1957 was a banner year for biographers. Of the eighteen books honored with National Book Awards for non-fiction, nine volumes told the tale of lives lived in dramatic and historic ways.
American readers were interested in leaders. United States Presidents and Senators, and one English King were profiled in six books. Science was also a topic of interest. Two multi-talented men – a physicist and a naturalist – penned autobiographies. Finally, the only female biographer memorialized the only female subject – a nun.
The Presidents? Franklin D. Roosevelt – who the public still revered – two volumes. John Quincy Adams – one volume. The Senators – one volume exclusively dedicated to Thomas Hart Benton, and another volume covering a selection of eight iconoclastic legislators who defied their parties in memorable ways (including then-Senator John Quincy Adams and Thomas Hart Benton). The King? The embattled, possibly deformed “Son of York” – Richard III.
Physicist Arthur H. Compton recounted his contribution to the Manhattan Project. Naturalist Edwin W. Teale took readers on a cross-country autumn jaunt.
And Kathryn Hulme shared the early experiences of Belgian-born Sister Luke, still alive at the time The Nun’s Story was published. Hulme met Sister Xaverine (Marie Louise Habets’ real religious name) when they were both serving in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration after World War II. Sister Luke’s story was also made into a 1959 popular movie, starring Audrey Hepburn.
Americans were not only interested in leaders as subjects of biography, they were also interested in leaders as biographers. Then-Senator and future President John F. Kennedy penned the senatorial collection, Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer prize for biography in 1957. Profiles in Courage is also one of only two awarded volumes still in print. Professor Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III (still considered the academic standard biography) is the other.
The list of award finalists (in alphabetical order by author):
- John Quincy Adams and the Union, by Samuel F. Bemis
- Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, by James MacGregor Burns
- Old Bullion Benton, by William Chambers
- The Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative, by Arthur H. Compton
- Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph, by Frank Freidel
- The Nun’s Story, by Kathryn Hulme
- Richard III, by Paul Murray Kendall
- Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy
- Autumn Across America, by Edwin W. Teale
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