Journalism professor details the writing process

Robert Wyss describes the struggles and triumphs faced by environmental activist David Brower in his biographical book "The Man Who Built the Sierra Club" at Storrs Center on Monday, Nov. 14. Wyss is an associate professor of journalism at UConn, and he has also written for numerous publications such as the New York Times, The Boston Globe and Smithsonian. (Akshara Thejaswi/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut journalism professor Robert Wyss gave a talk about his new book, “The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower” on Monday night, including a more personal lecture related to his ties with the university and town.

Because the audience was composed of colleagues and friends, he said he wanted to tell the inside story of his biography.

His book, published in June of this year, tells the story of Brower, one of the best environmentalists of the 20th century. Brower built the Sierra Club into a national force, but not without making a few mistakes and opponents along the way.

Instead of giving a longer rundown of Brower and the arguments presented in his book, Wyss presented three challenges he encountered during the research and writing of his biography. They were: the myth of Brower’s fallout with the Sierra Club, the competition Wyss faced along the way and the issue of Brower’s bisexuality. Of those three, the latter seemed to interest Wyss and his audience the most.

Brower’s sexuality, while known among his friends and family, was not something that his remaining family wanted to disclose to the public. Wyss decided that producing a biography of Brower without mentioning his sexuality, and the implications it presented, was not logical or possible.

His editor at the Columbia University Press thought Brower’s sexuality should be left out of the book, or included in the epilogue. Wyss, using the advice other journalists and historians gave him, fought the editor on this until the editor complied.

Todd Newman, who is Wyss’s fellow colleague and a post-doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, said he found Wyss’s talk interesting.

“I liked how his book stands for publishing something that was pushed against,” Newman said. “Despite the editor’s wishes he persevered.”

Before Wyss started researching his book, the last notable book that recounted Brower’s work was published in the early 1970s. He figured no one would publish another book anytime soon. He was wrong.

Brower’s son, Kenneth Brower, published a biography in 2012. Tom Turner published another biography in 2015. Of the two, Turner’s book was a more competitive challenge for Wyss. However, neither of the books discussed Brower’s sexuality- something that made Wyss’s book different, Wyss said.

After the lecture, audience members asked questions about Brower’s sexuality and how his family members responded to the press about it. Another audience member asked Wyss what feedback he had received about his book. He said fairly little, and he would not know how much in royalties he made until next year.  

“Don’t write a book thinking you will make a lot of money,” Wyss advised the laughing audience. “You write a book for many other reasons. For me, I really love giving these talks.”


Claire Galvin is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at claire.galvin@uconn.edu.