This Year’s Top Biographies


Only half way into 2014, historical biographies are already having a banner year. Here’s a list from the Daily Beast of this year’s top choices to date:

“Updike” by Adam Begley. The reviews of Begley’s biography of John Updike—the prolific novelist, short story writer, critic, poet, and serial philanderer— are approaching universal acclaim.

Ramachandra Guha’s “Gandhi Before India.” The first installment of a two-volume biography, the title covers the life of Mohandas Gandhi, 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.

Michael Korda’s “Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.” He could have led the Union or the Rebels into the Civil War, but 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 Jordan: The Lifeby Roland Lazenby has been called the most ambitious Jordan biography to date.

Bruce Allen Murphy’s “Scalia: A Court of One.” Weeks before its publication, 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.

Miriam Pawel’s “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.” In the ’60s, Cesar Chavez rose from migrant farm worker to national prominence as an activist for the rights of migrant workers. The book blends shades of Upton Sinclair’s focused activism with Howard Hughes’s odd personal flourishes.

I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staples Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway” by Greg Kot. The Staple Singers rose through the church circuit in the ’60s and were frequently the warm-up act for Martin Luther King Jr. 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.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. 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.

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Cheney declares in the prologue, her purpose was “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.”

Stokely: A Life by Peniel E Joseph. 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. He spent the last three decades of his life in West Africa. Critics call this is an unflinching look at an unflinching man.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan. Our sixth president should get a bit more credit as a biography subject: JQA 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.

Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers. The first volume of jazz historian 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 is as much about race and music in America in the first half of the 20th century as it is about Armstrong.


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