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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow opined in "A Psalm of Life" in 1838 that "Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And, departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time." While both writers and readers today take a much more skeptical, critical approach to the lives of the great than they did 173 years ago, biographies -- the more unvarnished the better -- have, if anything, an even stronger appeal. And this is a particularly good moment for books about important figures in the arts, among them Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Spencer Tracy.

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