Kaplan, Justin 1925-

views updated

Kaplan, Justin 1925-


Born September 5, 1925, in New York, NY; son of Tobias D. (a manufacturer) and Anna Kaplan; married Anne Bernays (a writer), July 29, 1954; children: Susanna Bernays, Hester Margaret, Polly Anne. Education: Harvard University, B.S., 1945. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Walking, swimming, visiting Cape Cod, talking.


Home—Cambridge, MA. Agent—Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc., 65 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10012.


Freelance work for various New York, NY, publishers, 1946-54; Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, editor, 1954-59; full-time professional writer, 1959—. Lecturer at Harvard University, 1969, 1973, 1976, 1978; Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, visiting lecturer, 1983; College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, professor, 1992-95. Advisor to television documentaries, including Life on the Mississippi, 1980, and The Private History of a Campaign That Failed, 1981.


American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Massachusetts Historical Society, Society of American Historians, Phi Beta Kappa.


National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, 1967, both for Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain; Guggenheim fellow, 1975-76; American Book Award for Biography, 1981, for Walt Whitman: A Life.



Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1966.

Mark Twain: A Profile, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1967.

Lincoln Steffens: A Biography, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1974, reprinted, 2004.

Mark Twain and His World, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1974.

Walt Whitman: A Life, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1980, reprinted, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 2003.

Born to Trouble: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1985.

(With wife, Anne Bernays) The Language of Names, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.

(With Anne Bernays) Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York, Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.

When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.


Dialogues of Plato, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1950, 2nd edition, Washington Square Press (New York, NY), 2001.

With Malice toward Women, Dodd (New York, NY), 1952.

The Pocket Aristotle, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1958.

Mark Twain, The Gilded Age, Trident (New York, NY), 1964.

Great Short Works of Mark Twain, Harper (New York, NY), 1967.

Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, Library of America (Lanham, MD), 1982.

Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992, 17th edition, published as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.

(And author of foreword) Bartlett's Shakespeare Quotations, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2005.

Bartlett's Bible Quotations, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2005.

(And author of introduction) The Signet Classic Book of Mark Twain's Short Stories, Signet Classics (New York, NY), 2006.


Justin Kaplan, an award-winning biographer, was born in New York City on September 5, 1925. Upon graduating from Harvard, Kaplan lectured at his alma mater for several years but always considered writing and editing his main professional career. In 1954 he began two new ventures in his life: his editing position with publisher Simon & Schuster and his marriage to Anne Bernays, who is also an accomplished novelist and nonfiction writer.

Kaplan lost his mother when he was only eight years old, and when he was fourteen his father died. Kaplan explained that his interest in biography largely grew from these dramatic events of his life. Having become an orphan as a teenager, he was curious about how other people were able to renew themselves, how they found the strength to deal with major changes in their lives. In an attempt to further explain his special interest in biography, Kaplan told Newsweek reporter James N. Baker: "I'm an obscurantist. 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."

Mark Twain and Walt Whitman—the subjects of two of Kaplan's award-winning biographies—are two such enigmatic figures. In his written treatment of both men, Kaplan consciously created a tension between himself and his subjects. This technique, which he employs in all his biographies, keeps his books from degenerating into dry accounts of someone's life. Attentive not only to scholarship but also to the requirements of a good story, Kaplan produces biographies that read like novels, critics have maintained. During his research for Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Kaplan discovered that he had found a subject who was "a mystery to himself." "The conflict," wrote Saturday Review contributor A.G. Day, "is the battle between ‘Mark Twain’—… the exploder of sham—and the success-hunting Samuel Clemens, victim of the ‘Gilded Age’ that he himself named and satirized. Nowhere does Mr. Kaplan use the word ‘schizophrenia,’ but his book examines almost clinically the growing gap between the man and his mask." Kaplan's insight into Twain the man, as opposed to Twain the legend, makes Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain "unmistakably destined for classic status in its field," according to a reporter for Newsweek. Punch reviewer Malcolm Bradbury expressed a similar view. "Kaplan," Bradbury wrote, "gives us a better and deeper Mark Twain than we ever had, a Twain who carried the tensions of the age he lived in and felt his way into the possibilities, and the crudities, of his culture. The place of a mind in a culture is superbly caught, and the narrative remains throughout human and sympathetic while catching it. It redeems a writer who has been as badly served by excessive claims about his ‘wisdom’ or intelligence as by false claims about his ‘primitivism.’ It is altogether an admirable and important book." Kaplan told a writer for Library Journal that his purpose in writing Twain's biography was "not only to explore the mystery of this man but also to respect it…. Two currents flowed through his life. One flowed away from Hannibal, Missouri, toward the world of wealth, fame and materialities. The other flowed back to Hannibal again. Out of the opposition of these currents, out of the turbulent dark waters, came one of the great styles and dazzling personalities of our literature, one of its undisputed masterpieces, and half a dozen of its major books."

