Four standout biographies of American female writers will foster excellent discussion for reading groups.
Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion chronicles the life of essayist, journalist and fiction writer Didion, who made her name in the 1960s with era-defining works like Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. The first biography on Didion, Daugherty’s brisk and fluid book contains a plethora of interesting topics for conversation, from the gender dynamics of Didion’s carefully constructed literary persona to the impact of her home state of California on her outlook and writing as they both evolved over the course of the 1960s and ’70s.
In Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin sheds new light on the background of visionary fiction author Jackson, who wrote the famously creepy novel The Haunting of Hill House (the basis for the 2018 Netflix series). Along the way, Franklin traces the roots of Jackson’s dark aesthetic, which mined the quiet tensions of wifehood in postwar America and specifically her own tumultuous marriage to create chilling psychological horror. How much have things improved for women, and specifically female artists? Ask your group, if you dare.
Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder proves that Wilder’s life was a lot tougher and more complicated than she depicted in her Little House books. Using rare source materials, Fraser documents the financial hardships, risky farm enterprises and vagaries of nature that dogged the Wilder and Ingalls families. Fraser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography raises tricky questions of how American history has often been romanticized rather than truthfully portrayed. If you have any diehard Little House fans in your group, make sure they’re ready for a no-holds-barred reevaluation of the classic series and the family that inspired it.
Read our interview with Caroline Fraser.
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry is an impassioned investigation of Hansberry, who deserves to be remembered for much more than her iconic play, A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry used her platform to promote civil rights and support African leaders fighting against colonialism, and she joined one of the first lesbian organizations in America. (Hansberry was married to activist Robert B. Nemiroff but identified as a lesbian.) Like Didion’s, Hansberry’s life can spur conversation about many fascinating, thorny aspects of midcentury America.