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Making their mark in history

Author Sean Wilentz will speak on the legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan on Thursday, Feb. 6. (COLUMBIA RECORDS)

One of the brightest stars in Virginia’s cultural firmament is about to shine.

The University of Mary Washington’s Chappell “Great Lives” series kicks off its 2014 season next Thursday, Jan. 16, with a new author’s talk on that dastardly fellow, John Wilkes Booth. Held on intermittent Tuesdays and Thursdays until late April, Great Lives presentations are given in George Washington Hall’s Dodd Auditorium.

The lecture by David O. Stewart, author of “The Lincoln Deception,” ramps up another spirited round of Great Lives biographical encounters with the famous and fascinating.

Stewart, a novelist, should have a fresh take on President Lincoln’s assassin, who eluded his pursuers in southern Maryland only to meet his end on a farm near Port Royal. It will be Stewart’s second Great Lives appearance; he spoke earlier about Vice President Aaron Burr, subject of his biography.

And true to form, the lectures will cover the waterfront with their diverse personalities and time periods.

“We’ll have variety in lots of ways,” Great Lives co-creator William B. Crawley said of 2014’s lineup. “Chronologically, the series will stretch from Spartacus and Augustus in the ancient period all the way up to Bob Dylan and Jim Henson.”

But variety comes in the accomplishments of the biographers’ subjects, too, Dr. Crawley said.

“They’re not just outstanding political or military figures; they excel in music and the performing arts, or sports—like Jim

Thorpe—or as folk heroes like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” he said. “There’s Mata Hari, a spy, Henry Ward Beecher, an abolitionist preacher, writers like Scott Fitzgerald and business figures like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan.”

Crawley always seeks eminent writers and scholars, experts in their fields.

“This year is no exception,” he said. “We’ll have two Pulitzer Prize winners—David Garrow, on Martin Luther King Jr., and Debby Applegate, on Henry Ward Beecher. And the author of the Dylan book, Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, is one of the first-rate cultural historians in America today. All of these authors are people at the absolute top end of their particular subjects.”

Being asked which Great Lives biographies most intrigue him, Crawley said, is like asking a parent to name his or her favorite child.

But eventually, he shared a few subjects he especially looks forward to:

Muppets creator Jim Henson: “Brian Jay Jones’ book will be the standard from now on,” he said. “It is such a complete work, so exhaustive in its coverage, that I doubt it will ever need to be substantially revised.”

Simon Bolivar: “He’s certainly one of the major figures in Western history, as the liberator of Latin America, yet many Americans know relatively little about him.” Author Marie Arana is former editor of The Washington Post’s Book World and wife of its No. 1 reviewer, Jonathan Yardley.

Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, as described by their youngest child, Reeve Lindbergh: “At one point, her and her siblings’ father was the most famous man in the world—certainly he was so after his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. I’m sure that will be a highlight.”

A couple of 2014’s selections are multiple biographies, Crawley noted.

Denise Kiernan’s “Women of the Manhattan Project” tells of the young women, many just out of high school, who the U.S. government recruited to work in the top-secret atomic laboratories of Oak Ridge, Tenn.

And H.W. Brands of the University of Texas at Austin, a very prolific historian said to be an outstanding speaker, will tackle Gilded Age moguls Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan.

A perennial Great Lives favorite, English author Jeremy Black, will return to discuss Henry VIII, the Tudor monarch famed for his six wives and his break with the papacy.

Great Lives is one of “very few” integrated efforts in the nation among biographical programs, said Brian Jay Jones, vice president of the Biographers International Organization, a group for authors, producers and lovers of the genre.

“It’s not just a place that people come to speak. It’s not just a course that’s taught. It does it all,” he said. “And, because you have people like John Chappell that endow it ... it’s free to the public.”

Increasingly, writers ask to speak at UMW, said Jones, who wrote “Jim Henson: The Biography,” the series’ Jan. 28 lecture.

“It’s becoming one of those programs that biographers really seek out, really want to come to and talk to. It’s becoming a distinguished venue,” he said. “People like to talk at the Levy Center [for Biography] in New York, and this one is right up there now. This is a place people want to go, because they know that they take it so seriously.”

Crawley, who dreamed up the series 11 years ago with former UMW colleague Carter Hudgins, is proud of their brainchild. “It is, I think, the largest town–gown program we have to bring together our community and the university,” he said.

But it couldn’t happen without continued backing from area residents; state support doesn’t cover the cost of authors’ travel and honorariums, he stressed.

“The series is funded almost completely with private donations, starting with John Chappell of Philadelphia,” Crawley said. “We are very, very fortunate to have that kind of support from the local community, so that we can keep these lectures open to the public free of charge.”


Great Lives 2014:


Great Lives videos:

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029



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