Why Are Some Biographies So Good?

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Charles CalhounCharles Calhoun is Scholar in Residence at the Maine Humanities Council. He is the author of Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life (2004), A Small College in Maine: 200 Years of Bowdoin (1993), and the volume on Maine in the Compass American Guide Series (4th ed., 2005). Born in Monroe, Louisiana, he studied history at the University of Virginia and law at Christ Church, Oxford. In this talk, Calhoun identifies storytelling techniques (such as suspense, fulfillment, gratification, and apt quotation) that biographers can adopt in their own writing. With input from Teaching American History Through Biography participants, he analyzes passages from three contemporary biographies—Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933, and Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Thompson—for examples of these techniques.

This talk was part of the 2008 Teaching American History teacher program in Brunswick, Maine. What do you think of Charles’ answer to the question of what makes a good biography, and what would your answer be? Please leave your thoughts here.