom’s life through the death of his father—which Malcolm believed to be nefarious, and Payne disproves—and the confinement of his mother in a psychiatric hospital. As a troubled adolescent, he landed in prison while his brothers, who Payne interviewed, found their way to the Nation of Islam. Malcolm joined them, and transformed into an evangelist for Black self-respect and a fierce critic of white America.

“The Paynes did not simply visit archives, they created the archive”

It is remarkable that the Paynes did not simply visit archives, they created the archive through thousands of eyewitness reports and personal documents. They went way beyond the declassified FBI files and secondhand stories of the legend of Malcolm’s transformation. Payne may have drawn on his journalistic skills to build this biography on firsthand accounts and oral history, but he also worked as a historian to contextualize these contradicting accounts and synthesize them into an extraordinary narrative.

Payne writes the 20th-century American history of the Nation of Islam and situates Malcom in these ideological battles— through his parents, who adhered to Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of self-reliance, Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism; through activist intellectuals like W E B Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter. Payne explains Malcolm X’s route to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, including his break from them which led to his assassination. Payne shows his experience as an investigative reporter, especially regarding the recovery of details involving the plot to kill Malcolm.

This book is often discussed as a counterpoint to that explosive biography by Marable, but it offers its own revelations. The current leader of the Nation of Islam admits in an interview that he might have been complicit in the murder, for one.

Indeed. Payne confirms that the assassination order came directly from Muhammad’s headquarters in Chicago to the gunmen. We also learn that Malcolm, on the direction of Elijah Muhammad, met with Ku Klux Klan leaders in 1961 about a land deal. It turned out that the Klansmen were really set on the assassination of Martin Luther King, which led to Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam.

Wow.

These revelations establish the historic record, but—without diminishing their importance—explosive disclosures make a news story not a biography. What distinguishes Payne’s biography of Malcolm X is the multiplicity of voices and evidence, and his creation of a richly rewarding narrative.

And this must be one of the benefits of working on something for so long. Let’s turn to the next book on our 2021 shortlist of the best biographies. Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. I’m excited about this book, but I suppose that’s because I know a lot about Sylvia Plath already. Her life is relatively well-trodden ground, not only thanks to previous biographies but the writing of Plath herself. Is there room for a new Plath biography? What can this book add?

Personally, I share your enthusiasm about all matters Plath. As a critic, let me say that Clark not only unearths new evidence about Plath’s life but also brings a fresh, subtle and nuanced critical perspective to her work. Plath is mythologised and pathologised; she has come to be seen as an icon or a victim, a “high priestess of poetry, obsessed with death,” as Clark writes. What Clark does here is recover Sylvia Plath as an aesthetically accomplished, important poet.

Clark discovered letters Plath sent to her psychiatrist, delved into the Plath family history (including her father’s FBI file and grandmother’s institutionalization), found a portion of Plath’s last novel, and used her unpublished diaries and creative work as well as police, hospital and court records. She also drew from an archive that opened in 2020 which contained scores of interviews with Plath’s contemporaries in the 1970s for an uncompleted biography.

From the start, Clark is clear in her intention to reposition Plath as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. I was skeptical initially, because the biography weighs in at 1118 pages. Well, 937 pages without notes.

Hefty.

But after the prologue, I was hooked. Clark nestles details so deftly in flowing narrative prose and successfully positions Plath in the era. It’s literally a heavy book, but Clark writes with a light touch, evoking Plath’s psychological and poetic landscape as well as her social milieu. Well known now as the wife of Ted Hughes, Plath emerges so clearly in her other relationships. Clark vivifies Plath not only as a mother, but also a daughter who was just eight years old when her father died, leaving her to be raised by her single mother.

Plath grew up at a harrowing and difficult time for German immigrants in America, during and before the Second World War. Plath’s father Otto was repeatedly investigated and eventually detained by the FBI but, as Clark shows, he renounced his German citizenship in 1926 and watched Hitler’s rise with trepidation.

It seems unfair that he’s likened to a Nazi soldier in her famous poem ‘Daddy’, then?

‘Daddy’ runs through the biography and Clark tracks interpretations and it’s almost as if those reveal more about the perceiver than the poem. For some, ‘Daddy’ is a rallying cry for feminists, others believe it reflects Plath’s youth and others damn it for appropriating the Holocaust. Clark makes clear that Plath’s father was a committed pacifist. In addition to his German heritage, Clark suggests that as a professor and scientist, he embodied patriarchal authority and a kind of imperial aggression just as resentment of her husband was boiling. There’s also an argument that the poem is based on an entirely different person, her friend’s father who abandoned his family to join the fascist Blackshirts.

Clark reveals Plath wrestling with ‘Daddy’ in successive drafts, with one reading like an elegy, and others more resilient and forgiving. The poem’s placement in Ariel, published posthumously and out of her control, possibly shifted its meaning.

I could talk about ‘Daddy’ all day but would much rather read about it in Clark’s biography! Clark argues that Plath’s aesthetic impulse was more surrealist than confessional and that ‘Daddy’ illustrated that Plath had her finger on the pulse of contemporary poetry.

The thing I find most interesting about Plath is the way she embodies that pressure-cooker atmosphere of girlhood and early womanhood—the twin pressures to be feminine, and yet to strive intellectually. They are not quite opposites, but one interferes with the action of the other. I think that’s why Plath became a cultural phenomenon, a figurehead for troubled young women.

