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Writing On The Lives Of Others


We turn now to the world of books, particularly biographies. You may not know the name Arnold Rampersad, but the people whose stories he's told changed the course of American history in letters, sports and culture. He is the author of prize winning biographies of poet Langston Hughes, baseball great Jackie Robinson, scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and tennis great Arthur Ashe.

Arnold Rampersad is also professor emeritus of the humanities at Stanford University and now to a shelf full of books and honors he can add a lifetime achievement prize. It comes from the Anisfield Book Awards, which are believed to be the only American book prize focusing on works that address race and diversity. He will receive the honor on Thursday in Cleveland, but he was kind enough to join us now.

Welcome. Congratulations. Thank you for joining us.

ARNOLD RAMPERSAD: Well, thank you very much.

MARTIN: You certainly haven't chosen any topics that are small. I mean, you know, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison. Is it ever intimidating to write about...


MARTIN: ...writers?

RAMPERSAD: Well, I think it is always intimidating to write about anyone's life, especially if I'm determined to write a full story from beginning to end. I think any biographer who isn't initially intimidated by his or her subject is probably inviting trouble.

MARTIN: You're perhaps best known for "The Life of Langston Hughes." That's a two volume biography of the poet. What's the most intriguing thing that you discovered about him in the course of writing those books that many people who think they know him well did not know? And is there something everyone should know?

RAMPERSAD: Well, those are difficult questions. When I wrote about Langston Hughes, he was not that very well known across the country, let's say. He's much better known now. I think that what impressed me most about him was his extraordinary devotion to the business of being a poet, but also - and a writer, in general, but also, his devotion to African-American culture and to America as a whole. I think that was the defining element of his life. His absolute dedication to writing, to crafting poems and stories about the people he knew best.

MARTIN: You also wrote "The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois," the noted black scholar, a civil rights pioneer. You published that book in the mid-1970s. You know, so much has happened since then in the - I don't know if you like this term - post-civil rights era. And I just wondered, is there anything that you thought or any conclusion you came to then that you might like to revisit, given all that's happened since?

RAMPERSAD: Well, perhaps not. I don't know. My aim in that book was to correct what I saw as a kind of misperception of Du Bois in scholarly and critical books on him. Often, he was treated at that time as a kind of civil rights leader who had no deeper dimension to him, whereas when I read "The Souls of Black Folk," which he published in 1903, I was so tremendously moved, my life was really changed by the book. I thought I saw in him a tremendous artistry and a prophetic quality and I think that that aspect remains a valuable resource for all of us interested in American culture.

MARTIN: Our guest is professor and writer Arnold Rampersad. He is the winner of this year's Lifetime Achievement Honor from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. We're talking about his tremendous body of work, particularly, his noted biographies.

And then, in addition to these huge, you know, literary figures you've written or co-authored, there was the biography of Jackie Robinson, who I think most people know broke the color barrier in baseball. The achievement made him a national figure, you know, written about by so many people who's still, really - I mean, even - you know, he's the subject of children's books today.

And, you know, when you're writing the story of somebody who everybody thinks they know already, how do you approach something like that?

RAMPERSAD: Well, in the case of Jackie Robinson, one thing I was determined to do in setting out was to tell the full story of his life, not simply Robinson as a baseball figure or as a person who broke a civil rights barrier. His life was full. His life was rich. It had historical residences before he started playing baseball in the Major Leagues and he continued after he left baseball in 1957 to try to make a name for himself or rather to bring the glory that he had achieved on the baseball field into areas, such as business, especially business as it related to minorities and in politics in his support of people like Nelson Rockefeller and other figures.

MARTIN: And, of course, you worked with tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who died of AIDS in 1993. He died the same year that the book was published and you were working with him when he was ill and I - you know, I have to ask what - you know, what that was like and to, you know, work with Arthur Ashe, especially in such a delicate time in his life, but you're still a scholar and you want to tell the full story. I just - I'm interested in your experience there.

RAMPERSAD: Well, Arthur Ashe called me out of the blue - I'd met him once before - and asked me if I would write a book with him. I mean, we both sensed or knew that it would be his last book because he was already in the middle of full blown AIDS by that time and the world knew about it. And it was a humbling experience working with him. He was the embodiment of heroism, really. He never complained. He was always optimistic. It was heartbreaking and he died just toward the very, very end of the process of writing the book and, of course, that was a sad moment for all of us who admired him.

MARTIN: You know, you mentioned several times the desire, the importance of telling the whole story. I don't know if you share this view. I'd like to advance the idea that there is still tension in your audience, but I would say particularly on African-Americans about how best to tell the whole story. Does that ever enter into your mind about what people want to think of their leaders and these important figures as opposed to what your research suggests is true? And how do you - what do you say to people who say, I don't think we should be putting that out there. We - you know, people should have this image intact.

RAMPERSAD: Well, I certainly have encountered that problem throughout my entire career. People are always saying - certain people and, really, in quite considerable number, really, that certain things should not be exposed to the world, that the emphasis should be put on the positive, especially when there is a minority person involved in the center of the portrait being painted.

My obligation is really to the audience, who I think wants to know the full story, the truth insofar as any biographer can tell the truth. I started out with a commitment to revealing everything that was significant about my subject, whether it was flattering or not, and I've continued to this day using that as a yardstick. Anything that's significant, whether it's pro or con, has to be brought forward.

And, usually, the subject is so full of accomplishment, has done so much that he's able to rise above whatever setbacks, as it were, he took or encountered.

MARTIN: Do you - we have to talk about you for a minute. You're the author or editor of more than a dozen books. What got you started on this path? What made you choose this as your life's work?

RAMPERSAD: Well, I suppose it grew upon me. I can't say that I decided at the very beginning of my career, I want to be a biographer. I know that, in a sense, I was interested in narrative and not in fiction because I don't write fiction, but in telling stories and developing literary skills that would lead life stories to be compellingly told. And I've found that when I turned to biography or stumbled into the field, that I was most satisfied with myself as a scholar and then, eventually, I dedicated myself to it.

MARTIN: Is there anyone whom you would love to profile that you have not yet done?

RAMPERSAD: I think some of them are quite obvious, whether they're celebrities, people like Sidney Poitier or so or whether they are writers, Toni Morrison, of course, being prominent among them. I mean, those are figures, I think, who will get the rich biographies they deserve, if not from me, then certainly from someone else.

MARTIN: Arnold Rampersad is the winner of this year's Lifetime Achievement Honor from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. He's professor emeritus of the humanities at Stanford University, the author or editor of more than a dozen books and he was kind enough to join us from the studios of Stanford University. Professor Rampersad, thank you so much for speaking with us and congratulations once again.

RAMPERSAD: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.