Branch, Taylor 1947-
Branch, Taylor 1947-
Born January 14, 1947, in Atlanta, GA; son of Franklin T. and Jane Branch; married Christina Macy (a speech writer); children: one daughter, one son. Education: University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, A.B., 1968; graduate study at Princeton University, 1968-70.
National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction, 1988, Christopher Award, 1988, Pulitzer Prize for History, 1989, National Book Award nomination, 1989, and Los Angeles Times Book Award for Current Interest, all for Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963; National Book Award finalist, and the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for nonfiction, both 2006, both for At Canaan's Edge.
(Editor and contributor with Charles Peters) Blowing the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest, Praeger (New York, NY), 1972.
(With Bill Russell) Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
The Empire Blues (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1981.
(With Eugene M. Propper) Labyrinth, Viking (New York, NY), 1982.
Nonviolent Leadership: The Essence of Democracy, The Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond (Richmond, VA), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including New England Monthly and New Republic.
"MARTIN LUTHER KING" TRILOGY
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988.
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2006.
Parting the Waters was adapted as a television mini-series.
A journalist and civil-rights activist, Taylor Branch has covered diverse territory as coauthor of nonfiction books such as Blowing the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest, Labyrinth, and Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, the memoirs of basketball star Bill Russell, as well as author of the novel The Empire Blues. In 1988 he published the first volume in his "Martin Luther King" trilogy, the meticulously researched Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, "a landmark achievement and a paradigm of the new American history at its best," according to Newsweek writer Jim Miller. Branch conceived the project in the mid-1970s but "wasn't ready" to undertake it, as he told Publishers Weekly interviewer Mark Harris. "I didn't have enough experience and I couldn't command an advance that would support me for many years." He honed his skills writing other books, and in Parting the Waters Branch's talents converged to produce "what many are calling the first definitive history of the civil rights movement," reported Harris.
Branch's novel The Empire Blues features Washington journalists and lobbyists variously entangled with intelligence agents, drug dealers, and assassins in Miami, Florida. Protagonist David Howell, described by New York Times Book Review contributor Alan Cheuse as "the only one among them who seriously attempts to change his life," is the politically naive journalist who discovers the links between the Washington elite and the Miami underground. Deeming it "lengthy but appealing," Cheuse characterized the novel as a "trenchant comic scenario … slow-cadenced but admirable." Ross Thomas, writing in the Washington Post Book World, thought the subplots, the characters' extensive self-examination, and other miscellany interfered with the flow but that Branch's "excellent ear for dialogue and an almost unerring gift for satire" made the "deftly written" work enjoyable nonetheless.
In Labyrinth Branch and coauthor Eugene M. Propper discuss the 1976 car-bomb assassination of Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and the ensuing investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). With Propper, who was the head prosecutor in the case, Branch begins the story with the crime itself, tracing the threads of investigation—tangled by bureaucratic infighting and a possible coverup—back to the American-born Chilean citizen who made the bomb and the Cuban exiles who detonated it. The authors' description of the intelligence agencies withholding information from each other, the FBI "bogged down in its own internal war between what the authors happily choose to call the Palm Tree Peekers and the Door Kickers," makes the reader "fear and tremble for the Republic," reported Thomas in another Washington Post Book World review. Thomas judged the book "detailed, fascinating, and revealing." Los Angeles Times Book Review writer Elizabeth Wheeler found it "well crafted, well paced." She added: "For all the good writing and painstaking research, however, the book's success ultimately can be traced to their one key concern." Wheeler continued: "Two people were murdered in the streets of Washington; throughout Labyrinth, Branch and Propper make certain the reader doesn't forget."
Parting the Waters, is a "major accomplishment in biography as social history," declared R.Z. Sheppard in Time, voicing an opinion widely held by critics. Honored with a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Christopher Award, it is more than another biography of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.; it is the story of the movement itself. "Branch's fundamental insight is that King shared the movement with an extraordinary array of catalytic personalities," noted Eleanor Holmes Norton in the New York Times Book Review. Accordingly, Branch discusses not only King but his supporters, colleagues, and opponents. His effort was rewarded with immense acclaim. Summarized Robert C. Maynard in the Washington Post Book World, Branch's book is "the best opportunity so far to see King in the context of the forces around him, especially the swirling currents of racial and religious politics in the late 1950s and early '60s."
