Featured researcher: Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina


Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

“I am fascinated by people’s lives and the way they have lived them,” says Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, professor of English and holder of 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 the works. His work, both demanding and visionary, sheds light on little-known facets of the lives of personalities known as those of the forgotten in history.

For her outstanding research and creativity, Gerzina was named a UMass Amherst Spotlight Scholar for the fall semester 2021. “She has had an extraordinarily productive career,” says Randall Knoper, chair of the English department, praising her research achievements. and in writing. “And she’s showing no signs of slowing down.”

Her prowess is widely recognized: Gerzina has received a Fulbright Scholar Award and two National Endowment for the Humanities scholarships. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017 and the American Antiquarian Society in 2019, and is sought after as a speaker, panelist and podcaster in the US and UK.

Gerzina calls herself an accidental biographer. His first book, Carrington: a life, arose from her doctoral thesis and told the story of the English painter Dora Carrington, associated with the Bloomsbury group at the beginning of the 20th century. Novelist Meg Wolitzer says the book is “as full of idiosyncrasies, fun and pathos as real life.”

Gerzina is candid about the struggle of writing the biography. The intensive research, deep thinking and imagination she brings to each project make it a complicated undertaking, even though she has become a recognized expert in it, having chaired the Pulitzer Prize Biography Jury. Each of his books poses unique challenges. “The things you think you know about telling a life story aren’t always true because life is delicate stuff,” she says. “The truth will be different for every biographer. I like this aspect of the job.

Biographical research can be intimidating. Gerzina believed she had completed the 1986 research for her life by Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The secret garden, when she hooked up with Burnett’s great-granddaughter, who had 40 boxes of letters, photographs, paintings and costumes from the author. “I was horrified because I had to rewrite the book, but also delighted with the discovery,” recalls Gerzina.

While writing his 2008 biography, Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an extraordinary 18th century family came out of slavery and became legendary, Gerzina encountered the opposite problem: a lack of information. “What do you do when there are no letters, newspapers, photographs, drawings? ” she asks. What she did was immerse readers in her seven years of researching information on Connecticut Valley residents, Lucy Terry, the first known African-American poet, and her husband, Abijah Prince. Readers see how Gerzina relied on humble account books, tax records, and long-forgotten city meeting minutes to slowly uncover this couple’s life. The book changes perceptions of slavery in the North, revealing how prevalent it was in small towns in New England, and tells the fascinating story of a wonderful black family.

Gerzina’s curiosity led her on several occasions to cross the Atlantic to examine black life in London before the 20th century. She wrote Black London: life before emancipation (1995) and edited Black Victorians / Black Victoria (2003) and Britain’s dark past (2020). These historical books have inspired more scholarship on the subject and raise awareness of the important role blacks have long played in British life.

Building on this work, Gerzina now writes The Black Woman in British Literature and Culture, a book on early interracial marriages and their representation. She will examine the differences between actual marriages and how these women have been portrayed in literature, on stage, in advertising and elsewhere. “It’s an interesting story that took a lot of research,” she says.

Simultaneously, she is working on a thesis with the working title Growing up at the corner of black and white about her childhood in one of the rare Métis families of Springfield, Mass., in the 1950s and 1960s. She brings her biographical spirit and historical knowledge to this book, as well as the perspective she gained from living in three countries and five states, promising an insightful brief with wide appeal.

Gerzina’s body of work is particularly impressive considering the fact that she had to spare writing time in many other scholarly pursuits. From 1997 to 2012, she hosted “The Book Show,” a nationally-broadcast weekly radio show where she interviewed hundreds of novelists, including Salman Rushdie, Maya Angelou and Philip Roth. Prior to joining UMass Amherst, she taught at Vassar College, Barnard / Columbia University and Dartmouth College, where she was the first African-American woman to chair an English department at the Ivy League. While she was Dean of Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst from 2015-2020, she reinstated the main thesis requirement. Now back in the classroom, she enjoys helping UMass English students discover classical works and broaden their view of the world, and loves learning life stories from her students.

Early in Gerzina’s academic career, Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison asked her to become her tutor at Princeton University. Teaching alongside and spending time with the legendary author, Gerzina observed how her mind worked and felt her own thinking refine. Today, Gerzina hopes to pass on what she absorbed from Morrison and the many other brilliant writers she has known and studied. She sometimes passes this learned wisdom on to her students at UMass: “There are so many ways to live life,” she says. ” Do not be discouraged. Explore the possibilities as you move through the world.

Professor Gerzina recommends …

These novels and biographies are the ones that Gretchen Gerzina enjoys reading and rereading and recommends to others:


Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

Towards the lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

The secret garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Walking middle, Georges Eliot

Biography and autobiography

Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin

Heavy, Kiese Laymon

Why be happy when we can be normal ? Jeanette Winterson

I know why the caged bird is singing, Maya Angelou

Mr. and Mrs. Prince, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

Everyone at UMass Amherst should read this book to learn more about slavery and freedom in our own backyard 200 years ago!


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