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.
Ms. Niven brought a spirited defense to the reputation of each, and was praised for illuminating their stories with details from personal documents and unpublished works.
In later years, Ms. Niven told friends that she had always considered herself a writer but had never found her subject or the time — as a teacher and a mother and wife who moved her household across the country several times in the course of her husband’s career — before she almost stumbled into her work as a late-blooming biographer of the nearly lost voices of an era.
She came to the Sandburg project in the 1970s after volunteering to help reorganize an exhibition of his effects and papers at the National Park Service museum at his former home near Flat Rock, N.C. When that became an obsession, it connected her to Sandburg’s heirs and agents, who connected her to Steichen’s (the two men were brothers-in-law) and to Wilder’s.
“She used to say that the book you’re supposed to write finds you,” not the other way around, said her daughter, who is also a writer, of fiction and nonfiction. “She was ‘the wife’ and ‘the mom’ for us — that’s what women did in her era,” Jennifer Niven said. “She was just glad the opportunity came along to start being a writer, too.”
Ms. Niven wrote five books in addition to the Sandburg biography: “Steichen: A Biography”(1997); “Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet,” a biography for children (2003); “Swimming Lessons,” a 2004 memoir; “Thornton Wilder: A Life,” published in 2012; and “Voices and Silences,” the 1993 autobiography of James Earl Jones, for which she as a co-writer with the actor.
It described how Mr. Jones, traumatized and virtually mute from the ages of 6 to 14 because of a disabling stutter, became one of the stage’s most distinctive voices.
Penelope Niven was born in Waxhaw, N.C., on April 11, 1939, to Olin Niven, a postal inspector, and Eleanor Niven, a teacher. She received her bachelor’s degree from Greensboro College, in North Carolina, and a master’s degree in English from Wake Forest University.
She was a high school English teacher in Winston-Salem, suburban Maryland and Richmond, Ind.; and after publishing her Sandburg biography, she spent 12 years as writer-in-residence at Salem College, in Winston-Salem.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Niven is survived by two sisters, Lynn Duval Clark and Doris Barron Knapp, and a brother, William. She and her daughter’s father, Jack McJunkin, were divorced in 1987.
Ms. Niven’s “Thornton Wilder: A Life,” the first major biography of that writer in 30 years, drew on previously undisclosed family papers, and a vast correspondence between him and members of the literary pantheon of his time, including Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Joyce. Charles Isherwood,writing in The New York Times, praised her sympathetic, “deeply researched and fluidly readable” account of Wilder’s complicated family life and deeply serious literary mind.
“Few writers have emerged from the crucible of the biographer’s attentions in recent years with their reputations as honorable human beings intact.” He added that from Ms. Niven’s decade of research and writing, “Wilder does.”
Her Steichen biography helped clarify Steichen’s contributions to 20th-century American art — and distinguish them from those of Alfred Stieglitz, his better-known fellow founder of photography as an art form, wrote a reviewer in The Washington Post, George Slade. Ms. Niven revealed Steichen — the passionately artistic, relentlessly experimental, and more optimistic of the two photographers — as the more essentially American artist, he wrote.
Ms. Niven had been volunteering at the Sandburg historic site for about three years when she decided that there was material for a book in the thousands of letters and manuscripts in the house where Sandburg had lived for 22 years before his death in 1967. She did not have herself in mind.
“There were letters in the closets, manuscripts under the eaves, and under the beds,” she said to an interviewer in 1991, describing what she had told Lucy Kroll, Sandburg’s former agent, when she had paid a visit to the house one day. Someone needed to write a book. But who?
Jennifer Niven recalled Ms. Kroll’s reply: “I think it’s you.”
The relationship Penelope Niven had developed by then with Ms. Kroll and the Sandburg family gave her access to records that no previous biographers had, said George Hendrick, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Illinois and editor of many Sandburg collections.
Professor Hendrick said Ms. Niven’s book achieved many worthy objectives, but said one was the most important: “It reintroduced Sandburg to a generation of college students who had literally barely heard of him.”