Biel, Steven 1960-
Biel, Steven 1960-
Born October 30, 1960, in Cleveland, OH; son of Morton (a teacher and administrator) and Claire (a speech and language pathologist) Biel; married Jean Kolling (an attorney), June 23, 1990; children: Jacob, Olivia. Education: Brown University, B.A., 1983; Harvard University, M.A., 1985, Ph.D., 1990.
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, lecturer in history and literature, 1990-93, 1998—, preceptor, expository writing, 1994-96, director of studies in history and literature, 1999-2006, executive director of the Humanities Center, 2005—; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, lecturer, 1997-98. Has appeared as an expert on television programs, including Beyond Titanic, 1998, and Timewatch, BBC, 2002.
Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
(Compiler and author of preface) Titanica: The Disaster of the Century in Poetry, Song, and Prose, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor) American Disasters, New York University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting, Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including TV Guide, American Prospect, and Journal of American History.
Steven Biel is an educator, a historian, and the author of several well-received nonfiction volumes. His 1992 work, Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945, is a survey of leading American thinkers in the first half of the twentieth century. For Biel, intellectuals such as Van Wyck Brooks, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Margaret Sanger distinguished themselves in shaping an autonomous intelligentsia. Leonard Wilcox, writing in the Journal of American History, noted: "Biel's study brings new interest to [these intellectuals] by focusing on their pioneering work in defining an independent and socially engaged intellectual life." Wilcox, who described Biel's prose as "dense yet elegantly written," called Independent Intellectuals in the United States an "important book" and added that it "contributes something new to our understanding of the significance of the intellectual of the 1910s." Another reviewer, Elaine Orr, stated in American Literature that Biel's book constitutes "a textured history, one in which … intellectuals emerge as serious, passionate, and very human workers grappling with the twin dragons of American materialism and self-identity." American Historical Review contributor Bruce Clayton observed that "Biel's book has the merit of bringing to life, in a brisk and accessible format, a brilliant group of men and women who preferred to do good rather than well and left a rich legacy of creative thought."
In Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster, Biel appraises various interpretations of the saga of the purportedly unsinkable luxury liner that met with disaster on its maiden voyage in 1912. Biel notes that the Titanic disaster has been mythologized along racial, economic, political, and even sexual lines. Milton Garrison wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "Biel combines scholarly research with an ear for the telling phrase to show how those myths have been exploited." Likewise, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani commented that Biel "does a nimble job of assessing historical attitudes towards the Titanic, showing how its meanings ‘are contingent and contextual rather than inherent or timeless.’"
Biel once told CA: "In both [Independent Intellectuals in the United States and Down with the Old Canoe], though in very different ways, I have tried to raise questions about the lines we tend to draw between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, between intellectuals and popular culture. Independent Intellectuals is concerned with critics who often disparaged popular culture while working within it. Down with the Old Canoe suggests that the resonance of the Titanic disaster defies the categories of high and low culture. I also tried to write Canoe in a way that scholars, ‘general’ readers, and buffs would find equally engaging."
American Disasters, edited by Biel, expands the theme of Down with the Old Canoe and examines thirteen human-made and natural disasters, both famous and forgotten, that have occurred in American history. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly commented: "Covering disasters both natural … and mechanical, … these essays use contemporary media and political responses to explicate the cultural ramifications of the events."
