Justin Kaplan (1925-2014)

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Justin Kaplan, award-winning biographer, editor, and friend of Ploughshares, passed away on March 2 at the age of 88. Kaplan guest edited the 1984 issue of Ploughshares with his wife Anne Bernays. In their introduction to this issue, Kaplan and Bernays wrote “More and more, biography and memoir writing has come to be considered, by readers as well as writers, a branch of literature rather than history, an experimental venture rather than a matter of dutiful record.”

Kaplan’s biographies embodied this theory of experimentation, eschewing chronological order for a more organic movement through the subject’s life. His book Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966) won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the National Book Award in Arts and Letters. He followed up with Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974), and his book Walt Whitman: A Life (1980) won a second national book award. The New York Times article following his death quotes Kaplan on the subject of his biographies (Newsweek interview, 1980): “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.”

In the 1980s, Kaplan became the General Editor of Barlett’s and edited the seventeenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. He changed the edition to include quotes by Woody Allen, Kermit the Frog, and Archie Leach. Kaplan and Bernays commented on their approach to humor in  their introduction to Ploughshares: “humor is too often deliberately left out of so-called ‘serious’ fiction, the writer mistakenly assuming that to inject humor is to demean art.”

Kaplan collaborated with his wife Anne Bernays not only for their issue of Ploughshares, but also to write two books: Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York (2002) and The Language of Names (1997). Listen to an interview with Kaplan and Bernays on NPR.

Kaplan’s work as both a writer and an editor helped shape the future of biographies and the literary world. We are honored that he contributed his keen editorial eye and love of humor to Ploughshares.