Biography is an almost writer-proof art. Structure and raison d’être are taken care of in advance. The form—someone is born, does stuff, dies—is as rigid and soothing as the sonnet. Authors write biographies, and we read them for the same reason we gossip: the unquenchable desire to know other people’s business. No wonder the shelves of bookstores groan with biographies. What could be more compelling?
A great biography, however, requires something more: a striking voice, belonging either to the subject or the author, ideally to both, for a voice is what keeps us company after episodes and conclusions have fallen away. Eloquence, wit, and style strengthen a voice greatly, but plain conviction (what Whitman meant when he wrote, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there”) can make its way all by itself. With a strong voice in our heads we gladly surrender to other paraphernalia: births, deaths, dull accounts of dullness.
My list of best American biographies is heavy on memoirs, since by conflating author and subject, they simplify the task of hitting the right note. My list also includes a number of quick takes, books that look at only one phase of their subjects’ lives. The slice of life can stand for the whole; the lightning bolt can be as bright as high noon. Many of these books are biased, crotchety, or unfair. But they are all unforgettable.
by John Williams (1707; Kessinger Publishing). In 1704 the Reverend John Williams, a minister in Deerfield, Massachusetts, was kidnapped by a raiding party of French and Indians and taken, along with several dozen of his neighbors, through the wintry forests to Canada. The action begins with enemies banging on Williams’s door; it ends in Boston, after his return in a prisoner exchange. Williams’s story is full of incident: Two of his children are killed immediately, and his wife dies by the wayside. But the drama of the book is in its ongoing dialogue among Williams, the crush of events, and the purposes of Almighty God.
“The trouble with Franklin,” the historian Forrest McDonald once told me, “is that he lies all the time.” More charitably, we might say that Franklin is a spinner of tales and a shuffler of personae. But what compelling tales, what influential masks! Franklin’s Autobiography, started several different times when he was an old man, never makes it to the American founding. It recounts different foundings—of the capitalist personality, eating not to dullness, drinking not to elevation, and its indispensable companion: the self-help book.
by Henry Adams (1882; M. E. Sharpe). This book is like the circle of hell in which the damned gnaw one another. John Randolph of Roanoke was a brilliant, unstable politician whose years in Congress stretched from the Presidency of John Adams through that of John Quincy Adams; Randolph detested them both. Henry Adams, the brilliant, unstable historian, repaid every insult to his ancestors. The only thing these two ferocious patricians shared was their alienation from the mainstream of American life.
by Ulysses S. Grant (1885–6; Random House). When the military historian John Keegan was asked if Sherman was not actually a better general than Grant, Keegan replied that Grant was the greatest general of the Civil War, the greatest of American history, and one of the greatest of all time. Perhaps this was excessive. But the Personal Memoirs do show how Grant won his war. The prose is clear, tireless, and undistractable—the very qualities that drove Lee into his defenses and then out of them, to Appomattox.
by Booker T. Washington (1901; many editions). This is another founding myth of self-help, though the black Franklin started from farther back than the white one. The moment when the hero’s admission to school, and thus his entire future, depends on how thoroughly he can clean a room is heartrending. Washington’s program of work, self-reliance, and scorn for politics, balked at in his day, still resonates in unusual places, from the Nation of Islam to Justice Clarence Thomas.
by Wallace Stegner (1954; Penguin). Stegner is the proud and touchy regionalist, always telling us that the West has nothing to feel inferior about. Certainly nothing could top the story of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who navigated and surveyed the Colorado River and then spent years warring over land and Indian policy in the corridors of official Washington. If Captain Ahab had been a scientific bureaucrat, he might have completed his voyage too.
by William L. Riordon (1905; St. Martin’s). At the last turn of the century, Riordon, a New York journalist, sat down with George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall district leader in Hell’s Kitchen, and got him to talk about his daily life. Several of Plunkitt’s aphorisms—“Reformers [is] mornin’ glories,” “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em”—have entered the common stock of political lore. His worldview—patriotism as boodle, and boodle as social work—is a sober corrective to all high-flown aspirations, left or right.
Just as there are Platonists and Aristotelians, and Yankee fans and Mets fans, so there are admirers of Fitzgerald and admirers of Hemingway. Why choose? The Crack-Up, edited by Edmund Wilson after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, consists of an “autobiographical sequence” of essays, together with letters and selections from Fitzgerald’s notebooks; A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoirs of the twenties in Paris, appeared after his suicide in 1961. Together the two books describe the writer’s life as experienced by the Lost Generation (Hemingway gives the genesis of the phrase, an exchange between a French mechanic and a garage owner, overheard by Gertrude Stein). Indelible anecdotes, sharp writing, and negative lessons in temperance (Fitzgerald) and charity (Hemingway).
by Tom Wolfe (1968; Bantam). The gaudiest of the New Journalists takes on Ken Kesey, the sixties transcendentalist who was, in his own way, as much an archetype of the West as John Wesley Powell. Kesey, the best-selling author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, tried to reach a higher level of consciousness by ingesting crates of LSD and messing with other people’s heads. He failed, naturally, but Wolfe, the observant Southerner from New York, admired his doomed sincerity.