Biel's 2005 book, American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting, is, according to New York Times Book Review contributor Jeanine Basinger, an account of how Grant Wood's famous painting, American Gothic, "evolved from iconoclasm to icon to parody." Mia Fineman, writing for Slate, noted: "Of all the famous images in the history of art, only a handful have risen (or some might say sunk) to the status of cultural icons." Among these, Fineman included American Gothic, the painting of an austere farm couple in front of their home in Eldon, Iowa, the man with a pitchfork in hand. The painting, a satire on Midwestern Puritanism, was later taken as a revolt against the prevailing modernist style and embraced by the middle classes as a realistic treasure. Since the 1930s, when it was painted, the picture has become one of the most widely reproduced images of all time. According to Sue Taylor, writing in Art in America, Biel "traces American Gothic's shifting readings through the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and, via its proliferating parodies, the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He even considers its status post 9/11." Taylor added: "Thanks to Biel's insights, we see how an image that was first understood by indignant farm-wives and appreciative urban intellectuals alike as a biting satire of provincialism could later be reimagined as a paean to an essential American spirit, proposed as a war poster in 1941 to inspire patriotism." According to Basinger, Biel "writes with wit and broad knowledge; reading his extended essay is like hearing a good friend hold forth in pleasant conversation on a lazy summer afternoon." Further praise came from a Kirkus Reviews critic who called the same work "excellent cultural history," and from Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor, who commended Biel's "intelligent, pithy, and humorous exploration of Gothic's molting interpretations." A Publishers Weekly contributor concluded: "Biel's confident and lucid readings recover layers of complexity from a deceptively simple work."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Biel, Steven, editor, American Disasters, New York University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
American Heritage, June-July, 2004, review of American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting, p. 15.
American Historical Review, December, 1993, Bruce Clayton, review of Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945, pp. 1694-1695.
American Literature, September, 1993, Elaine Orr, review of Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945, pp. 584-585.
American Studies, spring, 1995, Frank Warren, review of Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945, p. 154.
Archivaria, spring, 1998, review of Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster, p. 209.
Art in America, January, 2006, Sue Taylor, "Reading American Gothic," review of American Gothic, p. 92.
Booklist, May 1, 2005, Gilbert Taylor, review of American Gothic, p. 1556.
Boston Globe, October 2, 1996, p. D2.
Choice, March, 1993, M. Cantor, review of Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945, p. 1224.
Financial Times, April 19-20, 1997, review of Down with the Old Canoe.
History, fall, 1997, David W. Noble, review of Down with the Old Canoe, p. 8.
Houston Chronicle, March 30, 1997, Everett Evans, "Indestructible After All; Academic's Concise, Intriguing Work Dissects Titanic's Cultural Impact," p. 22; April 19, 2005, Leann Davis Alspaugh, "Indelible Image," review of American Gothic.
Independent on Sunday, April 13, 1997, review of Down with the Old Canoe, p. 34.
Journal of American History, December, 1993, Leonard Wilcox, review of Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945, pp. 1125-1126.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, autumn, 1994, Howard Brick, review of Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945, p. 342.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2005, review of American Gothic, p. 324.
Library Journal, November 1, 2001, Ellen D. Gilbert, review of American Disasters, p. 122.
London Review of Books, June 5, 1997, review of Down with the Old Canoe, p. 12.
New Statesman, April 18, 1997, review of Down with the Old Canoe, pp. 47-48.
New Yorker, October 14, 1996, John Updike, review of Down with the Old Canoe, pp. 94-98.
New York Times, October 29, 1996, Michiko Kakutani, review of Down with the Old Canoe, p. C16.
New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1997, Milton Garrison, review of Down with the Old Canoe, p. 19; July 10, 2005, Jeanine Basinger, "A Man, a Woman and a Pitchfork," review of American Gothic, p. 17.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 13, 1996, review of Down with the Old Canoe, p. Q2.
Publishers Weekly, November 5, 2001, review of American Disasters, p. 54; April 4, 2005, review of American Gothic, p. 49.
School Arts, October, 2006, Ken Marantz, review of American Gothic, p. 67.
Sunday Times (London, England), April 20, 1997, Geoff Dyer, "Drowning by Numbers," p. 4.
Times (London, England), October 10, 1998, Martin Higgins, review of Titanica: The Disaster of the Century in Poetry, Song, and Prose, p. 20.
Top Producer, February 11, 2005, review of American Gothic.
Weekly Standard, March 6, 2006, Paul A. Cantor, "American Classic; Grant Wood and the Meaning of His Art," review of American Gothic.
Harvard University History and Literature Program Web site,http://www.fas.harvard.edu/ (January 22, 2007), "Steven Biel."
Slate,http://www.slate.com/ (June 8, 2005), Mia Fineman, "The Most Famous Farm Couple in the World," review of American Gothic.