Conaway, James 1941–

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Conaway, James 1941–

(James Alley Conaway)


Born April 15, 1941, in Memphis, TN; son of Frank Elmer (an engineer) and Kathryn Conaway; married Penelope Brennan (a food consultant and caterer), September 26, 1964; children: Brennan James, Deborah Jessica, Susanna Lane. Education: Attended University of North Carolina, 1959-61; Southwestern at Memphis, B.A., 1963; Stanford University, graduate study, 1963-64.


Times-Picayune, New Orleans, LA, reporter, 1965-66; Daily American, Rome, Italy, reporter, 1967; Washington Post journalist and wine critic; Harper's Bazaar, editor; freelance journalist.


Wallace Stegner Creative Writing fellowship, Stanford University, 1963-64; Alicia Patterson fellowship, 1974.


The Big Easy (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1970.

Judge: The Life and Times of Leander Perez (biography), Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.

The Texans, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.

World's End (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1978.

The Kingdom in the Country, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1987.

Napa: The Story of an American Eden, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1990.

Memphis Afternoons: A Memoir, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.

The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder, Smithsonian Books (Washington, DC), 1995.

America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000, foreword by James H. Billington, introduction by Edmund Morris, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2000.

The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.

Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes, Shoemaker & Hoard (Emeryville, CA), 2007.

Preservation, contributing editor; contributor to Atlantic, National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, Food and Wine, New York Times magazine, and literary journals.


The Big Easy was adapted as a film, New Century, Vista, 1987, screenplay written by Daniel Petrie, Jr., Jack Baran, and Jim McBride, directed by Jim McBride, starring Dennis Quaid, Ned Beatty, Ellen Barkin, and John Goodman.


The film version of James Conaway's The Big Easy is a classic, and Conaway drew on his experience as a reporter in writing the novel about life on the streets of New Orleans. Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid) is a homicide detective who is being investigated by district attorney Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin), and their resulting romance is as steamy as a New Orleans summer. Memorable performances include those by costars Ned Beatty and John Goodman.

Conaway continued writing both fiction and nonfiction, and in the early 1980s, he joined the Washington Post and soon became the newspaper's wine critic. In 1984, he made his first trip to the Napa Valley in California. Captivated with the region, Conaway moved there for a year and wrote a history titled Napa: The Story of an American Eden. Until the mid-1960s, he notes, it was a farming region, but through entrepreneurs like Robert Mondavi, who was banished from his family's winery, the Napa Valley was promoted across the country. Interest in the region intensified in 1976 when Napa wines in unmarked bottles placed first against French wines in a tasting in Paris, France. Conaway writes of pioneers Jack and James Davies, who came to the Napa Valley in the 1960s to make wine in a time when "Americans didn't drink wine, they drank Coke," and Ernest and Julio Gallo, who began their dynasty by experimenting with wine-making booklets from the public library.

Wine became the drink of choice for a new generation of status seekers, and people with money to spend drove up the price of farmland and the wine produced in Napa. Celebrities began their own "wine boutiques," and tourism to the area nearly equaled the business of wine making. Francis Ford Coppola bought Inglenook and turned it into a theme winery. People's Joyce Wadler wrote that Conaway "sees a valley that went, with gold-rush speed, from being a poky agricultural backwater to competing—successfully—with the most celebrated European vintners."

Conaway recalls his childhood in Memphis Afternoons: A Memoir, in which he writes of his family, including his grandfather, J.P. Alley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoons criticizing the Ku Klux Klan. He notes the racism and snobbery he observed, even as the civil rights movement began to grow. Conaway left Memphis in the 1960s and was inspired to write his memoir when he learned his father was suffering with Alzheimer's disease.

The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder was called "a gala celebration of all that stuff in America's attic," by Booklist's Gilbert Taylor. Included are 400 photographs to accompany the story of the institution's beginnings, when James Smithson provided for its funding "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000 is Conaway's history of the library originally founded in 1800 as a resource for lawmakers, and which grew to hold more than 110 million items, including books in 450 languages. The 10,000 books that are added each working day grace 530 miles of shelving, and the Library also stores maps, manuscripts, musical recordings, films, and drawings. Conaway views the Library through the eyes of the thirteen librarians of Congress who have overseen its growth, beginning with John J. Beckley. Beckley was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson and was faced with the task of rebuilding when the original collection was destroyed as the British burned the Capitol in 1812. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the volume "an engrossing and comprehensive read, as much a history of the people who made the Library of Congress what it is today—a library to the world—as it is a rich chronicle of the magnificent institution."