Branch's chronicle begins with King's arrival as pastor at his first church and proceeds through public and private events of the period up to the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. He describes an early speech King made in his church at age twenty-seven, when he was chosen to lead blacks in boycotting buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregation. The speech, to Branch, represented a turning point in King's evolution into a public figure. Branch reveals the conflicts within the black community itself, and he shows the contribution black youths made to the movement by helping King see that power lay in being committed enough to nonviolent protest to risk physical injury or jail. "Many great events that have nearly become cliches in our memories assume fresh life in Mr. Branch's treatment," remarked Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. Branch provides behind-the-scenes insight into milestones like King's famous "I have a dream" speech, which, he asserts, was largely improvised. "He started to give a stilted speech, a written-out one, and the preacher in him revolted mid-speech," Branch told Harris. "He stopped right before one of the most pretentious lines of the prepared text and didn't give it." One of Branch's important contributions in Parting the Waters, several reviewers suggested, is his stress on the black church and King's own faith. "Branch has traced King's spiritual development with great delicacy and candor," observed Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books, "the growth of the rather superficial young man into a leader who, afraid of death, knew he would have to die if he stuck to his course, and made that very realization the source of his strength."
Six years of research went into the writing of the more than one thousand pages of Parting the Waters, the first part of what would ultimately become Branch's "Martin Luther King" trilogy. "I spent six months reading books," Branch recalled to Harris, "read all the footnotes in every book, and went on from there." He sought to interview those who had been involved in the civil rights campaign, working to get past the "standard civil rights interview." He told Harris: "Many people who were in the movement … put their minds on automatic pilot [in interviews]." The author continued, noting that "you have to break through that." He also used unusual sources, such as tapes the FBI made in wiretapping King and Kennedy. Said Branch: "I don't think the book could have been done" without the tapes. Initiated by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and authorized by attorney general Robert Kennedy, such wiretaps revealed the great ambivalence with which the Kennedy administration regarded King and provided evidence of King's sexual indiscretions, which the FBI used against him. Norton commented that Branch "has penetrated unusually difficult territory, where records are not kept and the story must be laboriously pieced together. He has done so with great skill and often with language literary in its quality. Much of the ambiance of the period would have been lost without a writer of his talent." In New York Rhoda Koenig praised Parting the Waters as "a thrilling and romantic story … not simply a biography but a portrait of how an oppressed people rose up and how those who had forged their chains responded, in anger or in shame."
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965, is the second installment in the "Martin Luther King" trilogy. In this volume, the author focuses on the struggle of the civil rights movement as it and its leaders reach their zenith. Peter J. Ling, writing in History Today, noted: "Religion, intrigue, and death stalk Pillar of Fire." Ling went on to comment: "It is worth stressing that this is neither a King biography nor a study of the Civil Rights movement. Pillar of Fire is more a snapshot of America in the mid-Sixties." In a review in the Historian, Andrew E. Kersten wrote: "Overall, Branch has produced another masterful book both for serious King scholars and the general public." Journal of Church and State contributor John A. Wood noted: "Branch's book provides a goldmine to analyze the evils of racism and segregation by distinguishing between ignorance, overt evil, and acquiescence." A Sojourners contributor commented that "the drama of the times comes through in gripping fashion."
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, concludes the "Martin Luther King" trilogy and focuses on the final three years of King's life. Gerald F. Kreyche, writing in USA Today, noted: "The book's 39 chapters more or less are a chronicle, listing details of each day or week between 1965-68." In a review in the Washington Monthly, Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote: "One of Branch's greatest accomplishments and contributions has been to master the complicated characters of the Civil Rights movement, not just King, Johnson, and Carmichael, but lesser figures, too, the liberal New York lawyer Stanley Levison, the FBI man Deke Deloach." Writing in the National Review, John McWhorter commented: "At Canaan's Edge remains valuable as a fine-grained account of how and why a sober movement that brought America closer to its democratic roots left behind the self-medicating kabuki of identity politics." Another critic writing in Kirkus Reviews noted that the author "closes his monumental trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr. with gravity and grace." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "As a literary work, Branch's biography is masterful."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bestsellers 89, Issue 2, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988.
