In Boston, Biographers and a Special Letter

Anyone writing life stories has a great resource in Biographers International Organization. The group began five years ago through the efforts of prize-winning author James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support in the often-long slog of writing biography.

I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. They seem to get better every year, and I got a lot from this year’s gathering, held in Boston in May. Three colleagues from my book-writing group in Washington also attended. 

Happy campers at the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, all of us members of a book-writing group in Washington. From left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

While in Boston I did some research at the Boston Public Library. Serendipitously, I found a letter that helped me resolve a major question about Eliza Scidmore‘s early travels in Japan in the 1880s. 

Much to Ponder

It’s seldom that a conference program doesn’t have a couple of stinkers. But according to all accounts, this year’s lineup was outstanding. Some highlights for me:

I attended panels on writing about place, sustaining tension in biography, agents and editors, and finding the right balance in content.

  • Paul Fisher, a Wellesley prof and expert on Henry James, offered thought-provoking points on different contexts of “place.” I found his comments intriguing because place is central in Eliza Scidmore’s story, given her extensive travels.
  • Stacy Schiff, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cleopatra: A Life and other biographies, gave a luncheon address that left everyone stunned by her erudition.
  • Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians I enjoyed sitting at lunch with Justin Martin,whose biography of Frederick Law Olmsted I read after meeting Justin at the 2011 BIO conference in Washington. Justin has a new book coming out this fall, on Walt Whitman and his bohemian pals.
  • I also enjoyed meeting, in the buffet line, William Souder. He wrote a definitive biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore, which I gave my husband, Bruce, for Christmas. Bruce grew up in the house next door to Carson, in Silver Spring, Md. He and his brother were photographed with her in the woods and appeared in Life magazine. Bill Souter knew the photo I meant.

Lost Letter

As for that letter by Eliza Scidmore.


While doing research at the Boston Library, I found some records that answered a major discrepancy as to when Eliza Scidmore first went to Japan. The date matters a lot because it determines when she first saw cherry blossoms.

The surprise letter also turned out to be the earliest letter of Scidmore’s I found. So, double rewards.

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  1. Mayumi Itoh on October 23, 2017 at 1:43 am

    Dear Diana-san (if I may),

    I enjoy reading your blog. Please allow me to email you for the first time.
    I am a former professor of political science in this country. Please visit amazon.books for a list of some of my previous publications. I am writing a biography of Scidmore focusing on her associations with Japan. In your blog, you stated that you had found her letter that determined when she sailed to Japan for the first time. I would like to write a record as accurately as possible. I would appreciate it very much if you would be kind enough to share the information you found regarding the date she sailed to Japan for the first time–such as the exact date, the name of the ship, where she departed, where she landed, and whether she accompanied her brother from Shanghai, or whether she sailed with her mother. As you stated, this is critical to determine when she saw the cherry blossoms in Japan for the first time.

    I believe that we share the same admiration and passion for her.
    Thank you very much for your commitment to your work!

    All best,

    • Diana on December 19, 2017 at 3:03 pm

      Mayumi Itoh.
      I am sure that as an academic you understand the value of intellectual property in scholarship and why it’s impossible for me to share with you detailed findings I discovered in my own research for a biography of Eliza Scidmore, as you have requested here. I found it curious that you never responded to my suggestion that we talk by phone about our respective projects. After discovering your posting of a self-published work about Eliza Scidmore on Amazon (Dec. 2017), I can see that you were not approaching me in a spirit of scholarly cooperation but to advance your own publishing interests. Thank you for removing, at my request, the language in your original acknowledgements stating that you were “encouraged in the writing of this book by Diana Parsell” and others whose work you drew on liberally, in many instances without giving full credit for the sources of your information.

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