Life and Times: The Art of the Political Biography

Editor’s Note: Caitlin Mans wrote text for and designed an online exhibit to accompany the gallery exhibit she describes below.  Look for it to go up in early 2014 (we’ll announce it here) and also be incorporated into the interactive elements for our redesigned gallery!

At SCPC, we have several biographies written by or about several of our donors.  Some of the research for these books was even done right here at SCPC!  Besides going to the archives, there are many steps a biography must go through before it is published.  The new exhibit in the SCPC gallery, Life and Times: The Art of the Political Biography, traces these steps from the initial research to the reader’s edition, by looking at the writing process of two South Carolina journalists and biographers (and SCPC donors), Phil Grose and Jack Bass.

Phil Grose, pictured above, is one of two biographers featured in the exhibit.

Phil Grose was a journalist, but after a long career in state government that included working for governors Robert McNair and John West and heading several government organizations, he devoted the remainder of his life to exploring the lives of prominent South Carolina politicians.  Rather than looking strictly at the lives of former governors McNair and West, Grose’s books explore the larger historical context.

Grose’s first book, South Carolina At the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights (2006), discussed Governor McNair’s life but particularly focused on how he dealt with one of the most tense periods in recent South Carolina history as state schools underwent desegregation.  Grose’s second book, Looking for Utopia: The Life and Times of John C. West (2011), studied the rather extraordinary life of Governor West, including his time as ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1977-1981).  Grose used each book to explore the lives of these men, but also tried to understand the times they lived in and their influence upon those times.

Grose’s papers detail his thorough research process and include the articles he looked at and the oral histories he obtained and utilized, among other resources.  But beyond that, Grose’s papers indicate the many steps beyond research a writer must take, including the production of many drafts, the publishing process, and marketing.  Grose’s collection and this exhibit of materials drawn from it are not only an excellent resource for understanding the lives of governors McNair and West, but more importantly, provide an understanding of the writing process.

The exhibit also features one of Grose’s contemporaries and fellow SCPC donor, Jack Bass.  A long-time journalist and professor, Bass has co-authored two preeminent accounts of Senator Strom Thurmond’s life, Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond (first published in 1998) and Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond (2005).  Other biographers have added their own tomes to the collection of existing books on the long serving senator, including one published as recently as 2012.

Also featured in the exhibit is Jack Bass, a panelist at the upcoming exhibit “The Art of the Political Biography.”

This exhibit attempts to explore the reasons why Bass, and biographers and historians in general, write on similar subjects like Strom Thurmond.  As the exhibit reveals through Bass’s extensive research, this can be motivated by practical concerns such as the popularity of the subject, but also by the availability of new information in archives or elsewhere and by the need for a new interpretation of the subject.

To find out about political biographers Phil Grose and Jack Bass, please visit Life and Times: The Art of the Political Biography on exhibit in the Hollings Library until March 29th.  If you are interested in learning even more about political biographies, please attend our upcoming panel featuring Jack Bass, along with fellow biographers, historians Jack Roper and David Ballentine that will be held January 22.

–Contributed by Caitlin Mans, student curator of the exhibit.

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