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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.

He also regularly dived into Bartlett’s, the compendious anthology first published in 1855, whose 16th and 17th editions he would one day edit.

Orphaned by the time he was 13 (both his parents had died of cancer), Justin was reared by an elder brother, an aunt and the family housekeeper. His experience, he said, made him fascinated by other people’s passage through the labyrinths of their lives — with the ways in which, given their beginnings, they reached their middles and ends.

“I’m an obscurantist,” Kaplan told Newsweek in 1980. “I’m drawn to people whose lives have a certain mystery — mysteries that aren’t going to be solved, that are too sacred to be solved.”

Kaplan earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard, followed by graduate work in the field there, but left before earning his doctorate, becoming a freelance writer and book editor.

Joining Simon & Schuster, he became an assistant to the anthologist Louis Untermeyer, helping him prepare, among other things, a Whitman compilation.

In 1954 Kaplan married Anne Bernays, a novelist whose father, Edward L. Bernays, is considered the founder of modern public relations.

In 1959, taking to heart a friend’s idle suggestion that he write a life of Twain, Kaplan quit his job.

“I would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, terrified, and ask myself, ‘What have I done?” he recalled. “I had written little things, but I had never written a full-length book before.”

To avail himself of the Harvard library, Kaplan moved his young family to Cambridge, where he lived to the end of his life. Besides his daughter Susanna, he is survived by his wife and two other daughters, Hester Kaplan and Polly Kaplan, and six grandchildren.

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His other books include “When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age” (2006) and two written with Bernays, “The Language of Names,” about proper names and their meaning, and a joint memoir, “Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York” (2002).

In the late 1980s, Kaplan was recruited as the general editor of Bartlett’s. The job entailed vast learning and wide reading, both of which he had, as well as an immense circle of associates willing to scare up quotations, which he also had.

It also entailed unremitting lobbying from those associates, and from friends, family and all manner of strangers, to include well-loved quotations and exclude less-well-loved ones.

Kaplan read all 25,000 quotations in the book’s previous edition and took his shears to many of them.

“I don’t care for withered flowers of poesy,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 1991. I’m not tolerant of platitudes, empty pieties, self-evident propositions, commencement oratory and anything that sounds as though it might have come from the insides of a fortune cookie.”

The new Bartlett’s, published in 1992, reflected Kaplan’s desire for a cultural ecumenicalism that older editions seemed to lack. Under his stewardship, the volume incorporated quotations from Woody Allen (“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens”); Kermit the Frog (“It’s not that easy bein’ green”); and an Englishman born Archie Leach who became a well-known actor (“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant”).

The edition drew the ire of conservatives. Several commentators, among them the actor Charlton Heston, complained that Kaplan, a self-described liberal, had advanced his political agenda by including, for instance, only a few quotations from President Ronald Reagan.

Kaplan countered that in so doing, he had done Reagan a great kindness.

Kaplan, who over the years taught at Harvard, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and elsewhere, went on to edit the 17th edition of Bartlett’s, which appeared in 2002.

If Kaplan saw biography as a lens through which to view the U.S. character, then he vastly preferred to train that lens on a time well before his own.

“I’m in love with the 19th century,” he said in the 1981 interview with The Washington Post. “For biography it’s a terrific time because it’s just before the telephone comes in. And it means that the talking and ideas and the relationships that now disappear into nothingness over the telephone were then put into letters or diaries.”