Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan to a white mother and African American father, whose marriage was illegal in twenty states when they married. They moved with their two daughters just before Gretchen turned five to Springfield, Massachusetts, where she grew up, always knowing that she wanted to be a writer. She read her way through the Oz, Little Maid, and Book House series in her home, while also tackling the public library which refused to let her have an adult library card until her mother intervened.
Expecting to be a novelist—something to which she still aspires—she began instead to write lives. ("Why invent when there are so many true stories to tell?" she says.) Her first book, Carrington, is the only biography of the Bloomsbury Group figure Dora Carrington. Her second book, Black London (published in the UK as Black England), told the true story of black people in eighteenth-century Britain, and was a New York Times "notable book." She followed this with an edited book, Black Victorians/Black Victoriana. She has published three books on Frances Hodgson Burnett: a biography, Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of The Secret Garden, the Norton Critical Edition of The Secret Garden, and The Annotated Secret Garden, a lushly-illustrated and annotated edition of the perennial favorite. She also publishes numerous academic articles, chapters, and reviews.
Her latest book, Mr. and Mrs. Prince, was jointly researched with her husband, Anthony Gerzina. Lucy Terry, the first known African American poet, and her husband Abijah Prince, were landowners and former slaves who moved two hundred years earlier from Deerfield, Massachusetts, to the same village in Vermont where Anthony and Gretchen were living, and have gone down in legend as remarkable people who fought for their rights in the courts. It completely changes the notions about slavery in the North. Writing and researching this remarkable story was a life-changing event for both Gretchen and Anthony. It was nominated for many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Gerzina has a B.A. from Marlboro College, an M.A. from Simmons College, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. She has been a tenured professor at Vassar College and at Barnard College, Columbia University. For ten years she was the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography and Professor of English at Dartmouth College, where she was the first woman ever to chair the English department, and the first African American woman to chair an Ivy League English department. She was for many years an Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of Exeter in Devon, England, and also a Professor English and American Literature at Brunel University, London. She has taught courses on the novel, Victorian literature, African American literature, Black British literature, and biography. She has held two fellowships from the National Endowment for Humanities, been a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar to Great Britain, and was selected by the Rhodes Trust and Oxford University to be the George Eastman Visiting Professor to Oxford in 2009-10, and a fellow at Balliol College, which awarded her an honorary master's degree. On July 1, 2015 Gerzina began as the Dean of the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.
For fifteen years Gretchen Gerzina hosted the nationally-syndicated program "The Book Show," on which she interviewed every week some of the finest writers working today. She has appeared frequently on British television and radio documentaries. Most recently she completed a BBC/Radio 4 series called "Britain's Black Past," which will air over two weeks in January 2016.
She and Anthony recently moved from an eighteenth-century Vermont farmhouse with two red barns and two black cats, to Northampton, Massachusetts. (They have also lived in Canada, California, England and New York.) They have two grown sons, Simon and Daniel, who live in New York and Chicago, and two grandchildren, Miles and Evie.