Allan Peskin, American history, biographies, book reviews, Candice Millard, James Garfield, Kenneth Ackerman, presidential biographies, Presidents
Who would have guessed that a president of so little fame and so brief a tenure in the White House would prove such an interesting biographical subject?
Despite what I perceived to be long odds, each of the three biographies of James Garfield I read were both interesting and meritorious. And one of them is among the most popular three or four books on any president at the moment.
Somewhat in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, Garfield was born into poverty and worked diligently to better himself through education. But where Lincoln heard the clarion call of the legal profession, Garfield was drawn to teaching and, soon, the Union army. Both Lincoln and Garfield were drawn into national politics in mid-life, and both of their presidencies were cut short by a madman’s bullet.
Lincoln’s presidency witnessed the entirety of the Civil War before an assassin ended his second term as president. But James Garfield barely had time to appoint a cabinet and vanquish a power-hungry Republican rival before being shot just months into his first term.
I was surprised and delighted to find the story of this 200-day president so interesting. And I found myself wondering what might have been had he lived. Several generations of historians have pondered the same.
* * *
*The first biography I read was “Dark Horse: the Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield” by Kenneth Ackerman. Published in 2003, this book proves to be a political thriller almost exclusively focused on the last sixteen months of Garfield’s life.
Ackerman’s account of the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago is absolutely captivating and the book’s pace rarely slows during its 453 pages. His accounting of the bitter political rivalry between fellow Republicans James Blaine and Roscoe Conkling is terrific. And it sets the stage perfectly for Ackerman’s description of the power struggle which later erupted between President Garfield and Senator Conkling.
As a presidential biography this book’s key weakness is its lack of coverage of most of Garfield’s life. And although it is tempting to assume that not much of consequence happened during his first forty-eight years, that is hardly the case. Nonetheless, this is an incredibly compelling narrative that will thrill all but the most hard-core of historians. (Full review here)
*The second biography I read was “Garfield: A Biography” by Allan Peskin. Published in 1978, this was the first comprehensive biography of Garfield in four decades and was published just weeks before Margaret Leech’s biography “The Garfield Orbit” (which was completed after her death and is on my follow-up list).
In many ways, Peskin’s biography of Garfield typifies the perfect presidential biography. It is comprehensive, provides penetrating insight into its subject and proves informative without becoming dull or tedious. Despite its age it is easy to read and digest.
Its key flaws are a relative lack of focus on Garfield’s personal life (which leaves him more two-dimensional than he deserves) and a failure to provide more historical context. Often Peskin is so focused on Garfield’s “bubble” that national events of great importance are not articulated. But overall, Peskin’s “Garfield: A Biography” is excellent. (Full review here)
*The last biography of Garfield I read was “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard. Published in 2011, this popular narrative currently ranks as one of the most popular books of any kind on any president. Though it falls somewhat short as a presidential biography, the attention it receives is well-deserved.
“Destiny of the Republic” has nearly all of the drama of Ackerman’s book, but with a tighter focus on Garfield’s assassination, poor medical care and death…and less emphasis on his politics. But where Ackerman fails to cover Garfield’s early life at all, Millard merely provides it with glancing coverage. Only Peskin’s biography thoroughly covers the first 95% of Garfield’s life.
But what Millard provides is unique: a damning and insightful indictment of the medical care Garfield received after being struck by an assassin’s bullet. She nicely weaves together the stories of Garfield, his assassin, his doctor and Alexander Graham Bell in a way that is interesting and informative.
To a lesser extent she also tells the stories of other important political figures such as Garfield’s vice president. But for Millard, politics are secondary to the science of life and death. And she clearly believes that Garfield could have lived to finish his term in office. Although imperfect as a presidential biography, “Destiny of the Republic” is entertaining, provocative and intensely interesting. (Full review here)
***During my journey through Garfield’s biographies I discovered another biography I need to read: Margaret Leech’s “The Garfield Orbit” which was unfinished when she died in 1974. Harry Brown completed the biography and it was published in 1978. Some observers have suggested it is superior to Peskin’s biography so I’m particularly curious to see how it compares. But, alas, that may have to wait until 2016. Or later.
