2 biographers to discuss their art Award-winning writers Lewis and Gray to speak at HCC

October 29, 1995|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Horse racing and baseball haven't seen triple crowns for some time, but literature devotees will have a chance to see a writing equivalent today in Columbia.

David Levering Lewis, who won the 1994 Bancroft, Parkman and Pulitzer prizes, will share the stage this afternoon with author Francine du Plessix Gray at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre. The event is presented by the 200-member Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo).

Dr. Lewis was honored last year for "W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race," his 735-page first volume on the civil rights leader who was born three years after the end of the Civil War and whose death in Ghana was announced during the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. The final volume is due next year.

Ms. Gray's most recent work is her first biography, "Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet, Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse," published last year. Colet was a 19th-century writer and a model for Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary."

Ms. Gray has won her share of literary awards, too -- for a Vanity Fair series on Nazi Klaus Barbie and the French Resistance, and for "Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism," which profiled the Catonsville Nine anti-war activists and for which she won the 1970 National Catholic Book Council award.

Both authors will discuss the art of biography in a symposium moderated by Jerrold Casway, chairman of the social sciences department at Howard Community College and a biographer who has written about a 17th-century Irish military leader and is working on a biography of baseball great Ed Delahanty, who played from 1888 to 1903 in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Washington.

"Biography is not an easy thing to do," said Dr. Casway, who has been a professor at HCC for 24 years. With biography, "the biggest challenge is really to understand and appreciate the real person that is under investigation," he said. Dr. Lewis is "really is a historian and biographer of the first rate, the first magnitude," Dr. Casway says.

Dr. Lewis met Du Bois 47 years ago when he was 12 and his father was dean of the divinity school at Wilberforce University in Ohio. Du Bois "asked me what I planned to do with my life," Dr. Lewis said from his home in Washington, D.C.

Originally trained as a French historian, he has written seven books, including "King: A Biography," "Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair" and "The Race to Fashoda." He holds the Martin Luther King chair of history at Rutgers University.

Dr. Lewis' views on Du Bois' antagonist, Booker T. Washington, attracted more notice than his views on Du Bois last month when he attended the centennial celebration of Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" speech, a conciliatory speech in which Washington became -- for whites and some blacks -- the spokesman for his race.

"I gather we are being awfully celebratory today at Piedmont Park when we ought to be critical," Dr. Lewis said in a news story published on the day of the gathering. "The line from Booker T. Washington to Clarence Thomas is pretty direct."

Dr. Lewis says his remarks were taken unfavorably by the mayor.

"Historians are seldom attacked by politicians," he says retrospectively.

"Booker Washington, with all the best intentions, at the end of it all, was the cat's paw of white supremacists," he says.

Controversy is no stranger to Ms. Gray either. "Rage and Fire" has received mixed reviews but is set for paperback release this year. "None of my books have had unanimously good reviews," Ms. Gray says from her Connecticut home. "I gamble. I take a lot of chances."

Ms. Gray was born in 1930 at the French Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, and emigrated to the United States with her mother during World War II.

She graduated from Barnard College and was a United Press International reporter during the 1950s. Since then, she has written eight books and articles for many periodicals, including the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

"Colet came in great part through being haunted by her from reading Flaubert," she says.

Ms. Gray's next work will be another biography, of two 18th-century French women, Marquise de Sade and her mother, Presidente de Montreuil.

She said she will discuss what leads biographers to choose their subjects. "They choose you as much as you choose them," she says.

The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society will present biographers David Levering Lewis and Francine du Plessix Gray at 5 p.m. today at the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College in Columbia. Tickets are $10. Admission is free to Howard Community College staff and students with identification. The discussion will be followed by a book sale and signing. Information: 730-7524.

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