Biography, Criticism, Essay, Irving Stone

Author Spotlight: Irving Stone

Every so often, a Twitter thread or Facebook meme or “Top Ten Tuesday” type survey will come around, asking people to share “a book you think everyone should read” or an “under-rated author people should try.” And every time this happens, I almost always recommend the same writer, Irving Stone, and one of two of his books, which happen to be personal favorites, LUST FOR LIFE and THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY.

So, when a Twitter thread recently posed the question a bit differently (“which book/author have you stopped recommending?”) It gave me pause. I realized that, yes, I have slowly but surely begun to recommend Irving Stone less and less because, for some reason, people just refuse to read him.

To counteract my negligence, I have decided to put together a spotlight piece on Irving Stone. I hope that you will get to know him, a bit, and begin to understand why I think he’s worth reading. Maybe some of you will even give him a try!

IRVING STONE (1903-1986)

Irving Stone was a California writer best known for his biographical novels, a genre which owes its contemporary form largely to Stone’s first novel of “bio-history,” Lust for Life (Evory, 642). In these works, Stone would “novelize accounts of real people, based on meticulous research” (NNDB). His first biographical novel, a great success, was followed by other notable works in the same genre, including Love is Eternal: A Novel of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln (1954) and The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo (1961).

Stone was born Irving Tennenbaum on July 14, 1903, in San Francisco, California. In 1934 he married his long-time editor, Jean Factor, and they had two children together. According to Stone, he began reading at a very early age, and onward through life, which caused him to be given the nickname “bookworm” (Sarkissian, 361). As a boy growing up in San Francisco in the early 1900s, Stone bore witness to many momentous events, including the great earthquake of 1906, the World’s Fair of 1914, and the implementation of Prohibition in 1919 (Sarkissian, 362-4). When Stone was not yet in high school, his mother (who was uneducated but who “craved books and knowledge”) brought him to the University of California at Berkeley and demanded with “a burning intensity” that he promise “that no matter what happens” he attend that school (364).

Stone kept that promise, thanks in large part to several fortuitous instances of luck (and evasion). For example, when he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the registrar at his new school, Manual Arts High School, mistook “English and Composition” for two separate courses; this led to young Irving – a not great student in general—being awarded not eight units of As in “English and Composition” but sixteen units of As, eight each for the two separate subjects, which were not actually separate. The registrar asked Stone to confirm this, and he did. It was only much later in life that he admitted the deception (Sarkissian, 366).

Another fortunate event took place after his first semester at the University of Southern California (USC), where Stone enrolled because he had missed the deadline for Berkeley’s spring registration. Stone, quite sure of his inability to successfully complete courses in mathematics and the sciences, learned upon enrolling at Berkeley that they had enacted a new policy requiring two years of study in these very subjects (he had gotten through them in high school only because he had friends and classmates willing to do his work for him). Luckily for Stone, an exception was written into the rules whereby any incoming student with at least 14 credits of university coursework could waive the math and science requirements. Stone had completed exactly that many hours at USC, in anticipation of his eventual transfer to Berkeley (366).

So, Stone’s rise out of the lower classes and through academia is, by his own admission, largely due to certain circumstances of fortune, but also to his own abilities as a writer. Ultimately, honored his mother’s wishes by studying Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his B.A. in 1923. He then earned his M.A. from the University of Southern California in 1924 (Evory, 641).

From boyhood and through his university years, Stone worked odd jobs, including as a vaudeville musician, a milk depot employee, a delivery boy, and an usher (Sarkissian, 364-5). According to Stone, even before his fifteenth birthday he was working up to thirty-five hours a week, while going to school (365). This would have been possible –even probable—considering Stone’s family’s lack of income as well as the fact that child labor laws in the United States were not yet in effect until 1938. It is possible that much of this early experience would feed his later academic and professional interests, including his search for “the wellsprings of human conduct” and his particular interest in “social economics” including “labor relations, poverty controls, slum clearance, and the like” (Sarkissian, 368). In college, Stone “supported himself by playing saxophone in a dance band” (Krebs) and was also granted teaching fellowships at USC and at Berkeley (Sarkissian, 368).

