While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.
– William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
When I was 5 years old I dreamed of being a writer. When I was 40, I finally did something about it. I stepped over the threshold into my 40s loving my life, but taking stock: “Not very long ago I was 5 and dreaming about being a writer,” I thought. “Before long I’ll be 80 — and full of regret if I don’t honor the dream that belonged to my 5-year-old self.”
As a little girl I dreamed of writing poems and stories and maybe some plays, but I never dreamed of writing biography. Thirty-five years later, I embraced the challenges that ultimately led me to become a biographer. When you write biography, I discovered, you have to write with everything you are, everything you know, everything you yourself have lived. Writing biography demands that you employ everything you ever learned — and continually learn even more in the daunting effort to do justice to another life.
When I was 46 I signed my first book contract. My biography of Carl Sandburg was published when I was 52, and followed by other books, including a biography of photographer Edward Steichen and a book written with James Earl Jones about his life and career in progress. Now, at age 72, I have just finished writing the first comprehensive biography of Thornton Wilder, to be published by HarperCollins this year in October.
In 1961-62 I was a student in the first Wake Forest University graduate class in the humanities. I was especially fortunate to study with Provost Emeritus Edwin Wilson (’43) and John Broderick. What they taught me by word and deed would take root and flourish over a lifetime — and help equip me to write biography.
I still have the textbook we used when I studied the Romantic poets with Dr. Wilson. As he vividly illuminated the poetry and the lives and times of the poets, he taught me the imperative of context, the fundamental need to know the writer’s roots in time and place. I came away with an enduring passion to explore the spirit and struggles of the human beings who produced the poems and prose on the page. Over the 50 years since those graduate school days, Ed Wilson has been my friend and a vital encourager of my work.
Dr. Broderick, a specialist in American literature, imparted other necessary skills. He taught me how to navigate the research journey — seeking the most reliable sources, excavating the layers of a text, persisting in the patient, endless search for facts. He taught me to strive to be immaculate in my use of facts and sources. After he went from Wake Forest to the Library of Congress he introduced me to the exciting research possibilities in that vast library, where a biographer can unearth a tangible past through original letters, journals and manuscripts.
Ed Wilson was the catalyst for my passion to know the person who became the author or actor or photographer, to understand the harmonizing elements of the life, as well as the dissonance, the ingredients that make us human. John Broderick taught me to search dispassionately for the truth of the life and to document that truth meticulously.
My Wake Forest sojourn has yielded other great gifts. My Wake Forest roommate and fellow writer Emily Herring Wilson (MA ’62) has been my friend all these years. Foremost, there is Jennifer Niven McJunkin, my daughter. Her grandfather, Jack Fain McJunkin, attended Wake Forest. It was in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library that I met her father, Jack Fain McJunkin Jr. (’64), also a student. Beginning when she was 5, Jennifer dreamed of being a rock star — and a writer. As Jennifer Niven, she has realized the writing dream. Her sixth book will be published in September, just as she delivers the manuscript for her seventh. She is my joy, my indispensable fellow writer, my finest work of art.
My life has been profoundly shaped and enriched by my Wake Forest experience. It seems that my master’s degree came with a lifetime warranty, for I found here “life and food” for the mind, the spirit, the heart — past, present and future.
Penelope Niven has been awarded the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the North Carolina Award in Literature, the highest honor the state bestows on an author. She lives in Winston-Salem.