Annal: 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

Results of the National Book Critics Circle Award in the year 1997.

Book:Ernie Pyle's War

Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II

James Tobin

When a machine-gun bullet ended the life of war correspondent Ernie Pyle in the final days of World War II, Americans mourned him in the same breath as they mourned Franklin Roosevelt. To millions, the loss of this American folk hero seemed nearly as great as the loss of the wartime president.

If the hidden horrors and valor of combat persist at all in the public mind, it is because of those writers who watched it and recorded it in the faith that war is too important to be confined to the private memories of the warriors. Above all these writers, Ernie Pyle towered as a giant. Through his words and his compassion, Americans everywhere gleaned their understanding of what they came to call “The Good War.”

Pyle walked a troubled path to fame. Though insecure and anxious, he created a carefree and kindly public image in his…[more]

Book:American Sphinx

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Joseph J. Ellis

For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight—and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1896); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity—now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety—has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person.

For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was “as if a pathologist, just about to…[more]

Book:Boyhood

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

J.M. Coetzee

Coetzee grew up in a new development north of Cape Town, tormented by guilt and fear. With a father he despised, and a mother he both adored and resented, he led a double life—the brilliant and well-behaved student at school, the princely despot at home, always terrified of losing his mother’s love. His first encounters with literature, the awakenings of sexual desire, and a growing awareness of apartheid left him with baffling questions; and only in his love of the high veld (“farms are places of freedom, of life”) could he find a sense of belonging. Bold and telling, this masterly evocation of a young boy’s life is the book Coetzee’s many admirers have been waiting for, but never could have expected.

Book:Virginia Woolf (Hermione Lee)

Virginia Woolf

Hermione Lee

While Virginia Woolf—one of our century’s most brilliant and mercurial writers—has had no shortage of biographers, none has seemed as naturally suited to the task as Hermione Lee. Subscribing to Virginia Woolf’s own belief in the fluidity and elusiveness of identity, Lee comes at her subject from a multitude of perspectives, producing a richly layered portrait of the writer and the woman that leaves all of her complexities and contradictions intact. Such issues as sexual abuse, mental illness, and suicide are brought into balance with the immensity of her literary achievement, her heroic commitment to her work, her generosity and wit, and her sanity and strength.

It is not often that biography offers the satisfactions of great fiction—but this is clearly what Hermione Lee has achieved. Accessible, intelligent, and deeply pleasurable to read, her Virginia Woolf will undoubtedly take its place as the standard biography for years to come.

Book:Walking in the Shade

Walking in the Shade: Volume 2 of My Autobiography, 1949-1962

Doris May Lessing

Walking in the Shade covers the years 1949 -1962, from Lessing’s arrival in London with her son, Peter, and the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, under her arm to the publication of her most famous work of fiction, The Golden Notebook.

This was the period of the Cold War, a poisonously political time, but Doris Lessing reminds us—in perhaps the book’s most striking achievement—of what has been forgotten: that it was a time also of idealism and hope, of a sense of personal responsibility for the world, and of generosity of the imagination. She describes how communism dominated the intellectual life of the ‘50s—it is hard now to appreciate how much—and how she, like nearly all communists, became disillusioned with extreme and rhetorical politics and left communism behind. …[more]

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