When we think of great biographies, we imagine a well-written, readable book either filled with new ideas about a person whose reputation has calcified or invested in bringing a forgotten figure's life to the foreground.
2020, despite its many faults, did not lack for books that achieved these goals. Our favorite biographies of the year include portraits of World War II resistors, one of America's first celebrities, now forgotten by history, icons of ancient history, and more.
You Never Forget Your First
As the father of our nation, there is no shortage of George Washington books. Thankfully, Alexis Coe skillfully brings new insight and humor to the turgid reputation of the Commander-in-Chief. Even if you’re deeply familiar with Washington’s life and revolutionary America, this fresh biography will leave you with new facts and thoughts to chew over.
His Truth Is Marching On
When John Lewis passed away in July, a nation mourned. One of few leaders of the Civil Rights era to age into an era which accepted him more wholly, Lewis was an icon and a figure many admired deeply. This biography, published just over a month after his death, had been in progress well before the summer—Lewis even contributed an afterword to this moving recollection of a long life, well and morally lived. Look beyond the burnished reputation to begin to understand the man himself with this work from Jon Meacham.
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The influx of true crime literary nonfiction is no new trend. But books like Yellow Bird remind us why these titles are so beloved. Murdoch blends investigation, memoir, biography, and history into one utterly compelling work. After serving a drug sentence, Lissa Yellow Bird emerged into a wildly changed world. Newly sober, separated from her children, and looking for a purpose, she stumbled across the unsolved disappearance of Kristopher Clarke. Soon, Yellow Bird found herself at the center of crimes that involved hundreds of people and the oil companies that were making wealth off their backs. You won’t be able to put this compelling read down.
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Although the Jewish pogrom of the Holocaust was its most guiding goal and its most horrifying outcome, members of other “undesirable” groups were in deep danger as well. LGBTQ people, artists, communists, the Roma, and people with disabilities were all targeted as well. Paper Bullets tells the story of two artists who used their talents to fight against the Nazis. In many ways, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe were the Nazis’ worst nightmares: lesbian, half-Jewish, communist, crossing-dressing artists who took a stand. This fascinating tale sheds new light on World War II.
The Zealot and the Emancipator
It’s been quite a year for John Brown portrayals. In this dual biography, beloved historian H.W. Brands brings clarity to the life of John Brown, abolitionist activist who didn’t fear using violence to make his point, while further illuminating the man and politician behind one of America’s most beloved presidents. This comparison allows Brands to show how wildly differently abolitionists regarded the Black people who were enslaved in the 19th century—some, like Brown, deeply believed that Black people were equal to white, while others like Lincoln believed them inferior but still deserving of freedom. Your concept of the antebellum and Civil War eras will be reshaped by this masterpiece.
Philip and Alexander
2020 was a year for exceptional dual biographies. In this fascinating biography, travel back to ancient history to meet Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II of Macedon. Although Alexander is the one remembered primarily by popular history, Goldsworthy makes the argument that without Philip’s groundwork, Alexander would not have been able to build one of ancient history’s greatest empires.
The Saddest Words
If you’ve read any Faulkner, you know that race, the South, and class are some of the most rich fields he harvested. But with a modern eye, much of Faulkner’s understanding of race is underwhelming at best. Gorra combines biography and literary criticism to reveal the author and his—and our—culture in the 20th century. The romance of the “lost Cause” lingers on, even against concerted historical efforts and modern hindsight.
The Ottoman Empire was one of history’s longest-lasting and strongest world powers—yet it is frequently neglected in history. This enthralling biography brings one of its most fascinating figures to the foreground. Sultan Selim, called by his people “God’s Shadow on Earth”, was not meant to rule. Yet with the help of his mother, an ambitious and talented low-ranking wife of Bayezid II, Selim became Sultan in 1512. His rule only lasted eight years, yet it set the empire in a new direction in the Middle East. His hugely influential rule is explored expertly by Alan Mikhail.
The title of first celebrity is an oft-contested one. But there can be no doubt that Charlotte Cushman was hugely famous and influential in 19th-century America. Compatriot to the likes of Lousia May Alcott, Walt Whitman, and the Booth brothers, Cushman was a remarkable actress whose Shakespeare renditions helped the Bard reach new audiences across America, centuries after his death. This stunning biography brings a forgotten woman back to life while exploring one of America’s most fascinating eras.
An Unconventional Wife
This “sparkling” biography (published in the U.K. in 2019, but making its way to American shores in 2020) captures the life of Julia Sorell Arnold, mother of novelist Mary Ward, sister-in-law of literary critic Matthew Arnold, and grandmother of Aldous and Julian Huxley. Arnold’s life was not only filled with revolutionary thinkers and writers—it was also the site of a religious rift that mirrored England’s rift at large. Julia, a devout Protestant who frankly feared Catholicism, suddenly found herself with a Catholic husband when Thomas converted six years after their marriage. This accomplished book casts the Arnolds’ marriage as a microcosm for many of the cultural and technological advancements of their era, highlighting both an unusual woman and a tumultuous period of history.
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The Other Madisons
Thomas Jefferson’s descendants through Sally Hemmings are the frequent topic of discussion, but James Madison’s own Black family is rarely mentioned. In this eye-opening family biography, Bettye Kearse investigates her own family lore to discover the truth behind the claim to presidential ancestry. According to oral tradition, Kearse is an eighth-generation descendant of President Madison. She ventures into historical record to attempt to discover whether Coreen, half-sister of Madison’s wife, Dolley, was actually impregnated by Madison himself. This touching biography explores U.S. history through the “other Madisons”, creating a new view of American history through their eyes.
An Unladylike Profession
In 2017, Chris Dubbs wrote a book covering the work of journalists in World War I—but neglected to mention the work of any of the talented and courageous women who covered the war. Iconic writers like Nellie Bly, Edith Wharton, and Mary Roberts Rinehart were asked to report both on the war’s effect on the homefront as well as battlegrounds across the world. Discover new insight into the often-neglected First World War.
The Price of Peace
Even if you know nothing about economics, you’ve almost certainly heard of Keynesian economics. His theory that government action was sometimes necessary to stabilize the inequity between demand and supply were particularly leaned upon during the 2008 financial crisis. In this humane book, Carter offers a full picture of an idealist who dreamed of a world that was fairer to all—and imagined the ways to make that possible.