Two powerful biographies authored by Johns Hopkins University faculty members have been included in The Washington Post's "50 Notable Works of Nonfiction in 2017" list.
In Chester B. Himes: A Biography (Norton), Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Lawrence Jackson argues that Himes—who all but invented the black crime novel—wanted to come across as tougher than he felt after a childhood injury left him severely injured. Himes published his first short story, "To What Red Hell", in Esquire while serving a prison sentence. What followed was a storied writing career that would influence generations of urban noir fiction, films, and television shows. The breadth of context that Jackson brings to Himes is what makes the biography so necessary, a review in Johns Hopkins Magazine says.
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Jackson's meticulous research—in the three library archives that house Himes' papers, along with the papers and correspondences of people with whom he maintained at times fraught relationships, such as literary critic Sterling Brown, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, photographer and patron Carl Van Vechten, Richard Wright—sketches the most detailed and nuanced charting of Himes' early years and life immediately after he got out of jail. This time period, the middle part of the 20th century, overlapped with Jackson's research interests, and he began to see in Himes a model for thinking about contemporary African-American masculinity.
Also included on the Post list is Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (Knopf) by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. In her biography, Jamison crafts a history of mental illness powerfully residing in the mind of one of the pre-eminent poets of the 20th century. Jamison's writing, and the accompanying story of bipolar disorder, capture genius derailed then heroically regained in the wake of multiple hospitalizations, electroshock therapy, psychoanalysis, alcohol abuse fueled by mania, and inner discipline. Read more about Jamison's book in Johns Hopkins Magazine.
A book by Johns Hopkins alum Monica Hesse was also included on the Post list. American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land (Liverlight) explores a spate of 86 arsons on Virginia's Eastern Shore and the two lovers who set the fires. American Fire was reviewed in Johns Hopkins Magazine this fall, and author Monica Hesse gave an interview about the crimes.