American Scholar, spring, 2006, Richard Nicholls, review of At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, p. 133.
Biography, spring, 2006, Garry Wills and Anthony Lewis, review of Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965, p. 399.
Booklist, March 15, 1999, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 1295.
Boston Globe, January 15, 2006, Eric Arnesen, review of At Canaan's Edge.
California Bookwatch, May, 2006, review of At Canaan's Edge.
Civil Rights Journal, fall, 1998, Chester Hartman, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 54.
Commonweal, April 24, 1998, Kevin Mattson, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 22; February 10, 2006, Don Wycliff, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 21.
Economist, February 18, 2006, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 80.
Entertainment Weekly, January 20, 2006, Adam Howard, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 73.
Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2006, Walter Russell Mead, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 159.
Harper's, February, 2006, John Leonard, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 83.
Historian, winter, 2000, Andrew E. Kersten, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 399.
History Today, May, 1999, Peter J. Ling, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 53.
Houston Chronicle, January 13, 2006, Steve Weinberg, review of At Canaan's Edge.
Journal of Church and State, winter, 1999, John A. Wood, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 149.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2005, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 1306.
Library Journal, February 1, 1998, Robert F. Nardini, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 98.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 16, 1982, Elizabeth Wheeler, review of Labyrinth.
Monthly Review, January 1999, J. Quinn Brisben, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 55.
National Review, February 27, 2006, John McWhorter, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 43.
Newsweek, November 28, 1988, Jim Miller, review of Parting the Waters, p. 84.
New York, December 5, 1988, Rhoda Koenig, review of Parting the Waters.
New Yorker, January 23, 2006, David Levering Lewis, review of At Canaan's Edge.
New York Review of Books, November 10, 1988, Gary Wills, review of Parting the Waters.
New York Times, November 21, 1988, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Parting the Waters, p. B2, C20; January 13, 2006, Michiko Kakutani, review of At Canaan's Edge.
New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1981, Alan Cheuse, review of Empire Blues, p. 14; November 27, 1988, Eleanor Holmes Norton, review of Parting the Waters, p. 1; February 5, 2006, Anthony Lewis, review of At Canaan's Edge..
People, February 20, 2006, Josh Emmons, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 49.
Publishers Weekly, November 2, 1998, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 44; December 16, 1988, Mark Harris, "Taylor Branch," p. 62; December 19, 2005, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 54; January 9, 2006, Sarah F. Gold, "The End of the Saga," interview with author, p. 42.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 2006, Dan Cornford, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. M1.
Social Policy, summer, 1998, Mike Miller, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 36.
Society, May, 2000, Andrew Sabl, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 92.
Sojourners, November, 1999, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 54.
Time, November 28, 1988, R.Z. Sheppard, review of Parting the Waters; January 1, 2006, Janice C. Simpson, "Time Talks with MLK Biographer Taylor Branch."
USA Today, September, 2006, Gerald F. Kreyche, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 81.
Washington Monthly, March, 2006, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. 39.
Washington Post, January 15, 2006, Taylor Branch, review of At Canaan's Edge, p. T01.
Washington Post Book World, March 15, 1981, Ross Thomas, review of The Empire Blues, p. 8; March 28, 1982, Ross Thomas, review of Labyrinth, p. 4; November 20, 1988, Robert C. Maynard, review of Parting the Waters, p. 1.
BookPage.com,http://www.bookpage.com/ (December 26, 2006), Edward Morris, review of At Canaan's Edge.
Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com/ (December 26, 2006), information on author' film work.
Literati.net,http://literati.net/Branch/ (December 26, 2006), brief profile of author.
London Daily Telegraph Web site,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ (July 30, 2006), review of At Canaan's Edge.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (February 1, 2006), Charles Taylor, review of At Canaan's Edge.
Taylor Branch Home Page,http://www.taylorbranch.com (December 26, 2006).