Life Writing

Literary Lives Series

Literary Lives Celebrates 30 Years

Allie Troyanos, Commissioning Editor for Palgrave Macmillan's Literature list, reflects on 30 years of the Literary Lives series, and what we can expect from its recent relaunch.

Life writing continues to capture the imagination and attention of readers and literary biography is no exception. Literary Lives is a longstanding Palgrave series, founded by Richard Dutton, Professor Emeritus of The Ohio State University in 1989. Since its inception, the series has aimed to publish books that provide an overview of a writer’s oeuvre. Over the years, the series has published renowned biographers writing about key figures in literature.

Notably, the series has published many books by Linda Wagner-Martin including Sylvia Plath (2003), Ernest Hemingway (2007), Emily Dickinson (2013), Toni Morrison (2015), and John Steinbeck (2017). Wagner-Martin, the Frank Borden Hanes Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and series editor for American Literature Readings in the 21st-Century, recalls Dutton’s particular vision for the series, “Literary Lives books try to focus on the years during which the writer is most active, most influential. Such an emphasis allows the author to begin from starting points other than the life’s beginning. My Emily Dickinson began as she returned home from her year in college, for example; my Steinbeck skips some of his early, unsuccessful writing. In Morrison’s case, because she didn’t think of herself as an author until after The Bluest Eye appeared in 1970, my book began with the later 1970s—as she was giving up her editorial work and becoming a full-time writer.” Wagner-Martin is now writing her sixth book for the series on Walt Whitman.

When asked why readers are drawn in by biography Wagner-Martin attributes the recent interest in life writing and particularly memoir to Maya Angelou’s six-volume autobiography, beginning with her 1970 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “Readers read literary biography, such as the books in Literary Lives, for the same reasons Angelou’s readers followed her volumes. People are increasingly interested in non-fiction. Readers hunger for exemplary lives—they want to understand what sets one human being above others, what makes a reader into a writer. I think of Literary Lives as a series that will satisfy readers’ interest in the British and American writers they find important, through books that humanize the work from many different centuries.”

In its thirtieth year, Palgrave is relaunching the series with three books: Elizabeth Bowen (2019), H G Wells (2019) and Oscar Wilde (2019). Our goal is to publish these literary biographies in an accessible and affordable format for students, scholars, and the general reader alike. What’s different is that we plan to put more of an emphasis on publishing both canonical authors as well as rediscovered authors. Among the forthcoming books, the series will publish on Walt Whitman and Richmal Crompton. With the striking redesign of the covers, we hope readers will continue to recognize the Literary Lives books and look to the series for highly researched, comprehensive, and accessible overviews of key writers.

As Wagner-Martin says, “Bringing successful authors to life is the primary aim of the series Richard Dutton created all those decades ago.” Palgrave remains committed to this vision through the study of great authors and publishing outstanding life writing.

Allie Troyanos is a Commissioning Editor for Literature at Palgrave Macmillan. If you have a proposal for the Literary Lives series, or for our Literature portfolio more widely, get in touch with her at

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