After finishing college and graduate studies, Stone “supported himself by writing detective stories” and a few plays. It was only after being rejected 17 times that Lust for Life, his first success, was finally accepted for publication (Britannica). Stone was particularly interested in representing, honestly, the overlooked or the misunderstood – the underdogs of history. As Albin Krebs puts it, “what aroused Mr. Stone’s curiosity was the suspicion that a character had been misunderstood or unfairly misrepresented by previous studies” (para. 15). For this reason, he often wrote about “totally unimportant figures” (Sarkissian, 370) such as Clarence Darrow, or misunderstood (particularly by the American audience) personalities, such as Vincent van Gogh and Michelangelo. In addition, Stone –again possibly due to the influence of his childhood, and especially the formative influence of his mother – “was also intrigued by how the women in the lives of men in the public eye influenced them” (Krebs, para. 15). This interest resulted in a tetralogy of popular novels, three of which, according to Stone, were about “women [who] had been traduced and vilified by history” (Sarkissian, 370).

In crafting his novels, what was most important to Stone was that the history informing his stories be as factually accurate and as detailed as possible, which takes a great amount of time and effort when one is writing about actual, historical figures. In his prologue to The Irving Stone Reader, he writes, “the biographical novelist must be the master of his material; the craftsman who is not in control of his tools will have his story run away with him” (19). Stone’s extensive and exhaustive research into his subjects led him and his wife to numerous countries, including a lengthy stay in Italy, where Stone spent years researching the life of Michelangelo. In addition to this, the pair spent two years living in Vienna, researching Sigmund Freud, and later moved to Greece to research the lives of Henry and Sophia Schliemann (Sarkissian 376).

Stone’s research did not simply lead to the completion of his novels, however; indeed, much of his work on these historical figures often resulted in other contributions to academia, such as bringing “much previously unpublished and important information into print,” including Freud’s papers and Michelangelo’s and Van Gogh’s letters (Evory, 643). Stone has also received numerous awards, including the Christopher Award and Silver Spur Award (1957), the Golden Lily of Florence, Rupert Hughes Award, Gold Medal from Council of American Artist Societies, Gold Trophy from American Women in Radio, Corpus Litterarum Award from Friends of the Libraries, University of California, Irvine (Evory, 641), and the John P. McGovern Award (NNDB). He also founded the Academy of American Poets in 1962 (Britannica).

Finally, although Stone withdrew from his Ph.D. program at Berkeley prior to completing his dissertation, he did eventually receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Berkeley, as well as honorary doctorates from A&H University, California State Colleges, Coe College, Hebrew Union College, and the University of Southern California (OAC).

Works Cited

  • Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series. Vol. 3. Ed. Adele Sarkissian. Detroit: Gale, 1986.
  • Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series. Vol. 1. Ed. Ann Evory. Detroit: Gale, 1981.
  • “Finding Aid to the Irving Stone Papers.” Online Archive of California. The Regents of the
  • University of California, 2009.
  • “Irving Stone.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Fantastic Fiction. Fantastic Fiction, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” NNDB. Soylent Communications, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone, Author of ‘Lust for Life,’ Dies at 86.” Obituaries. New York Times, 2013.
  • Stone, Irving. The Irving Stone Reader. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1963.

All work found on is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.

