Believing that the life of a nation is told by the lives of its people, the American National Biography consists of over 19,000 scholarly biographies of significant, influential, or notorious figures from American history.
The latest update to the American National Biography features five new essays, with a focus on important American writers and critics. It includes one of the nation’s foremost film critics, Pauline Kael; the noted black nationalist writer and poet Amiri Baraka; Esther Rome, co-author of the feminist bestseller Our Bodies, Ourselves; Chicano poet, artist, and civil rights activist José Montoya; and poet John Ashbery, whose collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1976.
Pauline Kael (1919–2001), one of the most iconoclastic, controversial, and revered film critics in the history of American print journalism. She was known for the exuberant writing style, her vision of the movies as an unparalleled populist national theater, and her desire in the late 1960s and 1970s to generate a new seriousness and sophistication in American film audiences, directors, and critics. She made movies and movie-going seem at the center of American culture. No critic had done so before with her panache, wit, and zeal.
Amiri Baraka, (1934–2014), born Le Roi Jones, one of the most influential African American writers of the twentieth century. A poet, playwright, and jazz critic, Baraka galvanized the Black Arts Movement, making an indelible contribution to modern African American culture and consciousness.
Esther Rome (1945–1995), women’s health activist who helped found the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Its 1973 book Our Bodies, Ourselves was a revelation, arguing that women were the best experts on women’s health at a time when the vast majority of physicians and medical professionals were male. Rome continued to work on women’s health issues for the rest of her life.
José Montoya (1932–2013), who in 1969 co-founded Rebel Chicano Art Front (RCAF), a Chicano artist collective that sought to bring a consciousness towards laborers’ rights and Chicano identity through public art. Montoya also wrote many iconic poems that represented Chicano culture.
John Lawrence Ashbery (1927–2017), part of a group of postwar poets who added new lyrical forms to contemporary American poetry, even as those forms proved inaccessible to many contemporary readers. As he explains in “The Lament upon the Waters” “the problem isn’t how to proceed/ But is one of being.”