– – – – – – –
Best Biography of James Garfield: Allan Peskin’s “Garfield: A Biography”
Also Must-Reads: Kenneth Ackerman’s “Dark Horse…”
-and- Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic“
Stu brody said:
This was an insightful and informative commentary on the three most popular biographies of this somewhat obscure president. I was fascinated by recent PBS broadcast that depicted present Garfield as A decent and forward looking man and the sense of tragedy of his assassination – the lure of what could’ve been – like JFK’s death in modern times. This drew me to explore the best readings on the subject. Your commentary does this and I thank you for providing it.
Thanks – I’m only halfway through the PBS broadcast but enjoying it a lot. Garfield struck me as a potential game-changer executive; it’s too bad we’ll never know what “could’ve been”…
Linda L Ford said:
Horatio Algier wrote the life story of Garfield and got his source material from people who knew him-at war, at school, at the various jobs, in the military and as President. . It was vivid experience toread. Parts of it made the hair on my neck stand on end. I would read it again. .
I have to admit I missed this one. Though it doesn’t seem like a conventional biography (at least not in the modern sense) it looks like it could be quite interesting! I’ll have to take a look…
Christopher C. Kempley said:
Steve, I’m curious if you have found the time to read The Garfield Orbit? I’ve been using your blog as a guide to inform me as I go through the journey (one bio per president). This is the first time I’ve ventured off the path of evaluating based on your review and choosing based on that. Admittedly, part of the reason for the diversion is that it is getting pretty expensive and I found a copy of The Garfield Orbit for $5.00.
Well, I’m a little disappointed. I’m only a hundred pages in, but so far this volume is reading more like a novel than a biography. I doubt if I will buy another Garfield bio until I conclude the journey, but was curious if your reaction was similar to mine.
Thanks so much for the blog, it has been a real boon to my project.
Thanks for your note! Unfortunately (or not?) I haven’t read The Garfield Orbit – it didn’t hit my radar until after I had committed to my reading list on Garfield. But once it became clear this is an old “classic” and one of the few real biographies of Garfield I concluded I had to add it to my follow-up list. I’ve heard mixed things (both that it’s better than the Peskin bio and that it deserves to be put out of its misery) so I decided I’ll just have to see for myself! Admittedly, I probably won’t get to it for quite some time…
Andrew Evans said:
I recommend two follow up Garfield biographies for your consideration:
1. James A. Garfield: Party Chieftain by Robert Granville Caldwell. This seems to have been the standard single volume biography before Allen Peskin’s.
2. The Life and Letters of James Abram Garfield by Theodore Clarke Smith. This is a two volume 1207 printed page cradle to grave treatment of Garfield. It is very thorough and relies heavily on primary sources. This seems to be the most scholarly biography on Garfield and is cited in all the single volume books I have read (Peskin, Leech, Caldwell, Millard and Ackerman).
Thank you for your reviews, they are helpful and enjoyable.
Apologies for the tardy response, but thank you for the follow-up suggestions! I’m particularly interested to see what the pre-Peskin biography has to say about Garfield.
Linda L Ford said:
Thank you so.
J. Jensen said:
Thank you for this recommendation. I came across a very nice copy of an 1881 biography published just after his death, “The Life of James Abram Garfield” by William Ralston Balch. I’m curious about its quality. The author was also the managing editor of The American at the time, and it’s a pretty hefty book that covers Garfield’s entire life in great detail. I think it was $35. I may go back and pick it up. If anything, it’s in great condition for an antique book that would look good on my shelf. I’m curious what details about Garfield it may contain that others don’t, though the 2 volume set mentioned above probably has a lot of details in that. I wonder how much the 2 volume set may reference this single volume bio from 1881.
A search in Hathi directed me to 3 references from TC Smith’s 2-volume biography (it must still be within copyright somehow). Unfortunately, both references are on the ‘inside’ of uncut pages so I am unable to check on them. Peskin does not use Balch’s biography, but calls JM Bundy’s work the ‘least untrustworthy’ of the 19th century Garfield books.
