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Prose from presidential pens – ‘Author in Chief’

February 26, 2020
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It goes without saying that there is a rich political history tied to the presidency of the United States. Every U.S. president has brought something significant to the table with regards to the political landscape of our country.

But have you ever considered the literary impact our chief executives have had?

That consideration is the foundation of Craig Fehrman’s new book “Author in Chief: The Untold Story of our Presidents and the Books They Wrote” (Avid Reader Press, $30). It’s a years-long undertaking packed with an incredible depth of research and thoughtful analysis, all of it devoted to exploring the literary output of our presidents.

Fehrman walks us through the entirety of American history, exploring the books written by (or at least credited to) our presidents from George Washington all the way up through Donald Trump. It’s a chance to look at these historical titans through the lens of the words they themselves put down on paper. And really, what better way to gain insight into their inner lives and thoughts?

From the very beginning, the men who have led this country have been men of letters. Just about every man who has held the office has at least one book – and often considerably more – to their name. And these books, whether they were works intended to aid in campaigns or to recount legacies or something altogether different, offer completely different perspectives on the men who wrote them. What “Author in Chief” does is give us a chance to take a new view of our Commanders-in-Chief.

Fehrman has divided the book into four distinct sections, roughly corresponding with evolutions in the nature of works being produced by our presidents.

Part One spans George Washington to James Monroe. The lion’s share of the focus is spent on the works of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; each man essentially created the first example of the two sorts of books most common among presidential authors. Fehrman pegs Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” as the first “campaign book” – that is, a book that placed its author’s ideas in front of a larger audience and (intentionally or otherwise) helped steer him to the office. Adams, on the other hand, gave us what would be the first “legacy” book – one that would look back on the accomplishments of the man after he left the office – when he published his autobiography.

(It’s worth noting that these were far from the only works penned by either man – both were prolific writers over the span of their lengthy political careers.)

In Part Two, we cover John Quincy Adams to Ulysses S. Grant. Obviously, this stretch includes Abraham Lincoln, whose decision to publish the texts of his famed debates with Stephen Douglas proved to be an effective introduction to both his ideology and his personality. We also get Ulysses S. Grant, whose memoirs became an absolute publishing sensation, a runaway bestseller that to this day remains one of the most literarily accomplished works of autobiography from any president.

Part Three takes us from Rutherford B. Hayes (sorry RBH stans – he’s one of the CIC’s who doesn’t get a lot of ink here) to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This section includes both presidential Roosevelts – spending time with Teddy is a reminder that he was a man of wide and wild interests, penning acclaimed tomes on naval history and big game hunting before allowing his ambition to get the better of his quality control. Oh, and considering that he’s largely an afterthought these days, a surprising amount of Calvin Coolidge, who changed the presidential authorship game in some significant ways.

From there, we go to Part Four, which carries us from Truman to Trump. This one might be the most … scandalous isn’t quite the right word. Unexpected, perhaps? Truman went through four ghostwriters trying to get his book done, while JFK failed to acknowledge the help he got from his own (though he was apparently quite smitten with the idea of being a writer, even if he wasn’t always interested in doing the actual writing). There’s Ronald Reagan’s revisionist autobiography and the rediscovery of a work from the early days of his political career; Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my Father” took a somewhat similar path.

As you might imagine, not all of our 45 presidents get the full treatment here. Instead, Fehrman opts to zero in on those authors in chief whose works are the most reflective of the climate in which they were composed. The books and authors that receive his primary attention are the ones that had some sort of significant impact. Books that helped win elections or define political careers. Books that changed the way people bought and/or sought things to read.

Oh, and lest we forget, there are some outliers. The aforementioned Teddy Roosevelt wrote about hunting and nature. Herbert Hoover, a former mining engineer, wrote a popular textbook titled “Principles of Mining: Valuation, Organization, and Administration” (a real page-turner, for sure). Woodrow Wilson was a professional scholar before achieving the highest office, a professor of history and political science who wrote half-a-dozen scholarly texts, including a biography of George Washington and a surprisingly prescient book titled “The State.”

Through it all, Fehrman guides the reader toward an understanding of how these books both shaped and were shaped by the times in which they were written. Each of these men can be more fully comprehended through the ways they chose to put pen to paper – Fehrman walks us through it, capturing details large and small to bring these literary lives to light.

“Authors in Chief” is an absolutely absorbing read. The combination of exceptionally detailed research and well-crafted prose results in a truly engaging work of nonfiction. It’s a fascinating look at American history that isn’t quite like anything you’ve read before, a chance to view the men who have led this country through a different and very specific lens.

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 February 2020 08:09

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