A Brief History of Presidential Memoirs

Barack Obama’s new autobiography joins a long—but sometimes dull—tradition

Former presidents have penned memoirs of varying focus and quality. (Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via public domain and Pixabay)
smithsonianmag.com

Next week, the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs, A Promised Land, hits bookstores. Will it be any good? For Rutgers University historian David Greenberg, the answer depends on which writing mode the former president, who’s already written two earlier memoirs, chooses.

“His first memoir, written before he was really on the political scene, was a genuine book, a genuine memoir,” says Greenberg, who is currently writing a biography of Rep. John Lewis.

Reviewers at the time generally praised Obama’s 1995 book, Dreams From My Father, for its literary merit. In 2006, as the then-senator prepared to run for president, he wrote another book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

“The thing about Audacity of Hope is it’s really a lousy book,” Greenberg says. “It’s a standard campaign book. We see these all the time.”

Like texts written largely to propel candidates’ campaigns forward, memoirs—albeit of varying focus and quality—are now a standard part of presidential careers. But scholars who study the presidency say that’s a fairly new historical development.

Historian Craig Fehrman, author of the recent book Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, says that in the United States’ early years, former presidents would never have considered publishing autobiographical books in their own lifetimes.

“It would be seen as arrogant and vain,” he explains.

According to Fehrman, four of the nation’s first five presidents at least tried to write books, with the understanding that these manuscripts would only be published after their authors’ deaths. The best-known resulting work was a four-volume compilation of Thomas Jefferson’s writings, including a memoir, letters and other assorted musings. In addition to helping cement Jefferson’s legacy, the publication improved his family’s financial situation, enabling them to recover from significant debt.

“It was a huge best seller,” Fehrman says, selling tens of thousands of copies—no small feat at the time.

The first ex-president to publish a book in his own lifetime was James Buchanan, who left office in 1861. Many modern historians view him a disaster of a leader who failed to address slavery or prevent the secession of Southern states. And Fehrman deems his book pretty terrible, too.

“Buchanan’s is definitely the worst presidential memoir I’ve read,” the historian says. “It’s mostly just James Buchanan trying to blame everyone except James Buchanan for the war and its aftermath.”

Nonetheless, Fehrman adds, people bought Buchanan’s book. The Civil War marked a turning point for presidential memoir, as after the fact, Americans were desperate to understand their national trauma. This desire led to a boom of books by generals and politicians, among them what many historians consider the best book ever written by an ex-president: Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. (It’s worth noting, however, that the two-volume set wasn’t about the presidency, but rather Grant’s role in leading the Union forces during the Civil War.)

“Once there was this explosion of literary interest after the Civil War, the biggest target was Grant,” Fehrman says.

When he left the White House in 1877, Grant didn’t think of himself as a writer. But after a business partner got the former president’s investment firm involved in a pyramid scheme that ended up bankrupting him, publishers talked Grant into writing some magazine articles for which he was very well compensated. Fehrman says Grant found that he liked writing. Mark Twain, in his role as publisher, convinced Grant to try a book. At the time he was writing, Grant was dying of cancer, and the media ate up his race to finish the memoir.

“Newspapers would have stories: ‘He went for a walk.’ ‘He finished a couple of pages.’ It was a national obsession,” Fehrman says.

Grant died in July 1885, a week after finishing the manuscript. When Twain published the work later that year, it was a runaway success. Readers at the time and since appreciated Grant’s honesty about his own mistakes, as well as his eyewitness account of the war. As 20th-century critic Edmund Wilson wrote, Grant “conveyed the suspense which was felt by himself and his army and by all who believed in the Union cause. The reader finds himself on edge to know how the civil war is coming out.”

Ultimately, the memoir made Grant’s family the equivalent of $12 million in today’s dollars. At the time, Fehrman notes, books were a serious luxury, but then and in the decades that followed, a huge swath of Americans used their limited entertainment budgets to purchase books by and about presidents.

