“Chester Alan Arthur” is Zachary Karabell’s 2004 biography of the twenty-first president. Karabell is a historian, asset manager and economist. He is also the author of several books including “The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election” and “Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal.”
As a member of The American Presidents Series, Karabell’s biography is concise and fast-paced. With just 143 pages, this book can be read in a single sitting and is both articulate and straightforward. And, typical for books in this series, key themes are clearly presented and unnecessary details are kept to a minimum.
Many readers believe that a crisp, economical biography is perfect for an obscure president like Chester Arthur. But while the concept is appealing, Arthur’s personality is too multifaceted to really merit such a concise study. A lengthier and more penetrating review of his life would reveal layers of color and complexity that a relatively rushed biography simply cannot capture.
But Chester Arthur’s personality is not boundless and Karabell successfully captures much of what makes this former president unique. He finds time, for instance, to reveal traits such as Arthur’s affinity for fashion and food, his fondness for late evenings “out with the boys” (much to the chagrin of Mrs. Arthur) and even his decorating taste…revealed during a renovation of the White House.
What is less thoroughly explored in the rush through his life is the full dichotomy between Arthur the “spoilsman” of New York politics and Arthur the “reform president.” But while Karabell takes care to investigate this dramatic evolution in Arthur’s approach to public policy, he is unable to fully examine its nuances because the book’s pace begs for a binary, not shaded, answer.
And I cannot recall any mention of Julia Sand, the bedridden but intellectually spirited woman who offered a stream of unsolicited advice to the new president through the mail – and eventually received a surprise visit from him.
Most readers, however, are likely to find Karabell’s efficient style quite appealing. While a slower pace would reveal more of Arthur’s character, this biography provides significant payback for a very modest investment of time. And there is no need for readers to carefully decode hidden messages in the text – key themes pertaining to Arthur’s personality and politics are well-revealed.
Overall, “Chester Alan Arthur” is a successful, if brief, biography of the twenty-first president. Although this study uncovers little that is new of Arthur’s life or legacy, it proves comprehensive and extremely efficient. While not the definitive biography of Chester Arthur, Karabell’s book is successful in its mission to provide much about this lesser-known president in a potent, punchy format.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars