Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
“I’m fascinated by people’s lives and how they lived them,” says Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, professor of English and the Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography at UMass Amherst.
Gerzina has dedicated her career to illuminating the lives of others as the author or editor of nine influential books, with two more in progress. Her work, which is both exacting and visionary, brings to light unknown facets of the lives of well-known figures as well as the lives of those overlooked by history.
For her outstanding research and creativity, Gerzina was named the UMass Amherst Spotlight Scholar for the Fall 2021 semester. “She has had an extraordinarily productive career,” says Randall Knoper, chair of the Department of English, praising her accomplishments in research and writing. “And she shows no signs of slowing down.”
Her prowess is widely acknowledged: Gerzina has received a Fulbright Scholar award and two National Endowment for the Humanities grants. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017 and to the American Antiquarian Society in 2019, and is in demand as a speaker, panelist, and podcaster in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
Gerzina calls herself an accidental biographer. Her first book, Carrington: A Life, grew from her PhD thesis and told the story of the English painter Dora Carrington, associated with the Bloomsbury group early in the 20th century. The novelist Meg Wolitzer says the book is “as full of idiosyncrasy, pleasure, and pathos as real life.”
Gerzina is candid about the struggle of writing biography. The intensive research, deep thinking, and imagination she brings to each project make it a complicated endeavor, even as she has become an acknowledged expert in it, having chaired the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Each of her books poses unique challenges. “The things you think you know about telling a life don’t always hold true because lives are tricky things,” she says. “The truth is going to be different for every biographer. I love that aspect of the work.”
Biographical research can be daunting. Gerzina thought she had finished the research for her 1986 life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, when she connected with Burnett’s great-granddaughter, who had 40 boxes of the author’s letters, photographs, paintings, and costumes. “I was horrified because I had to write the book all over again, but also thrilled with the discovery,” Gerzina recalls.
While writing her 2008 biography, Mr. And Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend, Gerzina encountered the opposite problem—a dearth of information. “What do you do when there are no letters, journals, photographs, drawings?” she asks. What she did was immerse readers in her and her husband’s seven-year search for information on Connecticut Valley residents Lucy Terry, the first known African American poet, and her husband, Abijah Prince. Readers see how Gerzina drew upon humble account books, tax records, and long-forgotten town meeting minutes to slowly uncover the lives of this couple. The book changes perceptions of slavery in the North, revealing how prevalent it actually was in small New England towns, and tells a riveting story of an admirable Black family.
Gerzina’s curiosity has repeatedly led her across the Atlantic to examine the lives of Blacks in London before the 20th century. She wrote Black London: Life Before Emancipation (1995) and edited Black Victorians/Black Victoriana (2003) and Britain’s Black Past (2020). These landmark books inspired more scholarship on the subject and raise awareness of the significant role Blacks have long played in British life.
Building on that work, Gerzina is now writing The Black Wife in British Literature and Culture, a book about early interracial marriages and their depiction. She’ll examine the differences between actual marriages versus how these women were presented in literature, on the stage, in advertising, and elsewhere. “It’s an interesting story that has taken a lot of sleuthing,” she says.
Simultaneously, she is working on a memoir with the working title Growing Up on the Corner of Black and White about her childhood in one of the few mixed-race families in Springfield, Mass., in the 1950s and 60s. She brings her biographer’s mind and her historical knowledge to this book, as well as the perspective she’s gained living in three countries and five states, promising an insightful memoir with broad appeal.
Gerzina’s body of work is especially impressive considering she has had to carve writing time out from many other scholarly activities. From 1997 to 2012 she hosted “The Book Show,” a nationally syndicated weekly radio program where she interviewed hundreds of novelists including Salman Rushdie, Maya Angelou, and Philip Roth. Before coming to UMass Amherst, she taught at Vassar College, Barnard/Columbia University, and Dartmouth College, where she was the first African American woman to chair an Ivy League English department. While serving as dean of Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst from 2015 to 2020 she reinstated the senior thesis requirement. Now back in the classroom, she enjoys helping UMass English majors discover classic works and expand their world views and loves learning from her students’ life stories.
Early in Gerzina’s academic career, Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison asked her to serve as her preceptor at Princeton University. Teaching alongside and spending time with the legendary author, Gerzina watched how her mind worked and felt her own thinking become more refined. Today, Gerzina hopes to pass along what she absorbed from Morrison and the many other brilliant writers she’s known and studied. She sometimes conveys this acquired wisdom to her UMass students: “There are so many ways to experience life,” she says. “Don’t be deterred. Explore the possibilities as you go forward in the world.”
Professor Gerzina Recommends...
These novels and biographies are ones Gretchen Gerzina loves to read and reread and recommends to others:
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Middlemarch, George Eliot
Biography and autobiography
Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin
Heavy, Kiese Laymon
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Mr. And Mrs. Prince, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
Everyone at UMass Amherst should read this book to learn about slavery and freedom in our own backyard 200 years ago!