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Penelope Niven, RIP

Penelope Niven

Penelope Niven, the critically acclaimed biographer of Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder, has died. She was seventy-five.

“She was just a beautiful person inside and out,” said poet and biographer Emily Herring Wilson. “She was extraordinary. She was a great public speaker and teacher. I heard her speak many times, often at Salem College. She was funny, intelligent and generous. So many people have lost a close personal friend. Her family has lost a great family member. Her readers. … Her loss will just have a great impact in all those areas.”

Niven, who lived in Winston-Salem, wrote Carl Sandburg: A Biography, Steichen: A Biography, and, most recently, Thornton Wilder: A Life. She and James Earl Jones co-authored Voices and Silences, praised as a classic on acting, and she wrote a memoir, Swimming Lessons. Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet, her biography for children, was awarded an International Reading Association Prize “for exceptionally distinguished literature for children,” one of six books honored among publications from ninety-nine countries.

She has been awarded two honorary doctorates, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, among other honors. She received the North Carolina Award in Literature, the highest honor the state bestows on an author. During the past twenty-three years she has lectured across the United States and in Switzerland, Canada, and Wales; has served as an editor for various publications; and has been a consultant for television films on Sandburg, Jones, and Steichen. She recently retired after twelve years as Writer-in-Residence at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where an international writing prize was named in her honor, along with the creative writing portfolio prize given each year to a Salem student.

Penelope Niven is the mother of award-winning author Jennifer Niven.

“I want my epitaph to testify that I have been a loving mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend,” Niven said on her website. “And I have taught, written, and lived with joy.”