Annal: 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

Results of the National Book Critics Circle Award in the year 2001.

Book:Boswell's Presumptuous Task

Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

Adam Sisman

A heroic, brilliantly detailed portrait of the biographer as artist.

James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is the most celebrated of all biographies, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language. Yet Boswell himself was regarded by his contemporaries as a man of no judgment and condemned by posterity as a lecher and a drunk. How could such a fool have written such a book?

Boswell’s “presumptuous task” was his biography of Johnson. Adam Sisman traces the friendship between Boswell and his great mentor, one of the most unlikely pairings in literature, and provides a fascinating and original account of Boswell’s seven-year struggle to write the Life following Johnson’s death in 1784. At the time, Boswell was trying—and failing—to make his mark in the world: desperate for money; debilitated by drink; torn between his duties at home and the lure of London; tormented by rival biographers; often embarrassed, humiliated and depressed. Boswell’s Presumptuous Task shows movingly how a man who failed in almost everything else produced a masterpiece.

Book:Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

Paula Fox

One of America’s most brilliant fiction writers offers her first book in a decade—a heartbreaking memoir of girlhood.

Born in the 1920s to nomadic and bohemian parents, Paula Fox is left at birth in a Manhattan orphanage, then cared for by a poor yet cultivated minister in upstate New York. But her parents, as always, soon resurface. Her handsome father is a hard-drinking screenwriter who is, for young Paula, “part ally, part betrayer.” Her mother is given to icy bursts of temper that punctuate a deep indifference. How, Fox wonders, is this woman “enough of an organic being to have carried me in her belly?”

Never sharing more than a few moments with their daughter, Fox’s parents shuttle her from New York City, where she lives with her passive Spanish grandmother, to Cuba, where she roams freely on a relative’s sugarcane plantation, and to California, where she finds herself cast upon Hollywood’s grubby margins. The thread binding these wanderings is the “borrowed finery” of the title—a few pieces of clothing, almost always lent by kindhearted strangers, which offer Fox a rare glimpse of permanency.

Vivid and poetic, Borrowed Finery is an unforgettable book that will swell the company of Fox’s devoted admirers.

Book:Milking the Moon

Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet

Eugene Walter, Katherine Clark, George Plimpton

“I’ve had a great life, and it all happened because I didn’t plan any of it.” — Eugene Walter

Eugene Walter was the best-known man you’ve never heard of. In his 76 years, he ate of “the ripened heart of life,” to quote a letter from Isak Dinesen, one of his many illustrious friends. He savored the porch life of his native Mobile, Alabama, in the 1920s and ’30s. He stumbled into the Greenwich Village art scene in late-1940s New York. He was a ubiquitous presence in Paris’s expatriate café society in the 1950s, where he was part of the Paris Review at its inception. Perhaps most remarkably of all for a poor Southern boy, he spent the 1960s in Rome, where he participated in the golden age of Italian cinema–including a role in Fellini’s 8 1?2–and entertained some of the most famous people in the world.

As recorded by Katherine Clark toward the end of Walter’s life, his story–enlivened with personal glimpses of luminaries…[more]

Book:Positively 4th Street

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña

David Hajdu

The story of how four young bohemians on the make - Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez, and Richard Fariña - converged in Greenwich Village, fell into love, and invented a sound and a style that are one of the most lasting legacies of the 1960s

When Bob Dylan, age twenty-five, wrecked his motorcycle on the side of a road near Woodstock in 1966 and dropped out of the public eye, he was recognized as a genius, a youth idol, and the authentic voice of the counterculture: and Greenwich Village, where he first made his mark as a protest singer with an acid wit and a barbwire throat, was unquestionably the center of youth culture.

So embedded are Dylan and the Village in the legend of the Sixties—one of the most powerful legends we have these days—that it is easy to forget how it all came about. In Positively Fourth Street, David Hajdu, whose 1995 biography of jazz…[more]

Book:The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin – A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal

The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin – A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal

Barry Werth

In this provocative and unsettling look at the consequences of America’s puritanical “need to punish,” Barry Werth explores the tragic story of one of America’s great literary minds whose life and career were shattered by the “Pink Scare.”

Newton Arvin (1900-1963) was one of America’s most esteemed literary critics, admired by Edmund Wilson and Lillian Hellman, and mentor to Truman Capote. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and in 1951, won the National Book Award for his biography of Herman Melville. As a scholar and writer, Arvin focused on the secret, psychological drives of such American masters as Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and identified the witch-hunt mentality that lies deep in the American psyche.

Born and raised in the constrained society of Protestant Indiana, Arvin was a social radical and an unproclaimed homosexual. He came through the Red Scare relatively unscathed, but when the national antismut campaign followed, his apartment in Northampton,…[more]

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