Swanberg, W(illiam) A(ndrew)

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Swanberg, W(illiam) A(ndrew)

(b. 23 November 1907 in St. Paul, Minnesota; d. 17 September 1992 in Southbury, Connecticut), biographer best known for his entertaining yet meticulously researched portrayals of colorful American publishing figures and business tycoons.

Swanberg was the son of Charles Henning Swanberg and Valborg Larsen. He received a B.A. in literature from the University of Minnesota in 1930 and took graduate courses there in 1931. He then worked at a variety of jobs before becoming an assistant editor at Dell Publishing Company in New York City in 1935. On 21 March 1936 he married Dorothy Upham Green with whom he would have two children, and that year he was named editor at Dell Publishing. Swanberg remained as editor until 1944, when he spent a year as a writer for the U.S. Office of War Information in Europe. Upon his return to the United States, Swanberg settled in Newton, Connecticut, and in 1945 turned to freelance writing for the remainder of his career. He wrote magazine articles and book reviews before turning to biography in 1956.

Swanberg’s favorite subjects were controversial people, and he was known for writing entertaining biographies of colorful American tycoons, including the publishing giants William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and Henry R. Luce. Citizen Hearst, published in 1961, won the Frank Luther Mott—Kappa Tau Alpha Award and was recommended by the Pulitzer advisory committee for the prize for biography. For the first time in forty-six years the advisory committee was overruled by the trustees of Columbia University, and no prize for biography was awarded that year. Allegedly rejected due to its subject matter because Hearst and Pulitzer were newspaper publishing rivals, the book consequently became a best-seller. It was critically acclaimed for giving a balanced, sophisticated view of Hearst, whose excesses Swanberg neither excused nor condemned. In 1961 the Christian Science Monitor reviewer E. D. Canham called the work “a big step forward from the several biased biographies which … preceded it.”

Swanberg’s sympathetic presentation of tycoons such as Hearst has been compared to the writing of Theodore Dreiser, who also became the subject of one of Swanberg’s biographies in 1965. Like Hearst, Dreiser wanted to make an impression on the times and to extend his influence through his publications. As a biographer Swanberg was drawn to these larger-than-life men. With Dreiser, Swanberg was criticized for not dealing directly with the subject’s writing, choosing instead to focus on his life as an opinionated social commentator and critic. As Swanberg explained in his “Author’s Note” for Dreiser, he preferred to “study the whole man…. For a quarter-century he waged a violent battle against censorship of art, and his works, if not his words, had a large share in the victory.”

Two years after Dreiser, Swanberg published Pulitzer (1967), which most reviewers considered even better than Citizen Hearst. Swanberg’s meticulous research particularly impressed reviewers who were happy to see new information gleaned from the Pulitzer papers. The biography was hailed as the first concerning Pulitzer that had real depth and breadth and provided rich detail and insight into the incredible life of the publishing magnate.

Swanberg’s success continued with the Pulitzer Prize winner Luce and His Empire (1973), as entertaining and informative as his earlier books. However, some reviewers felt Swanberg was not objective enough in his treatment of Henry Luce. They praised the book as interesting and important but felt it had a general tone of hostility rather than criticism of its subject. In his narrative Swanberg made the assertion that without Luce no China lobby, no Senator Joseph McCarthy, and no national hysteria over Asian communism would have existed, a claim many reviewers thought excessive. Others noted Swanberg’s impeccable research and predicted the book would be the definitive biography of Luce.

Swanberg wrote ten books in all, the first of which was Sickles the Incredible, published in 1956. Sickles, a congressman, was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover but became a Union general in the Civil War. Swanberg’s other works include First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter, published in 1957, two years before he turned to biography as his sole focus with Jim Fisk: The Career of an Improbable Rascal (1959). He won the National Book Award in 1977 for his portrait of the American socialist politician Norman Thomas in Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist (1976).

Swanberg’s final book, published in 1980, was Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress, in which he profiled the New York publisher and diplomat John Hay Whitney and his daughter Dorothy Whitney. While the elder Whitney fit Swanberg’s preferred “robber baron” type of character, the daughter, according to Barbara Klaw in American Heritage, “grew up, astonishingly enough, with a very un Whitney-like social conscience.” Klaw concluded that Swanberg was “obviously intrigued by the duplicity of the father, but his affection [was] reserved for the gentle and honorable daughter.”

Swanberg was not an academic and, thus, did not have the academic’s respect for the text nor the academic’s duty to prove his or her points. His research was praised as thorough and meticulous, yet his entertaining style and ability to present balanced, detailed portraits of colorful public figures made his books best-sellers. Some became classics in the genre of biography. Swanberg died of heart failure in Southbury.

Reviews of Swanberg’s books are E. D. Canham, “Citizen Hearst,” Christian Science Monitor (14 Sept. 1961); Barbara Klaw, “Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress,” American Heritage 31, no. 4 (June/July 1980); J.K. Galbraith, “Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress,” New York Times Book Review 85, no. 30 (1980): 108; and E. F. Goldman, “Citizen Hearst,” New York Times Book Review 86, no. 35 (1981). Biographical information and some critical discussion are in Contemporary Authors, vols. 5-8 (1962), The Writers Directory: 1992-1994 (1992), and Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 103 (1991). Obituaries are in the New York(Times and the Washington Post (both 20 Sept. 1992), and The Annual Obituary 1992 (1993).

Nan Pollot