Penelope Niven, Carl Sandburg Biographer, Dies at 75

Historians in the News
tags: obituary, Penelope Niven

Penelope Niven was a high school English teacher, nearing 40, when she began work on a biography of Carl Sandburg. She had never written a book before. She didn’t have a Ph.D. in literature and hadn’t even been that familiar with Sandburg’s work.

But the volume she produced 14 years later, “Carl Sandburg: A Biography” (1991), was groundbreaking and helped revive interest in a nearly forgotten poet, Lincoln biographer and literary folk hero of his time.

Ms. Niven died at 75 on Aug. 28 in Winston-Salem, N.C., apparently of an aneurysm, her daughter, Jennifer Niven said.

Ms. Niven followed the Sandburg book with biographies of two other fading luminaries of the Depression and World War II generation — Thornton Wilder, the novelist-playwright who created the perennial American stage favorites “Our Town” and “The Skin of Our Teeth;” and Edward Steichen, the photographer also known as curator of a traveling photo exhibition, “The Family of Man,”that drew millions to its message of universal human kinship during a postwar world tour.

Her subjects shared certain qualities: Each had a fundamentally optimistic view of life; all had been embraced by the public and dismissed, to a greater or lesser extent, by critics for their supposed sentimentality and Reader’s Digest-accessibility...

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