The best group biographies

Ruth Brandon Author Of Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945
By Ruth Brandon

Who am I?

I love writing group biographies (I‘ve written four and my next book, Spellbound by Marcel: Duchamp, Love, and Art, will be another). I enjoy the intellectual scope they offer, the way they let you explore a world. I’m less interested in the details of individual lives than in the opportunity biography offers to explore social history, and group biography is particularly suited to that. They’re not easy to do, it’s no good putting down just one damn life after another, but I enjoy the challenge of finding the shape that will let me fit everyone’s personalities and ideas into a coherent story. 

I wrote...

Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945

By Ruth Brandon,

Book cover of Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945

What is my book about?

Surrealism brings certain visual images to mind: Magritte’s rain of bowler-hatted men, Salvador Dali’s waxed mustaches, and soft watches. But Surrealism began among poets whose aim was to create a political and artistic revolution combining the visions of Freud, Marx, and Sade, in which a horror like World War 1 could never recur.

The movement’s leader was André Breton, and the story of Surrealism is really about what was going on inside Breton’s head at any given time. A man of the utmost gravity – indeed, almost totally without humour – his movement was full of jokes. Irresistibly charming, he was also rigid, bullying, humourless and unforgiving. Passionate about freedom, both personal and artistic, he was totalitarian in his impulses, a dictator in the age of dictators. What was the secret of his charisma? And can these two impulses – to freedom and to total control – possibly be reconciled? 

The books I picked & why

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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

By Louis Menand,

Book cover of The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Why this book?

The Metaphysical Club is about the Pragmatist philosophers: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. This sounds forbidding, but it’s anything but. Group biography shows how and why particular ideas occur to particular people at a particular moment, and this is a brilliant example of it.

The Lunar Men: A Story of Science, Art, Invention and Passion

By Jenny Uglow,

Book cover of The Lunar Men: A Story of Science, Art, Invention and Passion

Why this book?

Birmingham’s Lunar Society’s members, among them James Watt who invented steam engines, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, Josiah Wedgwood, potter and visionary, met to dine on nights of a full moon (because then you could see to ride back). Birmingham in the 18th century was full of new ideas and the wealth they produced, and this sparkling book reflects its excitement.

A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists

By Rachel Cohen,

Book cover of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists

Why this book?

Cohen spent a year driving through America accompanied only by two crates of books. She realised, reading them, how many of their authors had met, more or less significantly, one another, from Mark Twain and Henry James to James Baldwin and Elizabeth Bishop. The result was this daisy-chain book. It’s fascinating, illuminating, and utterly charming.

The Group

By Mary McCarthy,

Book cover of The Group

Why this book?

This is about a group of young women dealing with sex, contraception, powerlessness, and the conflicting demands of family and work. It appeared in 1963, was set in 1933, and was scandalously frank. But women’s lives and problems have not changed. Candace Bushnell, advised by her editor to write a modern version of it, produced Sex and the City. Need one say more?

Brief Lives - Volume I

By John Aubrey,

Book cover of Brief Lives - Volume I

Why this book?

John Aubrey’s gossipy Lives allow us to glimpse the unofficial side of his famous contemporaries and near-contemporaries, among them Thomas Hobbes (whom he knew), Shakespeare (who died ten years before he was born), Sir Walter Raleigh, and many others. You can dip in and out, and if you haven’t read them, this is a treat in store.

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