Whether novice or experienced, biographers have a great resource in Biographers International Organization. It was founded five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support.
I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. This year’s, held in Boston in May, was the best yet. Three colleagues from my book-writing group were also there. And on a research jaunt to the Boston Public Library I found — buried in an archive — a very important letter by Eliza Scidmore.
It’s seldom that a conference program doesn’t have a couple of stinkers. But according to all accounts, this year’s lineup was outstanding. Some highlights for me:
• I attended panels on writing about place, sustaining tension in biography, agents and editors, and finding the right balance in content. Paul Fisher, a Wellesley prof and expert on Henry James, offered thought-provoking points on different contexts of “place.” I found his comments intriguing because place is central in Eliza Scidmore’s story, given her extensive travels.
• Stacy Schiff, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cleopatra: A Life and other biographies, gave a luncheon address that left everyone stunned by her erudition.
• I enjoyed sitting at lunch with Justin Martin, whose biography of Frederick Law Olmsted I read after meeting Justin at the 2011 BIO conference in Washington. Justin has a new book coming out this fall that I plan to buy, on Walt Whitman and his bohemian pals.
• Also enjoyed meeting, in the buffet line, William Souder. He wrote a definitive biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore, which I gave my husband, Bruce, for Christmas. Bruce grew up in the house next door to Carson, in Silver Spring, Md. He and his brother were photographed with her in the woods and appeared in Life magazine. Bill Souter knew the photo I meant.
As for that letter by Eliza Scidmore.
A big question I struggled to answer for two years is when Eliza first went to Japan. Most sources say 1885. But some sources in Japan gave 1884 as the date. It’s a critical point because it affects when Eliza first saw cherry trees in bloom.
Based on my available evidence, I’d decided the 1885 date was most likely. The letter I found in Boston confirmed I was right. While I was checking some leads in the library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, the letter by Eliza turned up in the files of another journalist!
It was quite a serendipitous find because it was the earliest letter by Scidmore that I’ve found. Most of her personal papers were destroyed — at her directive — after her death.