The best biographies enlighten as well as entertain. And over the last quarter century, a number of biography books have been published that rise above the rest. From a recently unearthed portrait of the last known survivor of the middle passage to an in-depth look at the general who commanded American forces during the Vietnam War, the biography books on this list are sure to attract all types of readers, from the casual scholar to the historian who never takes off their tweed jacket.
Unearthed from the archives at Howard University and first published this year, Barracoon is a masterful and melancholy portrait of the last known survivor of the middle passage. Oluale Kossola was kidnapped at age 19 in West Africa and sold into bondage, arriving in Mobile, Alabama in 1859–50 years after the transatlantic slave trade had been officially abolished. In 1931, Hurston spent several months interviewing the 86-year-old, then known as Cudjo Lewis. His tragic story, which Hurston renders in first-person dialect, exposes the never-ending grief and isolation caused by America’s "peculiar institution" and adds a fascinating early chapter to the career of an author whose importance went largely unrecognized during her lifetime.
This finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award captures the lauded Civil War general in all his fascinating contradictions. A pious homebody and ruthless disciplinarian–he once put a brigadier-general and five regimental commanders under arrest after their men stole pieces of a fence for firewood–Jackson nevertheless inspired fierce loyalty among his men and admiration from his enemies. In stirring prose, Gwynne charts Jackson’s journey from his hardscrabble Virginia boyhood to his Mexican War heroics and his legendary performances in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign and the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.
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The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov
Combining a close reading of Nabokov’s major works, including Pale Fire, Lolita, and Pnin, with a detailed portrait of his family’s tragic history, Pitzer refutes the long-held notion that the author kept the real world out of his novels and refused to wrestle with his political beliefs. Drawing interesting parallels with the life and work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Pitzer uncovers the fascinating subtext behind some of Nabokov’s most unforgettable characters and artful prose. Humbert Humbert’s background, for instance, makes reference to the Armenian genocide and Nazi concentration camps, while Pale Fire indicts the Soviet Union’s rush to become a nuclear superpower. A provocative and persuasive study that adds new layers to our appreciation of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at the age of 31, but her cancer cells are immortal. Taken by Johns Hopkins doctors during a biopsy in 1951, they were the first human cells to ever reproduce in a lab, growing with such gusto that if a single one landed in a petri dish it quickly took over. The HeLa cell line was so robust that scientists all over the world were soon using it develop the polio vaccine, conduct cancer research, and test the effects of radiation and toxic substances. The small problem: Nobody asked Henrietta’s permission to culture her cells, and nobody compensated her five children for the billions of dollars’ worth of medical and scientific discoveries made possible by their mother’s immortal cell line. Skloot spent ten years gaining the Lacks family’s trust in order to tell this incredible story about race, science, and ethics, while bringing some long-overdue recognition to the woman behind one of the most important medical discoveries of the past century.
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The subtitle lets readers know exactly where Sorley, a West Point graduate and retired Army lieutenant, stands on his subject: against him. In tracing William C. Westmoreland’s stunning rise from 15-year-old Eagle Scout to the Army’s youngest two-star general to celebrated superintendent of the United States Military Academy, Sorely uncovers the roots of the hubris, entitlement, and lack of imagination that led to such disastrous results in Vietnam. Yet the blame lies not with “Westy” alone–this provocative, deeply researched biography routinely widens its scope to indict the careerism and corporate groupthink that turned the world’s greatest fighting force into an ossified behemoth incapable of adapting to a new kind of warfare.
Team of Rivals
One of America’s most inspired presidential biographers turns her attention to Abraham Lincoln’s fateful decision to appoint his fiercest political rivals to his cabinet. When seven Southern states seceded in the wake of the election and Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter one month after Lincoln’s inauguration, the appointments of Willam Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates seemed to have left the executive branch hopelessly divided in a moment of profound crisis. But Lincoln’s remarkable magnanimity, deft political instincts, and understated brilliance soon inspired his unusual cabinet to put aside their differences and come together to preserve the Union. Steven Spielberg loosely based his Academy Award-winning film Lincoln on Team of Rivals, but Goodwin covers a much wider range of history to present an essential portrait of America’s most consequential presidency.
Related: 9 Books About Abraham Lincoln
The Lost City of Z
A brilliant blend of biography, mystery, and travel narrative, The Lost City of Z follows Col. Percy Fawcett on his epic quest to discover the ruins of a great civilization in the Amazon jungle. Over the course of 20 years, Fawcett led numerous expeditions into the treacherous Mato Grosso region of Brazil, capturing the British public’s imagination with reports of giant anacondas and hostile tribesmen armed with poison arrows. In 1925, he set out with his eldest son, Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmel; they were never seen again. New Yorker staff writer David Grann brilliantly interweaves his own attempt to retrace Fawcett’s last steps with a riveting portrait of the last of the great Victorian explorers.