TC Smith’s work benefits from the author’s collaboration with Lucretia who allowed access to some personal information. In some respects it is quasi-authorized. Peskin – along with the authors of The Presidencies of JAG and CAA – note Smith’s quotations should be used with caution. He apparently took some liberties with selections and usage.
I am all for buying books with a nice shelf appearance. My copies of Smith’s biography are jacketed with uncut pages.
J. Jensen said:
Great minds think alike. Within the hours after my original comment, I did a very similar thing as you, albeit physically and not digitally! I wouldn’t have thought to search digitally, so good tip. I pulled my existing Garfield biographies off my shelf (including my Easton Press edition of Peskin’s bio) and I read in the back any notes I could find about sources, so I did see the same note from Peskin’s that you mention. That’s good as I found a pretty good copy of the Bundy work for under $20 which I’ll go ahead and purchase. I didn’t see anything about Horatio Alger’s “From Canal Boy to President” which is a beautiful book so I may buy that one just for the beautiful binding and appearance. As for Smith’s 2 volume, I’ll definitely be picking up that set. I’ve found 4 on AbeBooks but they didn’t have photos, so I’m just waiting for some requested images from the seller so I can better gauge their quality. I’ll probably buy one within the coming days. I’d like to get the 1881 edition, but may just settle for the 1968 reprint as it still looks nice and is much cheaper.
Hathi and Library of Congress are great sources for electronically searching older works. It helps with obtaining bibliographical information as well – especially the LOC where you can tell when it was submitted for copyright.
TC Smith’s book was published in 1925 and reprinted – as you note – in 1968. Nice copies of the 1925 edition are not cheap. Check out eBay which has a jacketed set of the 1968 edition. Those jackets are rarely seen.
J. Jensen said:
And now they’re seen even more rarely as that set on Ebay is no longer there…it’s on its way to a new home and an owner who will take good care it! 😀
Patrick Farris said:
Over 20 years ago at a book sale I purchased as an interesting artifact James D. McCabe’s “Our Martyred President; The Life and Public Services of Gen. James A. Garfield,” published upon Garfield’s assassination in 1881. I never intended on reading it, but it was in great condition, looked good on a shelf, and as a history nerd I enjoy having such things around. One of my hobbies is reading presidential biographies, for which I refer to this incredible website for advice and direction (thank you, Stephen!), and for this and other reasons I recently decided to actually read McCabe’s work. I assumed – and was correct in doing so – that I would not be reading the work of a professional historian, and there is no pretense to objectivity in the introduction to the tome, but what I was pleasantly surprised to find (although it took several hundred pages to arrive at this feeling) was a sense of being very much in Garfield’s historic and political moment. McCabe fills out the volume by reproducing some of Garfield’s best known speeches and articles, but this only serves to accentuate the aforementioned mood of the book. The Gilded Age presidents can often appear pale, ambiguous shadows to the contemporary reader, as we have so much thrilling choice when it comes to biography of US political leadership – the Founding Fathers, Lincoln and the Civil War, TR and FDR – that it can be too easy to gloss over this formative period in US history when the nation was changing dramatically. I would not recommend reading McCabe’s “Our Martyred President” unless you have a real passion for this sort of thing, and if you elect to do so you will still need to rely at the very least on a good, brief biography on Garfield to fill in the many factual blanks, but since this website is obviously a place where like-minded souls may find themselves, I thought it worth the effort to leave this comment. By the way, McCabe is an interesting person in his own right (born in Richmond, graduated from VMI, worked during the Civil War for the Confederate government in an office job, wrote books on Grant and Lee), and you don’t even have to buy a hard copy of his book – it’s online in the public domain. You’re welcome.
Wayne Baker said:
Can’t say enough about Candace Millard’s book, Destiny of the Republic. Also her book on TR going down the Amazon river is also exceptional. Her book on Winston Churchill was, surprisingly, not as good.
The only one of those three I have NOT read is the one on Churchill. Luck was on my side?!? I did find the other two fabulous-
Christopher C. Kempley said:
I agree about Candice Millard’s book on Garfield, as well as the one on TR. Because of her book on TR I felt comfortable using Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit to satisfy both my additional interest in TR and my need for a bio on Taft. As far as Churchill is concerned, I read and loved Andrew Roberts Walking with Destiny.