After exploring the life of Clemens, Kaplan turned to another writer, American poet Walt Whitman. But, as Newsweek contributor Baker reported, Kaplan was so frustrated by "the ‘disappearing act’ of the poet's early years" that he turned out a life-and-times biography of Lincoln Steffens before committing himself to unravelling the Whitman legend. When Walt Whitman: A Life was finally published, most critics praised Kaplan's portrayal of the elusive poet who, in the words of Washington Post Book World critic Marcus Cunliffe, "covered his tracks and left false trails." How was Kaplan able to establish the truth about the man Nation reviewer Phyllis Rose called "the artful dodger of American Letters"? As Rose noted, it was never Kaplan's intention to "prove conclusively things about Whitman which Whitman himself did not know." She and other reviewers thought the strength of Kaplan's biography lies rather in its convincing delineation of "Whitman's setting and context," which is accomplished through a deft juxtaposition of carefully researched detail. "Kaplan," explained Donald Hall in Saturday Review, "shows us not one or two sources for Whitman's images and innovations but a thousand sources, amounting to a background. His method is not to analyze a poem for its origins … but to recount the dense days of a life, the incidents of a busy Manhattan—and then to juxtapose a relevant line from a poem; let the reader note and judge the connection." New York Times Book Review contributor Helen Vendler commented: "Kaplan's excellent life of Whitman, a life for the general reader, if it does not solve ‘the curious whether and how’ of Whitman's power, does the next best thing and the thing most appropriate to a life. It puts the multiplicity of Whitman's mysterious selves on view."

In addition to its broad scope, Kaplan's biography also displays a narrative vigor that draws the reader into the story, critics have said. "Even though his text runs to 421 pages, there is not really a dull one among them," wrote Seymour Krim in the Village Voice. "If Kaplan's prose is slightly staccato … it seems fitting: he is giving us a Whitman for the '80s, and with our movie-eyes, we can actually see the old patriot through Kaplan's lens in a way that was not possible before." Nation reviewer Rose added: "I can hardly imagine a more satisfying literary biography. It is psychologically acute without being tendentiously analytic. It has the narrative density and historical breadth of a novel. It is artful sentence by sentence and in the structure of the whole. Making the best use of Whitman's own optimism and passion for the palpable, it is a buoyant, energizing book." Instead of beginning, conventionally, with Whitman's childhood, the biography opens at the end of his life in what Erica Jong called, in the Chicago Tribune, "his days of poetic glory and physical decline." Reviewers were unanimous in their regard for this unusual organization: "By beginning the book toward the end of Whitman's life and by placing at the start an overview of Whitman's character and achievement, Kaplan refreshingly disrupts the usual pattern of biography and eases artfully into the treatment of the long foreground of Leaves of Grass," Rose said. This approach, observed New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "allows him to close his book with Whitman still alive, riding ‘contentedly at anchor on the waters of the past,’ as the closing phrase of the biography puts it. To judge from this luminescent work … that is just the way Walt Whitman would have wanted his life to end."

In 2002 Kaplan turned away from biography and joined his wife, Anne Bernays, in writing their combined memoir. The memoir, however, is not their first collaboration. In 1997 they coauthored The Language of Names, in which they explore, among other things, name practices and how people throughout history have developed identities based on their names. The book is a scholarly work but most critics have also found it very entertaining. Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York, their second combined effort, was published concurrently with the couple's forty-eighth wedding anniversary. Kaplan and Bernays married in the 1950s despite the warning of a psychiatrist friend who had told them that their relationship was doomed. They are now considered, wrote Rob Mitchell in his review of their book for the Boston Herald, "among the most renowned couples in contemporary literature." Back Then recalls the excitement the young couple enjoyed in their twenties, a time of early romance and their initiation into the world of publishing. The book also reflects their different styles of writing: Kaplan's is "slyly revealing," wrote Mitchell, while Bernays, the grand-niece of Sigmund Freud, is "personal and expansive."

