Justin Kaplan, acclaimed biographer of Twain and Whitman, dies at 88

March 4

Justin Kaplan, who brought a fresh literary elan to the art of biography, with his prize-winning books on writers Mark Twain, Lincoln Steffens and Walt Whitman, and who injected the voice of popular culture to an updated version of the venerable reference work Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, died March 2 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 88.

He had complications from Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Susanna Donahue said.

After working as an editor at New York publishing houses, Mr. Kaplan published his first book, “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain,” in 1966. His biography so thoroughly captured the rambunctious and iconoclastic author of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

Mr. Kaplan published only two more full-length biographies: “Lincoln Steffens: A Biography” (1974), about the muckraking journalist of the early 20th century, and “Walt Whitman: A Life” (1980), about the 19th-century poet. Both were multilayered character studies set within the colorful tapestry of the times and brought Mr. Kaplan wide recognition as a master of the form.

“I can hardly imagine a more satisfying literary biography,” author Phyllis Rose wrote in the Nation about Mr. Kaplan’s Whitman biography. “It is psychologically acute without being tendentiously analytic. It has the narrative density and historical breadth of a novel. It is artful sentence by sentence and in the structure of the whole. Making the best use of Whitman’s own optimism and passion for the palpable, it is a buoyant, energizing book.”


Justin Kaplan, seen here in 1980, was well-known for writing biographies in a style of dramatic storytelling, rather than in a dry and strict form of chronological recordkeeping. (Craig Herndon/The Washington Post)

One of Mr. Kaplan’s innovations was to make biography a form of dramatic storytelling, rather than to approach it as strict chronological recordkeeping. He said the traditional biographies, beginning with someone’s birth and dutifully recounting his forebears, bored him.

“The point I’ve been making,” he told The Washington Post in 1981, “is that biography is not just some guy sticking together a lot of research and facts and scholarship and finding a box or package for it. It’s as literary a form as the novel or a play or a poem. It’s an act of writing, not of library work — although you have to do your homework.”

In his biography of Twain, Mr. Kaplan never described the writer’s birth in 1835. Instead, the book opens when Twain is 31, after years of knockabout apprenticeship in the American West.

“He had been a wanderer on and off since 1853; his home was in his valise,” Mr. Kaplan wrote. “His haunts were saloons and police courts, the morgue, and the stage doors of San Francisco’s flourishing theaters. He moved among a subculture of reporters, entertainers, actors, theater managers, acrobats, ladies of the chorus, prospectors, and short-term promoters. As he was to tell his future mother-in-law, he was ‘a man of convivial ways and not averse to social drinking.’ This was an understatement.”

Mr. Kaplan’s biography of Whitman, which received the American Book Award, begins in the poet’s old age, long after his provocative collection “Leaves of Grass” took the measure of America by declaring, “I celebrate myself.” Mr. Kaplan acknowledged Whitman’s homosexuality but concluded that he may never have acted on his desires.

In addition to a rounded portrait of the poet, the book vividly depicts many aspects of 19th-century America, including Washington during the Civil War.

“Life in the wartime Federal City peaked to a ‘mad, wild, hellish’ intensity,” Mr. Kaplan wrote. “Tides of office seekers, profiteers and promoters, voyeurs, zealots, do-gooders, quacks, religious enthusiasts, prostitutes, grieving wives and relatives, swindlers, scamperers from ruined reputations and sinking ships drove up the price of food and drink . . . and despite the frightful suffering in its hospitals, Washington seemed to Whitman a city of romance of things beginning.”

Justin Daniel Kaplan was born Sept. 5, 1925, in Manhattan. He was orphaned by the time he was 13 — his parents died of cancer — and he grew up with an older brother and a housekeeper.

He entered Harvard at 16 and graduated in 1944 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. With an inheritance from his father, who owned a shirt factory, Mr. Kaplan went to graduate school at Harvard and traveled in the Southwest before going to work in publishing.

While working at Simon & Schuster and other publishing houses, Mr. Kaplan edited such distinguished writers and thinkers as Bertrand Russell, Will Durant, Nikos Kazantzakis (author of “Zorba the Greek”) and sociologist C. Wright Mills.

In 1954, he married novelist Anne Bernays, whose father, Edward L. Bernays, was considered a founder of modern public relations, and whose great-uncle was Sigmund Freud. Five years later, the couple left New York for Cambridge, where Mr. Kaplan spent almost seven years working on his Twain biography.

Together, Bernays and Mr. Kaplan, who was known as “Joe,” became leading figures in the literary culture of Cambridge, with neighbors including food writer and TV personality Julia Child, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

In 2002, Mr. Kaplan and Bernays published a joint memoir, “Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York.” Among other things, Mr. Kaplan recalled dancing with Marilyn Monroe at a party, “gently kneading the little tire of baby fat around her waist.”

Mr. Kaplan’s survivors include Bernays, of Cambridge; three daughters, Susanna Donahue of Ashland, Mass., Hester Kaplan of Providence, R.I., and Polly Kaplan of Rhinebeck, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.

Since childhood, Mr. Kaplan had often read Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, first published in 1855, for pleasure. In 1988, the publisher asked Mr. Kaplan if he knew of anyone who might be interested in compiling a new edition.

“Yes, me,” Mr. Kaplan said.

He read through all 25,000 quotations, excising several thousand. Forgotten 19th-century poets were dropped in favor of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix and Erica Jong. Filmmakers made their debut in Bartlett’s, including Woody Allen, who was represented by several witticisms, including this one about sex: “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.”

Criticized for discounting the eloquence of President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Kaplan completed a revised edition of Bartlett’s in 2002, which included Reagan’s memorable 1987 demand during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall: “Tear down this wall!”

In 1997, he and Bernays wrote a book about proper names, and he published his final book, “When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age,” in 2006.

After his Whitman biography appeared, Mr. Kaplan considered writing biographies of President Ulysses S. Grant, filmmaker Charlie Chaplin and psychologist William James, but he never found another subject to his liking.

“Working so closely with people, your life can become dangerously mixed up with theirs,” Mr. Kaplan told the New York Times in 1981. “You have to preserve a certain empathetic distance. . . . Also, in a purely metaphorical sense, you develop the power of life and death over the people you write about. I had a lot of genuine grief over burying Mark Twain.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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