Few of us have led lives so interesting they’d make the local news, let alone inspire entire biographies. And yet the Churchills, Jeffersons and Dostoevskys of the world drive writers into a sort of biographical frenzy, producing reams of pages that fill the nonfiction shelves. These recliner-worthy tomes condense lifetimes of research and are sure to captivate the serious reader in your family with chronicles of great artists, politicians and history-makers.
Robert Caro and Lyndon Johnson: 36 years; 3,410 pages (So Far)
Robert Caro‘s recent acclaimed bestseller, “The Passage of Power,” is not his longest book about Lyndon Johnson, nor is it the first. “Passage” is part of a mammoth, (hopefully) five-volume biography of John F. Kennedy’s successor called “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.” Caro started work on the book in 1976 soon after publishing his epic, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.” (At 1,336 pages, Caro was just warming up.) He planned to tackle LBJ’s life in three volumes, estimating that he’d spend six years on it. Now thirty years past that deadline, Caro is still hard at work. He’s got a long way to go: Volume four brings us only up to 1965, after Johnson’s greatest triumph, passing the Civil Rights Act, but before his biggest blemish, Vietnam.
William Manchester (and Paul Reid) and Winston Churchill: 29 years; 3,040 pages
At the height of his career, William Manchester was famous for his account of Kennedy’s last days, “The Death of a President.” Then he took on a hero across the pond, Winston Churchill, beginning in 1983 what would become a three-volume biography, “The Last Lion.” Ordinarily such a fluid writer that critics chided him for his verbosity, Manchester ran into an unprecedented problem partway through the third volume: writer’s block. That was followed by depression, a lot of whiskey and two strokes that curtailed his ability to write. A fan and friend of Manchester’s, Paul Reid, had been looking after the writer, who shocked Reid by proposing one day that Reid finish the last Churchill volume in his stead. Reid agreed, though it took him two years just to decipher Manchester’s multicolored notes. Readers have been undeterred by this unusual approach to publishing: Eight years after Manchester’s death, the final volume of his magnum opus is a major bestseller.
Taylor Branch and Martin Luther King, Jr.: 24 Years; 2,912 Pages
In 1982, Taylor Branch set out to write a narrative history of the Civil Rights era, centering on Martin Luther King, Jr. The author of four previous books, Branch expected to complete the project within three years. But King became a “wondrous obsession” for him. It took him six years to write “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. But he had a long way to go: Branch would expand his biography of MLK and his times into a trilogy, collectively called “America in the King Years,” which he wouldn’t complete until 2006.
Manning Marable and Malcolm X: 20 Years; 604 Pages
A scholar of black history, Manning Marable spent 20 years researching and writing the life of Malcolm X. What made Marable’s task as a biographer unique was that he was responding not only to a life, but also to a book. For years, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was the definitive work about the leader and activist. Not until Marable had anyone gone to such painstaking lengths to fill in the gaps and question the inconsistencies in Malcolm X’s story as he himself told it. Marable completed his work and died a week before “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” was published in 2011. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Leon Edel and Henry James: 23 Years; 2,163 Pages
In 1926, when Leon Edel was 18 years old, he became fascinated with the work of James Joyce and told a professor that he wanted to do a dissertation on the Irish writer. “Impossible,” he was told. “Ulysses” had been published only four years earlier and was mostly unavailable, and besides, Joyce was himself only 40. The professor directed Edel to the work of Henry James instead, who at least had been deceased for 10 years. After college, Edel went to Paris and hung around the fringes of Hemingway’s circle of expats and artists, where he met James’ friends (including Edith Wharton and George Bernard Shaw) and members of his family. But it wasn’t until the James family gave Edel access to a treasure trove of the author’s letters and diaries that Edel would begin his life’s work, a five-volume biography of James that would win a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Speaking about the art of biography with the Paris Review in 1985, Edel said, “It’s a little like falling in love. … You never know how long the affair or the infatuation will last.” But he also advised, “The love affair, however exhilarating, has to be terminated if a useful biography is to emerge.”