2011 Historical Fiction Challenge, Art, Art History, Book Review, Catholic History, Classical History, Creative Biography, Irving Stone, Italian History, Michelangelo, Reformation, Renaissance

Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 22

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a biographical novel of the life of Michelangelo.  The story begins when Michelangelo is a young apprentice and ends with his death at 89.    All in all, the book is put together brilliantly.  Michelangelo was tormented throughout his life – never left to satisfy himself as he was always at the mercy of political and religious leaders’ desires.  The reader is afforded an intimate look at how difficult and dangerous Michelangelo’s days were – Popes, Cardinals, and Political leaders were assassinated regularly; even Michelangelo’s own life was threatened on more than one occasion.  Michelangelo was forced to create at the whim of various Popes for the majority of his life, under threat of being thrown in prison if he were to deny his services to the Vatican.  Not only is the political atmosphere interesting to witness, but so are the personal relationships Michelangelo has with his family and friends, as well as other artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli are all alive and working during Michelangelo’s days (Donatello had died not too many years before), so much of what they are doing, and their works in relation to Michelangelo’s, is included.  Stone gives modern day readers an incredible look at what it was like to live during the Reformation and Renaissance, for the artist and for the everyman.

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

There are so many characters in this book, it is almost ridiculous.  Of course, the book is nearly 800 pages long and spans nearly 80 years of Michelangelo’s life, so this is appropriate.  It was difficult, though, to connect with characters other than Michelangelo.  There are certain people, like Topolino family – stone cutters who tend to be more a family to Michelangelo than his own biological one is- as well as Tommaso and Il Magnifico who are written very well,  even beautifully, and who truly demonstrate the good nature possible in humanity. They are also written (as are some of Michelangelo’s masters) with a clarity of inspiration and impact on Michelangelo’s life and works, so that hundreds of pages (decades of time) after they are no longer in Michelangelo’s life, their presence is still felt in his creation.  Conversely, there are the rotten apples as well – such as the irritating Popes (some better than others, but almost all a nuisance and dictator to Michelangelo) and the disgusting Aretino of Venice, who spends his life earning money by blackmailing others.  The different people and portions of Italy, too, become characters.  There are the Florentines – lusty, artistic, and wealthy; the Romans – dangerous, dark, self-involved; the Carrara – interdependent, suspicious, isolated; the Bolognese – joyous, hearty, uncultured.  As Michelangelo travels and interacts with these different people, their cultures come to life and these too have lasting impact on Michelangelo’s works and methods.  The only complaint would be that Michelangelo is truly the only character in the book to be cared about which, while granting the fact that this is a biographical novel of Michelangelo, is still somewhat disappointing given the number of characters involved.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

It was surprising to find a few grammatical errors in the book, particularly as this is not a first edition and the book was a #1 NYT Bestseller, but one cannot fault the author for items which should have been caught during the editing process.  Those tiny complaints aside, Stone is a powerful and entertaining writer.  His prose and language are both intelligent, yet fluid.  It would be easy to imagine a book of this length, which takes place 500 years ago, being incredibly difficult to read.  Fortunately, this was not the case.  Stone uses many Italian words and phrases for emphasis, but translates these words into English immediately following their use (in dialogue or description).  This is incredibly effective, as it allows the reader to stay in period and to learn something, but also allows the reader to continue the story without confusion or without stops to search for a word’s meaning.   He is also adept at dialogue in general, as well as in timing/transitioning from prose to poetics.  There are moments where the general prose breaks off into a poem, a letter, or a list – and these moments are seamless and natural.  The chapters, too, are an appropriate length and seem to be pre-planned, so that the right amount of information is covered in the correct amount of time (and this information is also cohesive with the present time/situation in the story).  It was not as vividly written as Lust for Life, which at times seemed to read like one was watching a film; but, it was appropriate to the time and mood of Michelangelo’s life and work.  Michelangelo was much less emotionally extroverted than Vincent van Gogh, and his works were more soulful than passionate, so the prose followed appropriately.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most appealing about this novel is that it was written with the help 495 of Michelangelo’s personal letters (all translated from Italian for the author to create this book specifically), as well as his contracts and professional records.  This is the same method which Stone used to write his brilliant book, Lust for Life, a biographical novel of Vincent van Gogh, and it works again here, just as well.  It took 6 years from the start of research to the completion of the book, and Stone spent many of those years living and researching in Italy, specifically in the various cities where Michelangelo spent much of his time and which were therefore important to his life story.  This incredibly detailed study resulted in a brilliant work that is both factual and creative – much of the dialogue had to be recreated, of course, and specific happenings in Michelangelo’s travels and studies were also necessarily created by Stone.  With so much historical fact, though, and so much based on Michelangelo’s own letters, coupled with the extensive research that Stone did, the book ends up reading as if it were written by a first-hand observer of Michelangelo’s life.  Stone was careful not to take liberties too far, as well; for example, he wrote in the important decades-long relationship between Michelangelo and Tomasso, including the “scandal” that was invented by a jealous fan and known blackmailer of information (contemporary readers should think of a 1500s-era Rita Skeeter) over their relationship; however, he left the nature of that relationship largely open to interpretation, which seems appropriate as there is not much firm evidence to support either opinion (lovers or just master/apprentice).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+

