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The challenges and rewards of biographical essays

By Susan Ware


One of the first things I did after being appointed general editor of the American National Biography was to assign myself an entry to write. I wanted to put myself in the shoes of my contributors and experience first-hand the challenge of the short biographical form.

I settled on Carolyn Gold Heilbrun (1926-2003), a feminist literary scholar who also wrote mystery novels under the pen name of Amanda Cross. Her writings on biography and women’s literature have been important to my own intellectual journey as a feminist scholar and I have even toyed with the idea of using her best known book, Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), as the model for a book on feminist biography I hope to write someday. I also love her mystery novels, which bear a strong debt to Dorothy Sayers, whose books had also been a formative influence on me when I was growing up. One of the most important prerequisites for writing good biography, I have learned, is the spark between biographer and subject, and it seemed like Heilbrun and I would make a good match.

image credit: Legenda, 1947

Carolyn Heilbrun – the most brilliant. Legenda, 1947. Image courtesy of Susan Ware. Do not reproduce without permission.

Additionally, I had a more personal connection to the subject: Heilbrun had been a classmate of my mother’s at Wellesley College in the 1940s. My mother loved to tell the story of letting “Cacky” (her nickname) Gold into their dorm by a basement window after she had stayed out past curfew with the Harvard student, James Heilbrun, whom she married in February of her sophomore year. I suspect that Carolyn had not officially told college officials about her marriage, because her new husband was about to be shipped off to the Pacific. So in the meantime she managed to steal time with him in Cambridge with the help of her dorm mates who covered for her. By her senior year, he was back from the war and they lived off campus while she finished her degree. Carolyn Gold Heilbrun graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1947, as did my mother, Charlotte McConnell.

image credit: Legenda, 1947

A photo of six Freshman from the Class of 1947 at Wellesley, including Susan Ware’s mother, Charlotte McConnell, second from left. Legenda, 1947. Image courtesy of Susan Ware. Do not reproduce without permission.

I always chuckled over this story, because by the time I was a student at Wellesley in the late 1960s, living in the same Severance Hall dorm, it wasn’t so much a question of letting students in through basement windows after hours but trying to sneak in male visitors for the night. I seriously doubt that my mother and her friends would have conspired with Carolyn so readily if she had been sneaking off to see her boyfriend, but the sanction of marriage made it okay.

By Daderot [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Tower Court complex – Wellesley College. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward about forty years to 1987, when I published a biography of New Deal politician (and Wellesley graduate) Molly Dewson, a work very much informed by the feminist scholarship of which Heilbrun was now a leading proponent from her tenured position in the English Department at Columbia. Seeking to make a connection between her and my mother, I sent her an inscribed copy of my book. I never heard a word in return.

Some years later my mother and I were both reading Heilbrun’s Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. One night I got an excited phone call. “Look at page 212,” my mother exclaimed. “She mentions your book!” Sure enough, Heilbrun used the story of Molly Dewson and her partner Polly Porter as an example of how women’s relationships could be just as strong and long-lived as heterosexual marriages. Unfortunately she slightly garbled the title of my book, calling it My Partner and I rather than Partner and I, but I think Heilbrun’s rendition is actually better.

A lot of the background research and preparation for a biographical entry never makes it into the formal essay. It also takes a lot more time to craft a biographical essay than, say, this blog post. Every detail has to be nailed down. Hard choices have to be made about which episodes and events to include versus which to leave out. Should I include quotations to give the flavor of her writing? How much space should I devote to her personal life, when she always claimed that the essence of her life was her work?  So many choices, so few words.

In practically the same amount of space as this blog post, we ask our contributors to craft an interpretation of an entire life, chock full of dates and details accompanied by the larger context in which the subject operated. The experience of writing a biographical essay, and then writing about the process, confirms how challenging – and rewarding — the invitation to contribute an essay to the ANB can be. I plan to draw on this insight in my interactions with contributors in the years to come.

Susan Ware is the General Editor of the American National Biography and celebrated her first year anniversary of working on the ANB this April. She is an accomplished historian, editor, and the author of seven books, including biographies of Billie Jean King, Amelia Earhart, Molly Dewson, and Mary Margaret McBride. She served as the editor of several documentary collections and of the most recent volume of Notable American Women, published in 2004, which contains biographies of 483 women from over 50 fields. Educated at Wellesley College and Harvard University, Dr. Ware taught at New York University and Harvard. Susan’s article on Carolyn Gold Heilbrun will be added to the ANB Online in October 2013.

The landmark American National Biography offers portraits of more than 18,700 men and women — from all eras and walks of life — whose lives have shaped the nation. First published in 24 volumes in 1999, the ANB received instant acclaim as the new authority in American biographies, and continues to serve readers in thousands of school, public, and academic libraries around the world. Its online counterpart, ANB Online, is a regularly updated resource currently offering portraits of over 18,700 biographies, including the 17,435 of the print edition. ACLS sponsors the ANB, which is published by Oxford University Press.

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