Husband and wife alternate chapters in this book, demonstrating pure collaboration only in the introduction, where they relate how lucky they have been in their lives. Both grew up around Central Park. Both came from families that were more than financially secure. According to Publishers Weekly reviewer Wendy Smith, a "lively affection … warms the pages" of Back Then. In her interview with the couple, Smith found out that Bernays had wanted to write the memoir for a long time, but "didn't have a good story." Once she landed on the theme of New York in the 1950s as the story's background, she presented her ideas to Kaplan and "persuaded" him "to join her in telling" it. And the telling of it is a "real nostalgia trip" wrote Danise Hoover in Booklist, especially for long-time New Yorkers. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly concurred, referring to the memoir as "a hymn to the city." This is not to say that readers who do not live in New York will not enjoy it. Most reviewers predict that any one interested in good writing and a fascinating tale will find pleasure here. However, it is especially appealing to those captivated by the details of life during the 1950s, "a unique decade" in American culture, wrote Charles C. Nash in Library Journal. It was also a time of "coded language and strict mores," stated a writer for Kirkus Reviews, but the couple, as they recall those early years of their relationship, were smart enough to predict that there was "social and intellectual change" about to surface.

In When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, Kaplan profiles William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor, IV, the great-grandsons of America's first millionaire, John Jacob Astor. According to Booklist reviewer Mary Ellen Quinn, Kaplan offers "an unconventional biography here, crafting a fascinating work of social." Despite a history of family squabbles, William Waldorf, an aristocratic art collector, and John Jacob, an officer in the Spanish-American War who later died on the Titanic, joined forces to create the luxurious Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The hotel is actually two separate buildings, connected by a series of corridors. The thirteen-story Waldorf opened in 1893, while the taller Astoria opened four years later. The men's rivalry continued for years, however, as each attempted to produce even more extravagant hotels.

When the Astors Owned New York received strong critical praise. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews deemed the work "a far-reaching portrait of fin de siecle New York, buttressed by the author's assiduous research." "Kaplan writes charmingly about an era in all its cultural prominence and extravagance," Elaine Machleder similarly noted in Library Journal.



Bernays, Anne, and Justin Kaplan, Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York, Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.


American Scholar, winter, 1982, Leon Edel, review of Walt Whitman: A Life, pp. 138-141.

Booklist, January 1, 1997, Sandy Whiteley, review of The Language of Names, p. 814; May 15, 2002, Danise Hoover, review of Back Then, p. 1567; April 15, 2006, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, p. 15.

Boston Herald, June 19, 2002, Rob Mitchell, "Couple Recalls '50s-Style Sex and the City," p. 34.

Boston Magazine, February, 1997, Corby Kummer, review of The Language of Names, pp. 123-124.

Chicago Tribune, November 2, 1980, Erica Jong, review of Walt Whitman.

Commentary, May, 1993, Robin Roger, review of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, pp. 56-58.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2002, review of Back Then, p. 537; April 1, 2006, review of When the Astors Owned New York, p. 335.

Library Journal, April 1, 1967, interview with author; January, 1986, Mary Biggs, review of Born to Trouble: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn, p. 97; April 15, 1997, Nancy P. Shires, review of The Language of Names, p. 81; May 1, 2002, Charles C. Nash, review of Back Then, p. 99; May 1, 2006, Elaine Machleder, review of When the Astors Owned New York, p. 99.

Nation, November 8, 1980, Phyllis Rose, review of Walt Whitman.

National Review, November 15, 1993, Aram Bakshiam, Jr., review of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, pp. 60-61.

Newsweek, March 20, 1967, review of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain; November 10, 1980, James N. Baker, interview and review of Walt Whitman.

New Yorker, September 14, 1981, Howard Moss, review of Walt Whitman, pp. 184-189.

New York Times, November 5, 1980, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Walt Whitman; June 9, 2002, David Walton, "Gotham When They Were Young," p. L15.

New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1980, Helen Vendler, review of Walt Whitman.

Publishers Weekly, December 9, 1996, review of The Language of Names, pp. 52-53; May 16, 2002, review of Back Then, p. 48; June 24, 2002, Wendy Smith, "A New York Love Story: Anne Bernays and Justin Kaplan," pp. 32-33; April 3, 2006, review of When the Astors Owned New York, p. 52.

Punch, March 1, 1967, Malcolm Bradbury, review of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain.

Saturday Review, June 18, 1966, A.G. Day, review of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain,; November, 1980, Donald Hall, review of Walt Whitman.

Smithsonian, March, 1981, Chris Tucker, review of Walt Whitman, pp. 56-57.

Time, June 24, 2002, Andrea Sachs, "A '50s Feeling: Authors Anne Bernays and Justin Kaplan Write a Luminous Memoir about Their Mid-Century Youth," p. G10.

Village Voice, October 22, 1980, Seymour Krim, review of Walt Whitman.

Washington Post Book World, November 9, 1980, Marcus Cunliffe, review of Walt Whitman.

Wilson Library Bulletin, April, 1981, Hillary Hart, "Working in Biography: An Interview with Justin Kaplan," p. 589.

Yale Review, summer, 1981, Richard Howard, review of Walt Whitman, pp. 616-621.