Conaway returns to wine country with The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley. He revisits the influx of vanity growers who have changed the landscape, literally, as hillsides have become eroded and waterways polluted. In an article for the International Migration Review, Philip Martin wrote that Conaway "decries the newcomers' lack of appreciation of agriculture and celebrates the 1990s environmentalists who challenged the newcomers, although he ultimately concludes they went ‘too far.’ Advocates for the environment and those who favored property rights have battled it out in lawsuits, the voting booth, and through the legislative process."

Conaway also notes that while the land in Napa Valley regularly sells for more than two hundred thousand dollars an acre (Coppola paid a record 350 thousand dollars an acre for Cohn Vineyard in Rutherford), and Napa wines fetch high prices, often one hundred dollars a bottle (a six-liter bottle of 1993 Screaming Eagle cabernet was sold at a 2000 charity auction for five hundred thousand dollars), farm workers are the losers. While they earn slightly more per hour working in Napa than in surrounding areas, the cost of living in Napa is so high that many sleep in their cars or camp outside. "Napa, America's agricultural Eden," wrote Martin, "may be the best place to test the proposition that agri-tourism can benefit all parties involved. Migrant farm workers have so far not shared in the benefits of the wine boom of the 1990s."

Library Journal reviewer Mary V. Welk described The Far Side of Eden as an "important and timely exploration of the ramifications of the unbridled power of the rich to do whatever they wish with America's land."

Conaway returns to this basic theme in Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes. The book includes several essays about places that Conaway considers "physical and spiritual barometers" of the nation's well-being, including Napa Valley, Idaho's Boise River, the Bisti Bandlands of New Mexico, and the Big Piney in Wyoming. It is crucial, Conaway writes, to maintain an attachment to specific sites such as these, because doing so keeps people in touch with the ecological and human history and culture of the area. Wherever he travels, though, Conaway finds overdevelopment and abuse of the land—a situation that threatens to undermine American culture.

A writer for Publishers Weekly hailed Vanishing America as an "entertaining as well as astute" work with a persuasive argument about preservation. On Earth contributor George Black admired the fact that Conaway refrains from oversimplification in the book and "declines to despair," despite the gravity of his thesis. Praising the book's anthropological insights, a writer for Kirkus Reviews found it "deserving a place alongside Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways." For Booklist contributor Colleen Mender, Vanishing America is nothing less than an "elegantly written wake-up call to all of us who take our nation for granted."



Conaway, James, Memphis Afternoons: A Memoir, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.


American Studies International, June, 2001, James Deutsch, review of America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000, p. 99.

Booklist, November 1, 1995, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder, p. 436; May 15, 2000, Mark Knoblauch, review of America's Library, p. 1703; October 1, 2007, Colleen Mondor, review of Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes, p. 18.

International Migration Review, fall, 2003, Philip Martin, reviews of The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley, and Napa: The Story of an American Eden, p. 906.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of The Far Side of Eden, p. 1088; August 1, 2007, review of Vanishing America.

Library Journal, October 15, 2000, Thomas F. O'Connor, review of America's Library, p. 110; September 1, 2002, Mary V. Welk, review of The Far Side of Eden, p. 200.

OnEarth, January 1, 2008, George Black, review of Vanishing America, p. 55.

People, October 22, 1990, Joyce Wadler, review of Napa, p. 93.

Publishers Weekly, March 22, 1993, review of Memphis Afternoons: A Memoir, p. 64; April 10, 2000, review of America's Library, p. 86; August 26, 2002, review of The Far Side of Eden, p. 58; June 25, 2007, review of Vanishing America, p. 43.

Wines and Vines, November, 1990, Philip Hiaring, review of Napa, p. 62.