Ulysses S. Grant and Calvin Coolidge
Ulysses S. Grant (left) and Calvin Coolidge (right) wrote comparatively compelling memoirs. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

One text that both Fehrman and Greenberg say holds up particularly well is Calvin Coolidge’s relatively short autobiography. Rather than focusing on policy debates or settling scores, Coolidge wrote about the experience of being president.

“He’s not on most people’s presidential shortlist, but he’s a really, really good writer,” Fehrman says. “Nobody’s heard of it today, but it was one of the biggest books of 1929.”

In his own book, Fehrman quotes suffragist Emily Newell Blair—who was decidedly not a Coolidge fan—praising the president’s memoir in Good Housekeeping. “Nothing could educate us better for choosing our public officials than to read after each administration the ex-president’s own interpretation of his life and experience,” she wrote.

Beginning with Harry S. Truman in 1955, almost all former presidents tried to satisfy the public hunger for these kinds of insights. George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University and editor of the Presidential Studies Quarterly, says the shift happened at a time when presidential libraries were just getting started. Franklin D. Roosevelt created the first one in 1941, and Truman’s opened in 1957.

“They started thinking about history in a more systemic way,” Edwards says. “I think there was a broader concern about history, and about the historical record, that developed about that same time.”

In addition to the financial reasons cited by his predecessors, Truman wrote his memoirs in an effort to define his time in office for posterity. He explained, for example, what he was thinking at key points in the Korean War, which had become quite unpopular by the time he left office.

“He probably wanted to set the record straight because he did not retire at the peak of popularity,” Edwards says.

According to Edwards, the presidential memoirs published after Truman’s have ranged from slick to introspective and relatively brief to multi-volume doorstops.

“Some are light reading, almost,” he says. “Some are tedious reading.”

Unfortunately for readers, Fehrman notes, many former presidents focused on burnishing their records at the cost of interesting tidbits. In recorded sessions with his ghost writers, the famously brash and profane Lyndon B. Johnson told wild stories and pointed out interesting dynamics like what he viewed as President John F. Kennedy’s somewhat desperate need for approval.

“Then they would write it up and bring it back to him, and he would say, ‘It’s not presidential,’” Fehrman says. In fact, when Fehrman edited an anthology of the best presidential writing, he ended up using a transcript of one of those interviews, which were released decades after the fact, rather than an excerpt from the memoir.

“It’s a genre where a lot of good writers have lost the thread, become too focused on settling scores, or listing every person at a meeting,” he says.

Regardless of how much spin former presidents’ books contain, Edwards says historians and political scientists generally feel the need to consult them when writing about a president’s record.

“It’s a statement that is useful, what they have to say and what they were thinking—or at least what they say they were thinking,” he says. “It’s not the last word, but it is an important word. I would think it would be very odd if you wanted to write a biography of a president and not refer to their memoirs.”

But Greenberg says there can be some pitfalls to paying too much attention to presidents’ own words. In Richard Nixon’s first memoir, written before his presidency, he claimed that he didn’t challenge the outcome of his close race against Kennedy in 1960.

“It’s a complete lie—he did contest it,” Greenberg says. (The Republican Party launched legal challenges against Kennedy’s victories in 11 states, though Nixon did publicly distance himself from these efforts.) “A lot of good Nixon biographers have taken [Nixon’s] claim at face value. Some very good biographers and historians whom I admire have rather credulously repeated things from Nixon’s memoir as if it were true. And Nixon of all people, you should not trust his memoir.”

Ultimately, the most interesting thing about memoirs may be not what they tell us about presidents but what they say about American readers. Fehrman says the U.S. has always been a “nation of nonfiction.” In particular, autobiographies, from narratives by formerly enslaved people to the writings of the most powerful, have always sold well in the country. And, the historian adds, Americans have always read presidents’ words through the lens of citizenship.

“We want to know what they believe in—we want to use that information as voters,” Fehrman says. “The books can be seen as punchlines, but readers have taken them seriously.”

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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