Author in Chief (Hardcover)
The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 9781476786391, 448pp.
Publication Date: February 11, 2020
Other Editions of This Title:
Compact Disc (2/11/2020)
Most Americans are familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s famous words in the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet few can name the work that helped him win the presidency: his published collection of speeches entitled Political Debates between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln labored in secret to get his book ready for the 1860 election, tracking down newspaper transcripts, editing them carefully for fairness, and hunting for a printer who would meet his specifications. Political Debates sold fifty thousand copies—the rough equivalent of half a million books in today’s market—and it reveals something about Lincoln’s presidential ambitions. But it also reveals something about his heart and mind. When voters asked about his beliefs, Lincoln liked to point them to his book.
In Craig Fehrman’s groundbreaking work of history, Author in Chief, the story of America’s presidents and their books opens a rich new window into presidential biography. From volumes lost to history—Calvin Coolidge’s Autobiography, which was one of the most widely discussed titles of 1929—to ones we know and love—Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, which was very nearly never published—Fehrman unearths countless insights about the presidents through their literary works.
Presidential books have made an enormous impact on American history, catapulting their authors to the national stage and even turning key elections. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the first presidential book to influence a campaign, and John Adams’s Autobiography, the first score-settling presidential memoir, Author in Chief draws on newly uncovered information—including never-before-published letters from Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan—to cast fresh light on the private drives and self-doubts that fueled our nation’s leaders.
We see Teddy Roosevelt as a vulnerable first-time author, struggling to write the book that would become a classic of American history. We see Reagan painstakingly revising Where’s the Rest of Me?, a forgotten memoir in which he sharpened his sunny political image. We see Donald Trump negotiating the deal for The Art of the Deal, the volume that made him synonymous with business savvy. Alongside each of these authors, we also glimpse the everyday Americans who read them.
Combining the narrative felicity of a journalist with the rigorous scholarship of a historian, Fehrman delivers a feast for history lovers, book lovers, and everybody curious about a behind-the-scenes look at our presidents.
About the Author
Praise For Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote…
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“From the very beginnings of America’s experiment in republican government, its chief executives, both actual and aspiring, have put pen to paper (nowadays fingers to keyboard) in attempts to justify themselves and inspire others. Here, Fehrman records such literary efforts back to Jefferson and Adams. . . . Both history buffs and politics enthusiasts will relish this.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“A lively account of the literary achievements (and failures) of America’s presidents. . . . The author covers a great deal of ground that even major biographers have skipped over in favor of ‘sexier’ storylines, yet to the book lover, these stories will be unquestionably enticing. Even the footnotes, appendix, and sources offer bookish gems. Fehrman’s illuminating blend of presidential and publishing history with literary criticism will appeal to amateur historians and bibliophiles alike.”
“Original, illuminating, and entertaining—as good history can be—Craig Fehrman’s Author in Chief is a book that should have been written, and should surely be read. By looking at presidents through the prism of their published writings, Fehrman throws new light on what John F. Kennedy—himself an author-president—called ‘the vital center of action.’ ”
—Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
“Craig Fehrman takes us from Thomas Jefferson—a president who happened also to be the best prose stylist around—to the age of the obligatory campaign biography, on to the modern blockbuster. Along the way we meet revisionists, ghost writers (Truman went through four), runaway bestsellers (it seems there was a sport at which Calvin Coolidge excelled), surprising flops. We learn that the Civil War turned the occasional authorial impulse into a flood of literature; that Nathaniel Hawthorne quietly wrote a campaign biography; that the most literate presidents can meet with the worst reviews. Shapely, original, and brimming in anecdote, Author in Chief expertly illuminates, amid much else, how history finds its way into the books.”
—Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches
“This book is just as fun and fascinating when taking you inside the minds of presidents as into ordinary eighteenth-century bookworms. It’s witty, charming, fantastically learned, and engrossing. I loved it.”
—Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland
“CAUTION: This book contains material highly addictive to history lovers. From its account of Thomas Jefferson’s monumental efforts to bring out his Notes on the State of Virginia, to the description of John Kennedy’s fraudulent claims about writing Profiles in Courage, Craig Fehrman’s Author in Chief achieves what every original thesis should. The accumulated myths that we call our history are shattered by the recovery of the true facts. I’m annoyed right now that I didn’t write this disciplined, enormously engaging narrative myself.”
—Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail
“Author In Chief takes the reader into the hearts and minds of America’s presidents as they seek to define their legacies through literature. From Lincoln and Kennedy to Bush and Obama, Fehrman brings these men to life and allows us to see their struggles and revel in their successes. It offers an entirely new perspective into what it feels like to be president and how critical self-expression is to the study of American history.”
—Kate Andersen Brower, author of The Residence, First Women, and First in Line
“This engrossing and delightful work offers a fresh lens on famous presidents and a new understanding of obscure ones. Fehrman explains how the uneven written work of presidents—original and ghostwritten—reveals the curious intersection of power and publishing.”
—Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise