A look at the National Book Critics Circle nominees - Biography

Lyndon Johnson is proving as powerful in print as he was in office. Robert Caro's mammoth third volume about the consummate American politician so dominated the National Book Award ceremony in November that reporters in attendance were writing up their leads before the winner was announced.

Now, "Master of the Senate" has entered its next battlefield: The National Book Critics Circle. Caro has won twice before, but the 24 members of the NBCC board who make the final decision have the benefit of hindsight to help distinguish their choice from the glitzier National Book Award. It's difficult to gauge how that desire for variety will play into their freewheeling deliberations.

Keep an eye on "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?", the first biography of the musical Carter family, by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. While three of the nominees cover familiar biographical celebrities (Lyndon Johnson, Charles Darwin, Ben Franklin) and the fourth was already nominated for the National Book Award ("The Last American Man"), Zwonitzer's subject has the kind of fresh novelty that could sway committee members still reeling from reams of minutiae about US Senate procedure.

We'll run reviews of the nominees in the four other categories - fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and criticism - over the next four weeks. On Feb. 25, all the nominated authors are invited to read from their work at a public reception at the New School in New York. The winners will be announced the next day. - Ron Charles

CHARLES DARWIN, by Janet Browne, Knopf, $37.50

Darwin spent 20 years working out evidence to support his theory of natural selection, secure in the knowledge that his idea was too radical and the details too arcane for anyone else to have discovered. His closest scientific friends urged him to publish his work, but he dreaded the consequences: public condemnation likely to make Rome's reception of Galileo look friendly. Then one morning in 1858, he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, laying out the theory in words that could have been Darwin's own. With Wallace somewhere in the remote rain forest of southeast Asia - weeks away by the fastest steamers - no one would ever have known if Darwin had "lost" that manuscript. So opens the second book of Browne's riveting two-volume biography. In the entire range of intellectual history, it's doubtful there's a moment that tops the Darwin-Wallace collision for human drama. Over the course of these two volumes, we're immersed in the cozy world of Victorian science, that drew from the right schools and belonged to the same clubs. Along the way we come to intimately understand Darwin - a very unmodern man who brought modernity to science. (591 pp.) (Full review Sept. 26, 2001) By Diana Muir

MASTER OF THE SENATE: LYNDON JOHNSON, by Robert Caro, Knopf, $35

Legendary biographer Robert Caro has spent 25 years of his life chronicling Lyndon Baines Johnson's - and he hasn't even gotten to the vice presidency, presidency, and post-presidency yet. This third volume in Caro's award-winning series recounting more of Johnson's ruthlessness, which dominated the second volume. In every sphere of his life, Johnson gathered power humbly; once he had it, he exercised it brutally. But, somehow, as an authoritarian, Johnson made democracy work for the American citizenry. This volume also marks a return to what Caro terms the "bright thread" of Johnson's life: the public-policy changes he helped bring about during his two terms in the US Senate, especially the civil rights improvements. Caro also calls attention to Johnson's genius as a political organizer. Nobody, he argues, has ever wielded legislative power more skillfully - and his history of the Senate shows why. Before Johnson arrived, Caro says, the Senate was a cruel farce, whose deliberations, far from democratic, were governed by seniority. Though the previous two volumes are superb, a newcomer won't be lost by jumping into this painstakingly researched, beautifully written installment. Winner of the National Book Award in nonfiction. (1,167 pp.) (Full review May 2, 2001) By Steve Weinberg

THE LAST AMERICAN MAN, by Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking, $24.95

After graduating from high school in 1977, Eustace Conway spent 20 years in a tepee in the North Carolina mountains, hunting animals for food and dressing in their skins. Between extraordinary adventures - hiking the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail with few supplies, and riding his horse across the country in 103 days - Conway waged a personal crusade to convince Americans that they, too, could return to the land. Gilbert's "The Last American Man," draws on nearly a decade of conversations with Conway to render a masterly portrait of this buckskin-clad iconoclast. Along the way, she examines America's ongoing infatuation with the frontier, and its consequence for the nation's mythology of masculinity. But Gilbert is too good a writer to stop there: she dispels the Daniel Boone fantasy to reveal Eustace Conway as not a simple mountain man, but a contradictory character whose environmental evangelism drives him to a grueling, ironically modern schedule. Funny and smartly written, "The Last American Man" is the vivid campfire tale of a master storyteller. Eustace Conway's greatest good fortune may be not living close to nature, but having such a writer tell his story. Also nominated for the National Book Award. (271 pp.) (Full review May 9, 2002) By Heather Hewett

Benjamin Franklin, by Edmund Morgan, Yale University Press, $24.95

This lean biography is based on 46 volumes of Franklin's writings. It offers a quick but mostly uncritical account of his remarkable careers as a printer, scientist, diplomat, and principal architect of the American Republic. Readers see the turmoil of a man who loved both the British Empire and the rights of Americans. He clung to the hope that independence didn't have to mean a complete break - that separate societies with their own representatives could remain united to the king. But he also envisioned a future when America would become a "great country, populous and mighty," free of "any shackles that may be imposed on her." Unfortunately, Morgan's detailed descriptions of Franklin's machinations as a minister to England and France crowd out insights into his private life. Reflecting Franklin's own priorities, he devotes little space to family - including the wife Franklin left behind during his long service in Europe, and his son, a colonial governor who fled to England during the revolution. There are glimpses of Franklin's insatiable curiosity - whether about salt water crabs, how tea leaves settle, or electricity. But as Morgan suggests, those scientific inquiries - and perhaps his family too - always lost out to his greater purpose in life: public service. (314 pp.) By Seth Stern

Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? By Mark Zwonitzer, Simon & Schuster, $25

In the heart of the Depression, radio listeners across North America thought of the Carters as family: Sara had a mother's sweet alto; Maybelle lit a fire on the guitar, and AP's high bass strolled in and out of ballads and old hymns as if he had chores to do meantime. But off the air, these pioneers of modern folk, country, and bluegrass music were intensely private people, who left behind almost none of those paper clues on which biographies can rise. How much more of a triumph, then, is "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?", the first major biography of the Carter family. Drawing on the recollections of relatives, neighbors, listeners, and scholars, Mark Zwonitzer, with Charles Hirshberg, achieves an elegant story of a cast of characters more complex than their fans would believe, or their melodies suggest. The book chronicles the Carters' 18-year career from their childhoods through their unmaking, from Sara and AP's wedding to their painful divorce, from Maybelle's feisty beginnings to her designation as "the Queen Mother of Country Music." Along the way, we get a glimpse of how the family that modern artists from Johnny Cash to Lucinda Williams count as forebears wrote their haunting songs. (397 pp.) By Mary Wiltenburg

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