As many of you know, I love the genre of biography just a bit more than I do any other genre – at its best, it carries the heft of history, the electric charge of fiction, and the propulsive fascination of mystery (not to mention the bizarre mating-rituals of memoirs). 2012 saw a wet many bad biographies, about two dozen really good ones – and these ten great ones:
10. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert Caro – 112-year-old Caro’s destined-to-be-unfinished multi-volume biography of that foul-minded malefactor Lyndon Johnson reaches its climax in this engrossing (and just grossing) book, the first to deal with Johnson’s unearned presidency, and Caro’s narrative powers remain as strong as ever, despite being misemployed in creating such an enduring monument to such an avaricious galoot.
9. Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame by Michael Hirst
8. John Keats by Nicholas Roe – Biographers started swarming around Keats even before his tiny little body was cold. Nevertheless, archives have been recalcitrant, and even when an author has marshalled all the facts, they often fail to sound anything but foolish about the central reason why we study Keats: all those incredible poems. Roe excels at the archives and the art – 21st Century Keats scholars will have to work very hard to top this book.
7. Ben Johnson: A Life by Ian Donaldson
6. The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan by Timothy Stanley – It’s often been observed (including, by implication, by me, in #s 10, 4, & 2) that a life can be great even if its subject isn’t particularly so – and that idea is surely tested by Stanley’s great, rippingly readable biography of permanently unelectable pig-eyed crypto-fascist Pat Buchanan. The book is a great work of political biography, and, amazingly, quite fair. You might not want to meet the man (and you shouldn’t ever, ever consider voting for him), but you’ll love reading this book about him.
5. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona McCarthy
4. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham – It’s been a great year for U.S. presidential biographies, perhaps in karmic compensation for last year’s blighted crop of criminally callous White House memoirs. Meacham, who previously wrote a very good biography of a very bad president, now writes a flat-out excellent biography of another very bad president, the equivocating, pretentious, slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. This is the single best life of a U.S. President written in 2012.
3. Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance by Jean Zimmerman
2. Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith – Eisenhower too has had a banner year for thoughtful re-evaluations, and Smith’s is the longest and the best, doing a strenuous job of reclaiming the somnolent father-figure of the 1950s as a canny geopolitical strategist and a man of peace. None of these Ike biographies manages to convince you of this preposterous premise for longer than five minutes, but this one is by far the best effort.
1. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra – Anyone who’s looked at the utterly haunting memorial to Clover Adams done by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Rock Creek Cemetery will reflexively pause at the mention of her name. Readers of The Education of Henry Adams by her husband will be forever touched by the yawning gap of silence her death imposes right in the middle of the book. In many ways, we no more known how to account for her, for the comet-like way she blazed across her own life, but her elusiveness continually feels important. She’s had biographies before, but none so heartfelt and spirited as Natalie Dykstra’s, the best biography of 2012.