Michael S. Reynolds and Ernest Hemingway: 24 Years; 1,660 Pages
Often the task of a biographer is to find the human being beneath the layers of myth and legend that the culture has piled upon him or her. As with Manning Marable in writing about Malcolm X, that task can be more difficult when the myth is self-created. Ernest Hemingway didn’t go so far as to write an autobiography, but he didn’t discourage the belief, held by many, that the rugged, guts-and-glory heroics of some of his novels like “A Farewell to Arms” were based on his own exploits. Michael S. Reynolds set out to see if he could separate the man from the myth, and his work spun out into a landmark five-volume biography. Reynolds’ great discovery, as he told the Raleigh, N.C., News and Observer in 1997, was that Hemingway’s self-created mystique–“that he wasn’t an intellectual, he didn’t read books, that he always wrote about his own life and that the main character was a thinly veiled version of himself”–was more fiction than fact.
Joseph Frank and Fyodor Dostoevsky: 56 Years; 3,504 Pages
Joseph Frank may have later regretted opening the preface of his book, “Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849,” with the following: “The present volume is the first of a series devoted to the life and works of Dostoevsky. As presently planned, it will be composed of four volumes. … A complete version of the entire work already exists in draft, and I hope to be able to publish the remainder–other obligations permitting–within a reasonable number of years.” Having already spent 20 years researching Dostoevsky’s life, Frank would spend the next 36 completing his task, with four more books about the author. Thankfully, for the busy reader, the five volumes of this award-winning biography have been compressed into one, “Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time.” (At 984 pages, it’s practically travel-sized).
Dumas Malone and Thomas Jefferson: 51 Years; 3,349 Pages
In 1922, early in his career, historian Dumas Malone took a teaching position at the University of Virginia, where he “fell in love with Jefferson’s ‘academical village’ at first sight.” In the early ’30s he begun work on a modest, 15,000-word biography of the third U.S. president, which would later be published as “Thomas Jefferson: a Brief Biography.” Malone wasn’t done, though, and his days of brevity were over. He embarked on a massive, six-volume biography collectively called “Jefferson and His Time,” the final volume of which appeared in 1981, when he was 89 years old. Malone had become so attached to his subject that some admirers called him “Jefferson reincarnate.”
Carl Sandburg and Abraham Lincoln: 50 Years; 928 Pages
Carl Sandburg is one of the rare authors to have won a Pulitzer Prize in two very different categories: poetry and biography. Known principally as a poet, Carl Sandburg had another lifelong obsession in Abraham Lincoln. Born in Galesburg, Ill., 20 years after Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas there in 1858, Sandburg grew up listening to old-timers who’d known the legendary leader. Once he decided to write about him, Sandburg spent 20 years researching the life and times of Lincoln and another 30 writing a six-volume biography, now available in a single volume, “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years.”
Blanche Wiesen Cook and Eleanor Roosevelt: 31 Years; 1,296 Pages (and Counting)
Blanche Wiesen Cook began her landmark–and still unfinished–biography of Eleanor Roosevelt in the early 1980. By the time the second volume, “Eleanor Roosevelt: The Defining Years, 1933-1938” came out in 1999, Cook was pleased to see that Hillary Clinton had taken the earlier First Lady as a model. (Though Hilary Clinton may not have gone as far as Eleanor Roosevelt in directly confronting her husband in office. As Cook noted in an interview with PBS‘s “American Experience,” “By 1938, Eleanor Roosevelt was so angry at FDR’s policies, she writes a book called ‘This Troubled World.’ What other First Lady in U.S. history has ever written a book to criticize her husband’s policies?”) By comparison, Robert Caro has it easy: He only has seven more years of Lyndon Johnson’s life to cover. Cook has 24 years to go in her “Life” of Eleanor Roosevelt, but she has a decade’s head start. One thing is for sure, judging from these biographers’ sense of pacing: It isn’t a race.