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Justin Kaplan, Literary Biographer, Dies at 88

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 3, 2014 at 8:01 pm •  Published: March 3, 2014
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c.2014 New York Times News Service

Justin Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer renowned for his lives of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Lincoln Steffens, and who was later known as the editor of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations — a job akin to running the admissions committee of the most selective college in the world — died on Sunday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 88.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Susanna Donahue said.

Kaplan won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1967 for his first book, “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain,” published the year before. In it, he examined his subject’s construction of, and deeply ambivalent relationship with, his white-suited public persona.

“It is too easy to sentimentalize him as the foxy grandpa of American letters, the author of wholesome books for the young,” Kaplan said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998. “Twain was a man with an extremely dark imagination and a low threshold of annoyance.”

Reviewing Kaplan’s book in The Times in 1966, Thomas Lask wrote, “Not in years has there been a biography in which the complexities of human character have been exposed with such perceptiveness, with such a grasp of their contradictory nature, with such ability to keep each strand clear and yet make it contribute to the overall fabric.” He added, “Mr. Kaplan shows how badly Twain was split down the middle.”

The biography, which also received a National Book Award, employed an organizing device, unusual for its day, to which Kaplan would return. Instead of arranging his subject’s life chronologically, he portrayed it out of sequence, opening the book with Twain at 31.

The decision let Kaplan start Twain’s story just after the formative years of the Civil War, when Samuel Langhorne Clemens was gaining renown as a writer.

Kaplan employed a similar device in “Walt Whitman: A Life,” published in 1980. In that biography, which also won a National Book Award, he began with his subject in old age, opening evocatively:

“In the spring of 1884 the poet Walt Whitman bought a house in the unlovely city of Camden, New Jersey, and at the age of 65 slept under his own roof for the first time in his life.”

Though some reviewers took Kaplan to task for analyzing Whitman’s poetry insufficiently, that, the book made clear, was not his primary aim. Instead, he sought to illuminate a life artfully constructed and deliberately obscured by its owner — a life that, as Whitman wrote in “Leaves of Grass,” contained “multitudes.”

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Among those multitudes, as Kaplan’s book discussed, was Whitman’s enigmatic sexual identity: Though he sometimes bragged of having fathered six illegitimate children, he described himself on other occasions as “an old bachelor who never had a love affair.”

Contrary to some Whitman biographies, Kaplan’s maintained that though Whitman was clearly attracted to men, he was not an active homosexual.

“The language of intimacy was different in the 19th century,” Kaplan told Newsweek in 1980. “When Whitman writes in a letter, ‘Last night I slept with ——,’ he probably meant just that.”

Between the Twain and Whitman books, Kaplan produced “Lincoln Steffens: A Biography.” In that book, published in 1974, he illuminated the life and work of his subject, the muckraking journalist associated first with The New York Evening Post and later with McClure’s magazine.

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What united all his biographies, Kaplan often said, was his desire to render nonfictional worlds with the narrative force and flow of fiction.

“Perhaps in reaction against what is often cited as the glumness, grotesquerie, psychic isolationism and fragmentation of much serious contemporary fiction, biography emulates the imaginative world of the great 19th-century novels,” Kaplan wrote in a 1987 essay in The Times Book Review. “‘Madame Bovary,’ ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘War and Peace’ render individual character in the round, depict its formation and peculiarities and tell a generously contexted story with memorable scenes, a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Kaplan’s career path was augured, fittingly, by his own biography.

Justin Daniel Kaplan, known as Joe, was born in New York on Sept. 5, 1925. His father, who owned a shirt factory, was keenly interested in literature, and Justin “was brought up on Tolstoy and Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ and Pepys’ diary,” as he told The Washington Post in 1981.

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