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It’s entirely possible that you’ve never heard the name of the first woman to run for president. Barbara Goldsmith’s fascinating biography of Victoria Woodhull will enlighten you on the subject–and much, much more. Goldsmith weaves together the burgeoning spiritualism and free love movements of the era, the end of the Civil War, and the suffrage movement to explain both Woodhull’s singular life and a time of great change in American history.
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The Professor and the Madman
This New York Times bestseller is a dual biography of Professor James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Dr. W. C. Minor, a Civil War surgeon who contributed more than 10,000 quotations to the first edition while serving as an inmate at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Winchester documents the monumental effort it took to create the OED (Murray devoted 40 years of his life to the project and didn’t live to see its completion) and traces the roots of Minor’s delusions to the Battle of the Wilderness, where he claimed to have been forced to brand the face of an Irish immigrant deserter with the letter “D.” Believing that he was under attack by vengeful Irishmen, Minor murdered an innocent London brewery worker in 1872 and was declared not guilty by reason of insanity. The dark irony of Winchester’s lively tale is that if Minor had not suffered his breakdown he might not have made his invaluable contributions to the history of the English language.
Catherine the Great
Born into a minor noble family in Germany in 1729, Sophia Augusta Fredericka was initially ignored by her 16-year-old mother, Johanna. But when her only son died at age 12, Johanna shifted her focus to Sophia, turning her daughter into a collaborator in the quest to elevate the family into the upper echelons of society. Eventually, Sophia came to the attention of the empress Elizabeth of Russia, who was seeking a wife for her nephew Peter, the only living male descendant of Peter the Great. When Peter III proved an ineffectual leader more interested in toy soldiers than real ones, Sophia–now known as Catherine II–led the coup against him. With a mix of cunning, strength, and charm, she became Russia’s longest-running female leader, surviving numerous court intrigues and the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution to transform her adopted homeland into one of Europe’s great powers.
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The Passage of Power
The concluding fourth volume of Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson covers some of the most consequential years in American history. From the Cuban missile crisis to JFK’s assassination to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the launch of the War on Poverty, Caro captures Johnson at the moment when his brilliant political skills were put to the ultimate test. In trading his Senate seat for the empty ritual of the vice presidency, Johnson thought his days of power and influence were over. But fate had a different course in store for him. Caro chronicles the new president’s growing sense of purpose in the weeks after the assassination and his masterful manipulation of the levers of American government to pass legislation that benefited the most unfortunate among us.
The definitive biography of one of America’s most controversial presidents locates Andrew Jackson’s fiery populism in his resentments–over society’s poor treatment of his wife, Rachel Donelson Robards; his failure to become president in 1825 despite winning the popular vote–and steadfast belief in the power of American democracy to provide a path to greatness for anyone determined enough to seek it. Jackson, a founder of the Democratic Party, was the first president to style himself as an outsider crusading against Washington, D.C.’s political class, and his bare-knuckled brawling on behalf of the common man won him a landslide reelection despite being censured by the Senate. Meacham’s entertaining and insightful narrative is essential reading in a day and age when our politics feels more divided than ever and populism is on the rise across the world.
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The Peabody Sisters
The leading lights of American Romanticism, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, take a backseat to three remarkable sisters in this fascinating group biography. Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody were influential figures in 19th century Boston, where Elizabeth ran a bookstore, hosted salons with the influential critic and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller, and opened the first English-language kindergarten in the United States. Mary was a children’s book author, educator, and the wife of Horace Mann. Sophia, who suffered from poor health most of her life, was a talented painter and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Megan Marshall spent 20 years creating the definitive account of three brilliant, fiercely independent women who were just as influential in shaping the thinking of their day as England’s Brontë sisters.
The inspiration for the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton, this landmark biography sets the record straight about one of America’s most misunderstood Founding Fathers. From the St. Croix jail cell where Hamilton’s mother was imprisoned for adultery to the Revolutionary War battlefields where he served as George Washington’s trusted aide-de-camp, Chernow charts the young immigrant’s unlikely rise with empathy and admiration. The subsequent rivalries with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Aaron Burr are given essential context, as are Hamilton’s indelible contributions to the structure of American government. The first Secretary of the Treasury emerges not as a greedy proponent of wealth and privilege but as a self-made striver whose abolitionist beliefs and staunch support for meritocracy were ahead of their time.
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Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” generated an enormous amount of conversation and scandal upon its debut in The New Yorker. Yet despite Jackson’s undeniable literary bona fides, she is often forgotten outside of Short Story 101 classes. Ruth Franklin’s powerhouse biography was one of the best books of 2016 and placed Jackson where she belongs: among the horror literati.