National Book Critics Circle Nominees / Biography

By Ron Charles, book editor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

National Book Critics Circle Nominees / Biography


Ron Charles, book editor, The Christian Science Monitor


Two of the five finalists in the biography and autobiography category for the NBCC award are about religious faith. Paul Elie, an editor with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has written a composite biography about four Roman Catholics, famous 20th-century American writers known as the "School of the Holy Ghost." Ironically, George Marsden's biography is about a staunch anti-Catholic, Jonathan Edwards, leader of the Great Awakening in the early 18th century. Today, if he's known at all, Edwards is usually identified only as the author of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." But as Marsden shows, this last of the great Puritans was far more interested in inspiring spiritual understanding than terror.

At the 30th-anniversary awards ceremony on March 4, Pulitzer Prize-winner Studs Terkel will receive a lifetime achievement award. His most recent book, "Hope Dies Last," published in November by New Press, includes interviews with 56 famous and unknown people who have survived difficult times but retain their hope for the future.

A Tragic Honesty: Richard Yates, by Blake Bailey, Picador, 671 pp., $35

The world of novelist Richard Yates, as Bailey unflinchingly, unrelentingly reminds us, touches on almost every human failing, and on myriad stereotypes of a mad and desperate writer's life. The alcoholic, manic-depressive, poor, pained, and underappreciated Yates smoked four packs a day and died in a cockroach-infested duplex with his books out of print and his last manuscript in the freezer. This exhaustively detailed story - drawing on letters, reminiscences, and the cooperation of family and friends - never shirks from the raw tragedy of his tumultuous life. Yates's fiction, with its themes of self-deception and its tarnished dreams of the middle class, reflected that life - and Bailey has analyzed it with a sharp and careful eye. But the degree to which he reads Yates's life into his fiction is striking, distracting, even reductive. To a certain extent, that's standard fare for literary biographies. But Bailey goes so far as to assume an uncle's anti-Semitism based on a fictional "counterpart"; at every turn, he uses Yates's stories to flesh out reality. One can't help wondering if such an obsessive - if skilled - effort of "connect the dots" gives short shrift to Yates's imagination in this otherwise meticulous rendering of a tortured life. By Christina McCarroll

The Life You Save May Be Your Own, by Paul Elie, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 555 pp., $27

Elie chronicles the lives of four major figures in American cultural and literary life: Mary Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. In a nation almost obsessively preoccupied with questions of religion, our literature has for the most part turned against monotheism in favor of secular thought, and most of that thought has worked tirelessly, if not with mockery and a sneer, against religion. The four writers featured in Elie's deft biography are American Catholics, and Elie focuses his study on the spiritual and aesthetic development of each, tracing not only their early struggles with faith and doctrine, but how their belief systems fused with their lives and their creative and public works. The book itself is an unconventionally structured biography, presenting the chronologies of the subjects' lives not in disparate chapters but in fugue-like vignettes that alternate from writer to writer every three or four pages, making for a dramatic read. It is a relief to be reminded that questions of the spirit and soul - not just politics, profit, and narcissism - still concern the minds of some of our greatest cultural icons. "The Life You Save May be Your Own" is a splendid look at the largely ignored link between spirituality and American art. By Eric Miles Williamson

Jonathan Edwards, by George Marsden, Yale University Press, 640 pp., $35

Widely considered to be foremost among American religious thinkers, Edwards (1703-1758) lived a life of passionate devotion. …

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