History is Always Being Reexamined, Opening the Door for Journalists to Go Long

By Chris Adams

John Farrell makes it sound so easy.

“A biography is 30 chapters – and each chapter is a Sunday magazine story,” said the author of three critically acclaimed biographies. He adds: “The easiest part is that the plot is already there.”

Farrell spent his career at The Boston Globe, The Denver Post and other papers and then turned to the art of biography. His 2017 “Richard Nixon: The Life” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

That work came after Farrell (website, Twitter) wrote two other biographies: “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned” and “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century.” He’s now working on a book about late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

In a session with National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows, Farrell talked about newspaper journalism and biographies – and about how closely they are related. He talked about how some of the nation’s preeminent biographers – David McCullough, Robert Caro, Evan Thomas, Walter Isaacson – started their careers in journalism. Journalists have become some of the nation’s best biographers precisely because of their journalism training.

Academic historians and biographers are more fixated on narrow topics and theory. Journalists, by contrast, like to tell stories – and that’s what readers want to read.

“What stands out is narrative,” he said of the books by McCullough, Caro and the others. “You can’t put the books down.”

While the structure might be simple, and the plot already there, that doesn’t mean the books come easy. Farrell said his books take about seven years, start to finish. It’s a lot of time in archives or libraries – or on computers looking through digitized historical documents.

The great figures in American history have, of course, all been the focus of numerous biographies. But there will always be another George Washington biography, another Abraham Lincoln biography. As American values change, its perspective on the past changes as well; think how attitudes toward the past changed after the civil rights movement. Beyond that, new information is always coming to light, as presidential papers get declassified, Oval Office tapes are released, and so on. Farrell was able to tap resources in ways his predecessors couldn’t.

“The entire history of the United States is going to be rewritten in the next 20 years,” Farrell told the fellows. “And it’ll be written by you guys.”

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