Taliaferro, John 1952-
Taliaferro, John 1952-
Home—Austin, TX, and Pray, MT.
Journalist and biographer. Worked formerly as a senior editor at Texas Monthly and Newsweek.
Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1996.
Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore, Public Affairs, 2002.
In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, a Marriage, a Murder, and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898, Public Affairs, 2006.
In his well-received biographies, journalist John Taliaferro focuses on artists who have made significant contributions to American popular culture. Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist, published in 1996, examines the life of one of the most important artists to document the experience of the American frontier. Russell's romanticized paintings and sculptures of cowboys and Native Americans influenced later generations of artists, and helped to create a definitive image of the American West. Taliaferro's study of Russell, in the opinion of many reviewers, succeeded in capturing the essence of a complex figure. A writer for Publishers Weekly called the biography an "important work," and Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor noted that "Taliaferro writes like a veteran, going beyond chronicle to plumb his subject's inner, emotional life." Mark Shapiro in the Bloomsbury Review also commended Taliaferro for a skillful depiction of the legendary artist.
Taliaferro's next subject was much more controversial. Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, tells the story of an American writer who achieved immense popularity through his many Tarzan books, which he penned in the early decades of the 1900s. The novels chronicled the adventures of Tarzan, an orphan of aristocratic English descent who is raised by apes in Africa and grows up to become a mighty hero. The Tarzan books were considered popular adventure stories, and introduced many U.S. readers to thrilling images of an exotic Africa. Critics later in the twentieth century, however, denigrated Burroughs for creating utterly unrealistic clichés of a continent that he had never actually visited, and criticized the Tarzan books for their racist attitudes.
Recognizing the flaws in Burroughs's work, Taliaferro produced a biography that reviewers considered insightful and fair. David Traxel, in the New York Times Book Review, argued that Taliaferro's analysis of Burroughs's character does not go deep enough, but Traxel nevertheless admired Taliaferro's insights on how Burroughs manipulated popular culture. Michael Berry, in American History, admired the biographer's ability to convey both the "brash early confidence of Burroughs' early years" and his later years of pathos, concluding that "Tarzan Forever presents a lively chronicle of an American writer who will never be regarded as either a great stylist or a deep thinker, but … who surely ranks as one of this century's most popular storytellers." Ellen Clegg, reviewing the book for the Boston Globe, commented that, while Tarzan Forever is "a good-natured hagiography of a hack," Taliaferro "provides an incisive read about a rogue who became one of the godfathers of pop culture and one of the first explorers in the American celebrity jungle."
Following up on the success of Tarzan Forever, Taliaferro published Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore in 2002. Central to the creation of the mountain sculpture is Gutzon Borglum, the chief designer. Taliaferro covers Gutzon's turbulent way of life that continued through the creation of the monument and to his ultimate death. Borglum was widely considered talented, yet also a very difficult person. In a Washington Monthly review, Alan Greenblatt noted that "reading Taliaferro's breezy, winning account, though, it's hard not to feel that Borglum's end was fitting." Frederick E. Allen, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said the book "is briskly written, never dull, and it never bogs down."
In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, a Marriage, a Murder, and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898 tells of a largely unknown rescue mission in Alaska that occurred in 1898. Missionary Tom Lopp, along with seven indigenous herders of the area, drove a herd of 400 reindeer to Point Barrow in northern Alaska where eight ships had become stranded from the previous autumn's freezing weather. With them, they carried food and supplies for the starving men. George Cohen, writing in Booklist, noted that the "thorough account" was "rich in detail." A contributor to Publishers Weekly suggested that the book "will be best appreciated by readers with a specific interest in Alaskan or missionary history." In a Library Journal review, Ingrid Levin wrote that this "well-written account … succeeds in creating a vivid, thoughtful, and often heartbreaking portrait of a brutal yet fragile wilderness."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American History, December, 1999, Michael Berry, review of Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, p. 67; April 1, 2003, Michael Berry, review of Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore, p. 62.
Bloomsbury Review, November, 1996, Mark Shapiro, review of Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist, p. 23.
Booklist, May 1, 1996, Gilbert Taylor, review of Charles M. Russell, p. 1481; October 15, 2006, George Cohen, review of In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, a Marriage, a Murder, and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898, p. 20.
Boston Globe, April 2, 1999, Ellen Clegg, review of Tarzan Forever, p. F7.
Choice, November 1, 2003, J.S. Wood, review of Great White Fathers, p. 609.
Forbes FYI, November 11, 2002, Thomas Jackson, review of Great White Fathers, p. 134.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2006, review of In a Far Country, p. 944.
Library Journal, February 1, 2003, Scott H. Silverman, review of Great White Fathers, p. 102; October 15, 2006, Ingrid Levin, review of In a Far Country, p. 75.
New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1999, David Traxel, review of Tarzan Forever, p. 26; November 24, 2002, Frederick E. Allen, review of Great White Fathers; December 6, 2006, William Grimes, review of In a Far Country.
Publishers Weekly, April 8, 1996, review of Charles M. Russell, p. 51; March 29, 1999, review of Tarzan Forever, p. 82; November 18, 2002, review of Great White Fathers, p. 56; September 4, 2006, review of In a Far Country, p. 51.
Reference & Research Book News, February 1, 2003, review of Great White Fathers, p. 63.
Washington Monthly, December 1, 2002, Alan Greenblatt, review of Great White Fathers, p. 58.
Washington Post Book World, June 9, 1996, review of Charles M. Russell, p. 13; November 19, 2006, Kate Fogarty, "Adventure Travel: Going Native Can Lead to Culture Shock—and a Good Book or Two," p. 13.
Western Historical Quarterly, winter, 2004, Herbert T. Hoover, review of Great White Fathers.
Public Affairs Books Web site,http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/ (June 6, 2007), author profile.