A Look at the National Book Critics Circle Nominees - Biography

Article excerpt

Lyndon Johnson is proving as powerful in print as he was in office. Robert Caro's mammoth third volume about the consummate American politician so dominated the National Book Award ceremony in November that reporters in attendance were writing up their leads before the winner was announced.

Now, "Master of the Senate" has entered its next battlefield: The National Book Critics Circle. Caro has won twice before, but the 24 members of the NBCC board who make the final decision have the benefit of hindsight to help distinguish their choice from the glitzier National Book Award. It's difficult to gauge how that desire for variety will play into their freewheeling deliberations.

Keep an eye on "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?", the first biography of the musical Carter family, by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. While three of the nominees cover familiar biographical celebrities (Lyndon Johnson, Charles Darwin, Ben Franklin) and the fourth was already nominated for the National Book Award ("The Last American Man"), Zwonitzer's subject has the kind of fresh novelty that could sway committee members still reeling from reams of minutiae about US Senate procedure.

We'll run reviews of the nominees in the four other categories - fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and criticism - over the next four weeks. On Feb. 25, all the nominated authors are invited to read from their work at a public reception at the New School in New York. The winners will be announced the next day. - Ron Charles

CHARLES DARWIN, by Janet Browne, Knopf, $37.50

Darwin spent 20 years working out evidence to support his theory of natural selection, secure in the knowledge that his idea was too radical and the details too arcane for anyone else to have discovered. His closest scientific friends urged him to publish his work, but he dreaded the consequences: public condemnation likely to make Rome's reception of Galileo look friendly. Then one morning in 1858, he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, laying out the theory in words that could have been Darwin's own. With Wallace somewhere in the remote rain forest of southeast Asia - weeks away by the fastest steamers - no one would ever have known if Darwin had "lost" that manuscript. So opens the second book of Browne's riveting two-volume biography. In the entire range of intellectual history, it's doubtful there's a moment that tops the Darwin- Wallace collision for human drama. Over the course of these two volumes, we're immersed in the cozy world of Victorian science, that drew from the right schools and belonged to the same clubs. Along the way we come to intimately understand Darwin - a very unmodern man who brought modernity to science. (591 pp.) (Full review Sept. 26, 2001) By Diana Muir

MASTER OF THE SENATE: LYNDON JOHNSON, by Robert Caro, Knopf, $35

Legendary biographer Robert Caro has spent 25 years of his life chronicling Lyndon Baines Johnson's - and he hasn't even gotten to the vice presidency, presidency, and post-presidency yet. This third volume in Caro's award-winning series recounting more of Johnson's ruthlessness, which dominated the second volume. In every sphere of his life, Johnson gathered power humbly; once he had it, he exercised it brutally. But, somehow, as an authoritarian, Johnson made democracy work for the American citizenry. This volume also marks a return to what Caro terms the "bright thread" of Johnson's life: the public-policy changes he helped bring about during his two terms in the US Senate, especially the civil rights improvements. Caro also calls attention to Johnson's genius as a political organizer. Nobody, he argues, has ever wielded legislative power more skillfully - and his history of the Senate shows why. Before Johnson arrived, Caro says, the Senate was a cruel farce, whose deliberations, far from democratic, were governed by seniority. Though the previous two volumes are superb, a newcomer won't be lost by jumping into this painstakingly researched, beautifully written installment. …