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James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman completes his two-volume biography (Frank: The Voice was volume one) of the man widely regarded as the great interpreter of American popular song. While Sinatra has already inspired a library of books, no one else has succeeded as well as Kaplan in teasing out the complicated relationship between the singer’s life and art. Reached by phone in New York, Kaplan was happy to discuss the results of his ten-year effort to document a public life that stretched across more than six decades. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RA: Reading Sinatra: The Chairman, a quote of Joni Mitchell’s about David Geffen kept springing into my head, which is: “He’d have to spend a lot less time being generous if he spent a little being fair.” Maybe in Sinatra’s case, the word “fair” should be changed to “sensitive to other people,” or “reasonable.” I don’t know what word you want to put there, but could you explain the relationship between his incredibly legendary generosity and the sort of difficulty he could have in treating people around him well? More… “Under Our Skin”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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A. David Moody recently completed his magisterial three-volume biography of Ezra Pound, and after roughly 2000 pages, it’s perhaps understandable that Stockholm syndrome might be playing a part in his judgements. It’s the most charitable explanation for the sheer persistent drumbeat of exculpatory lies he tells about his subject all throughout the 600 pages of Ezra Pound: Poet — Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972. There is, for example, no entry in the index to this third volume for “treason” — only “alleged treason.” And of Pound’s actions while living in Mussolini’s Italy, Moody grudgingly admits only that they “led inevitably to his being perceived as a traitor and a Fascist, when it truth he was neither.” More… “Still a Monster”

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.
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Charles E. Merrill, founder (with his friend Edmund C. Lynch) of the famous brokerage firm, probably never read this comment by President John Adams: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Engaged in “Commerce,” Charles Merrill might have expected his son to follow suit, but, when young Jamie said he wanted to be a poet, his father, according to sound investment practice, sent a sheaf of poems to literary experts for an opinion. Assured that this aspirant had talent, the senior Merrill, in good John Adams fashion, abandoned any opposition and supported his son’s artistic ambitions. With that talent and a very large fortune in hand, James Merrill went on to become one of the most famous poets of his time. He briefly held a desk job in the Army, and several times accepted to teach college poetry-writing courses, but otherwise never took any salaried work. His bank account gave him unlimited access to things that can feed literary composition: education, travel, theatre, books, music, art, porcelain, and the company of other established artists. Someone could write a Ph.D. thesis on the role that inherited wealth has played in the history of American poetry. James Russell Lowell, Amy Lowell, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, James Laughlin, Isabella Gardner, Frederick Seidel, and Harry Matthews all, with varying artistic results, benefited from it. As did James Merrill. Not only does money talk, it also sometimes writes poetry.
More… “Make Song of Them”

Alfred Corn’s most recent volume of poems is Unions. Last year his second novel, titled Miranda’s Book appeared with Eyewear in the U.K.
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The other week I popped into an outlet of major retail bookstore chain just to use the restroom. I walked out with Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts and Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man — biographies of Nathanael West (and Eileen McKinney) and Donald Barthelme respectively. That’s me down $52. In my bag, as my commute read, I already had Misfit, Jonathan Yardley’s bio of Frederick Exley. That morning I’d just returned to the library Literary Life, the second and very gossipy volume of Larry McMurtry’s memoirs. I don’t even read McMurtry, though I did see most of The Last Picture Show and the episode of Lonesome Dove that featured a turn by pro wrestler Bret Hart. Have I mentioned having just returned from Florida? Chester Himes’ My Life of Absurdity was my airplane book. I stuck with it and was greatly rewarded despite the line “For I fell madly in love with her… More…

 

Kathryn Hughes recently wrote in the Guardian about biography overkill. For a while, the genre was so popular with successes like David McCullough’s John Adams that even the most insignificant of figures — heck, even the sisters of the most insignificant figures — were getting their own books. Every obvious choice for biography, from the founding fathers to the great writers and artists, has multiple volumes devoted to revealing every intimate detail of their lives. In “The Death of Life Writing,” Hughes explains:

The least imaginative response to this lack of good new subjects is simply to go back to the big lives and do them over — and over — again. You can justify this by an appeal to the idea that each decade (actually, every four years might be nearer) needs its own Dickens or Eleanor… More…