As a reader, I could hear Plath’s mother preaching: “excel, but conform.” While Sylvia Plath is known for her death, Clark shows how hard she worked, how many poems she sent out before she found success. Clark reads Plath’s juvenile short stories and poetry really seriously, and asks questions: how did she get to be who she was? Clark recognizes Plath’s incredible ambition and dedication to her work.

So does Clark succeed in her stated aim of repositioning Plath as one of the most important writers of the 20th century?

Yes. Clark makes a powerful argument for it through her analysis of Plath’s poetry. The Sylvia Plath that emerges as a poet from these pages is stronger and more sophisticated than she has been credited. Yes, Plath took her own life, and is synonymous with madness and tragedy, but Clark has shattered the mythology and placed Sylvia Plath in the canon as one of the most important writers of the century.

Some of the social pressures that Plath was contending with will be common to those faced by some of the women in the final book on our list of the best biographies of 2021. This is The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s, by Maggie Doherty. It’s a group biography, and there’s an excerpt available on the New York Times website for those who want to try before they buy.

First, that sly, smart title. Radcliffe College President Mary Bunting had the brilliant idea to support “intellectually displaced women.” By that, she meant women whose ambitions as artists and intellectuals had been thwarted by gender expectations and the demands of domesticity, marriage and motherhood. The College’s Institute for Independent Study would provide hefty stipends, private offices and its resources to a group of women who had “either a doctorate or its equivalent” in creative achievement. Bunting described it as her “messy experiment.”

In The Equivalents, Maggie Doherty captures that glorious mess. She focuses on five women artists: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, sculptor Marianna Pineda, painter Barbara Swann from the East Coast and fiction writer Tillie Olsen, mother of four from San Francisco who had been a community organizer and aspired to write the great proletarian novel. None of them had PhDs; they nicknamed themselves ‘the Equivalents’.

The Equivalents is magnificent social history, a collective snapshot of an overlooked moment in American feminism; we meet these women crossing the bridge between first and second wave feminism. The institute provided them with the rooms of their own to which Virginia Woolf had aspired, but it turned out they needed more of E M Forster’s edict to “only connect.”

With insight and subtlety, Doherty explains the alchemy of solitude and community as “ideal conditions for artistic growth.” They read one another’s work and collaborated on projects. The deep creative bond between the charismatic poets—Sexton and Kumin—provides a narrative backbone. Their friendships revealed the importance of the collective, and how they really did give and draw strength from one another. The idea of five women artists being freed—receiving money and office space and affiliation from Radcliffe was really radical and groundbreaking.

Olsen was, in many ways, the outlier of the group. In a crowd of upper-class Boston and New England women, Olsen was from the West Coast, not at all part of the eastern intelligentsia. While others used stipends to pay for nannies and domestic help, Olsen often had to borrow money. She was sort of a Marxist and emphasized that women—and all people—could be creative and fulfil their promise.

How refreshing. It’s tiring to constantly see histories or biographies in which women apparently have no inner lives—or develop only in relation to, or thanks to, men. A group biography which examines not only the intellectual concerns of women, but their interaction with one another, feels an important corrective.

A very important corrective.

I wonder if we should institute some form of the Bechdel test for books. Do you know that term? To pass the test, a film simply has to contain a scene in which women talk to each other about something, anything, except a man.

I suspect that the women of The Equivalents found Radcliffe a turning point where they could do that. But, knowing that Betty Friedan was an early visitor, they also talked about equity – and the “problem that had no name.” This was a space where a woman could discover that the wandering, absent husband, or the imperious male colleague was not her problem alone. As Doherty writes, these shared confidences could lead a woman to realize that “there was nothing wrong with her, but there might be something wrong with the world.”

I would just raise the ante on the Bechdel test and suggest that a book must contain a scene in which mothers talk to one another about anything other than their children!

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Doherty captures so well the intensity and vicissitudes of these relationships. One can feel moments when Sexton’s needs are too much for Kumin, for instance. Then there’s the electricity of collaboration between mediums, for instance Swann’s artwork appears on the poets’ book covers. The Equivalents arrived as “well-behaved women” and may not have thought of themselves as feminists, but their determined efforts at self-expression radiated out into the world and laid the groundwork for revolution. In closing her sublime book, Doherty relates that when Bunting was asked why her “messy experiment” was so successful, she modestly responded: “We spoke to their condition.”

Doherty closes her marvellous book with a call to arms: “Women today live under new conditions. It is time for another messy experiment and for a new group of women to speak.”

Interview by Cal Flyn

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Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is a co-author of American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley; His Battle for Chicago and the Nation with Adam Cohen, with whom she also cofounded The National Book Review. She has chaired four Pulitzer Prize juries, served as president of the National Book Critics Circle, and presided over the Harold Washington Literary Award selection committee three times. Former Time magazine correspondent in New York and Chicago and long-time literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, she is working on a biography of women in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras for Liveright/W.W. Norton.

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Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is a co-author of American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley; His Battle for Chicago and the Nation with Adam Cohen, with whom she also cofounded The National Book Review. She has chaired four Pulitzer Prize juries, served as president of the National Book Critics Circle, and presided over the Harold Washington Literary Award selection committee three times. Former Time magazine correspondent in New York and Chicago and long-time literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, she is working on a biography of women in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras for Liveright/W.W. Norton.