Interest: Art History, Michelangelo, Renaissance, Italian History, Catholic History

Notable Quotes:

“For what is an artist in this world but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful? Before we even begin to work, to feed this craving of ours, we must find a patron, a rich man of affairs, or a merchant, or a prince or… a Pope. We must bow, fawn, kiss hands to be able to do the things we must do or die.”

“Still, it is true: people who are jealous of talent want to destroy it in others”

“Listen, my friend: it’s easy to get used to the expensive, the soft, the comfortable. Once you’re addicted, it’s so easy to become a sycophant, to trim the sails of your judgment in order to be kept on. The next step is to change your work to please those in power, and that is death to the sculptor.”

“He knew that many artists traveled from court to court, patron to patron, for the most part well housed, fed and entertained; be he also knew he would not be content to do so. He promised himself that one day soon he must become his own man, inside his own walls”

“Art has a magic quality: the more minds that digest it, the longer it lives.”

“Humanism … what did it mean? … “we are giving the world back to man, and man back to him. Man shall no longer be vile, but noble…. Without a free, vigorous and creative mind, man is but an animal and he will die like an animal, without any shred of a soul. We return to man his arts, his literature, his sciences, his independence to think and feel as an individual, not to be bound to dogma like a slave, to rot in his chains”

Book Review, Creative Biography, Fiction, Historical, Irving Stone

Review: Lust for Life by Irving Stone


Irving Stone’s Lust for Life is a biographical novelization of the life of Vincent van Gogh. The novel is based on the many letters (approximately 700) written between Vincent van Gogh and his younger brother, Theo. Stone takes author’s creative license and invents dialogue, situations, etc. but many of the characters, places, and events are based on events which really happened and which were described in the brothers’ letters. The novel spans approximately ten years, from the time van Gogh leaves home to become a missionary, to his death in Auvers-sur-Oise. Stone appropriately captures van Gogh’s temperament, as well as his passion for art, though never quite having been accepted as an artist in his lifetime, by critics or peers.

The Good:

Where to begin? Essentially, almost any and every aspect of this novel is “good.” The novel is written so well, so fluidly and vividly, that for much of the novel I truly felt like I was watching a movie. The characters – many of them historically familiar- came to life for me, were distinguishable from one another and were eerily true to the impression I had of many of these people (at least the ones I had heard of prior to reading this book). I appreciated especially that Stone recreated such a believable, seamless biography from letters composed between the two van Gogh brothers. It would have been simple to present this in epistolary form, but I think the beauty and connection between the reader and the characters (aka historical figures) is greatly enhanced by being presented in the biographical novel form. Not only was the novel entertaining and beautifully written, but as someone not too familiar with art history and the “schools” or relationships between these artists (Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Pissarro, Seurat, Degas, etc) I was pleased to have been able to learn so much and to appreciate the life and works of these men (and women) without necessarily feeling overwhelmed by all of the new information. I was impressed by the attention paid to each of the major artists and their particular artistic style: Seurat’s scientific/intellectual approach; Gauguin’s love of color; Rousseau’s imagination. I found myself running to my cell phone or laptop many, many times so I could look up examples of the artists’ paintings (sometimes specifically referenced, sometimes particularly styles – like pointillism – mentioned in dialogue) and this greatly enhanced the novel for me, in terms of connectivity and imagery. The minor characters, too, such as the miners, the weavers, the peasants, and van Gogh’s many “women” were also well established – something I found particularly endearing as van Gogh himself spent his greatest energies on representing beauty in the “real” people, and not the typical interpretations of the beautiful. I felt this was one of many ways in which Stone paid homage to the work and character of van Gogh, while telling his life story. I was quite impressed by the author’s desire to remain honest and respectful – Stone presents the reader with the good and bad, the instability and the romance – and he lets the reader make his own judgments (as van Gogh would strive to represent the spirit of the painting, without putting his own moral judgment on the model).

The Bad:

The one singular fault I could find with this novel is that, though I came to understand van Gogh’s life and time quite well, I don’t know that I particularly understand van Gogh much better. I certainly know more about his painting style, his relationships, his general character and family life. I learned much about his devotion to his brother and his respect for his parents. Yet, for instance, when van Gogh begins to go a bit mad (we get the impression this is induced by sun stroke) and that madness ultimately leads to his suicide, I don’t get a clear understanding of the “why?” What was really going on with van Gogh? He would have his episodes every three months, like clockwork, but does any real ailment actually happen like that? It seems, almost, that these episodes/fits were self-induced, but this is something the author does not hypothesize about – possibly because he means to speak strictly from the van Gogh letters and not put any of his own interpretations of the situation into the work. Still, I would have appreciated a better understanding of why, for instance, van Gogh was so disturbing to women – he had no wealth, no real income, and a boisterous character, certainly, but that the only woman he could claim as a wife (in name, not legality) was a prostitute, and even she left him – this seems, too, to say something about van Gogh’s personality that is conspicuously absent from the novel. Vincent van Gogh also had no real friends – many people are said to be frightened of him, even. I am left with the impression that van Gogh’s temperament may have been unstable for much of his life, but only became more pronounced in his later years – the inability to stay in one place, to go into passions over an idea (such as the artist’s commune) and then suddenly, without warning or reason, drop and dismiss the passions entirely. The sun stroke and the isolation in Arles perhaps further subjected van Gogh to his own mental instability. It is interesting that in Arles and St. Remy, where he begins to lose his wits (and is committed to an insane asylum), is also where he paints his acclaimed masterpieces: “The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum”, the “Sunflowers” series, and “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” It’s almost as if van Gogh needed to work himself to mental exhaustion, to starve his body and rack his mind to its limits in order to create his very best work. While some of these episodes are well written, and the decline is indicated clearly and orderly, I still found the reasoning, the underlying cause, missing.

Final Verdict: 4.5/5.0
Upon reflection and review, I find Lust for Life to be an almost perfect novel. It is well-written. It is, as far as I can tell, honest to history and the historical figures it represents. Stone does a masterful and delicate job of re-telling the life story of one of history’s greatest and most well-known artists. Though I would have appreciated more time having been spent on van Gogh’s mental decline, I did find the decline easy to follow and to witness. Some other elements, like van Gogh’s infamous alcoholism and “smoker’s cough” were left out (there was plenty of drinking – but a “problem” was not implied) which, perhaps, Stone did not find necessary, but I believe it detracts from some of the underlying problems (does a sober man really cut off his ear?). Still, though, the language, the relevance, the relationships, the characterization and emotion are all brilliant. Stone even makes an effort to present his characters in the manner which van Gogh would paint his own models and landscapes, an ingenious and, I’m sure, incredibly difficult task to accomplish. This has been one of the best pieces of biographical fiction I’ve ever read, and even one of the best novels I’ve enjoyed in my rather large reading history. I eagerly await the chance to read Stone’s “masterpiece,” The Agony and the Ecstasy which is another biographical novel, this one about Michelangelo.