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imgresIn the Days of McKinley” is Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 biography of William McKinley. It remains one of the standard texts on this president and is indispensable to serious students of his era. Leech was a historian, author and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. She died in 1974 at the age of eighty.

In many ways, this book is less a traditional presidential biography than a life-and-times centered around McKinley and his presidency. Although it never strays too far from McKinley, there are numerous stretches where he is only peripheral to the story – and sometimes fails to appear at all.

Leech covers McKinley’s life up to his presidential campaign in the first fifty or sixty pages. The remainder of the book’s 605 pages are dedicated to a period of about five years, ending with his assassination in 1901. The introduction to McKinley, while comparatively brief, is interesting, colorful, fact-filled and often breathtakingly insightful.

On the strength of meticulous research she expertly dissects his personality and provides a descriptive and well-rounded portrait of this future president. It seems doubtful that anyone who did not know McKinley personally could better understand his personality and character than this author.

These early pages proceed quickly through his Ohio childhood, his college education (cut short by health and finances), his Civil War service and his legal career. With equal speed Leech reviews his nearly fifteen-year Congressional career and terms as Ohio’s governor. This introduction seems more designed to describe McKinley than recount the events of his life prior to seeking the presidency.

This portion of the book also provides an immediate and clear sense of Leech’s unique writing style. Though the modern reader will find her style dated and occasionally difficult, it is also wonderfully erudite, lively and often extremely clever. Much of the text possesses a lyrical quality and her writing has the power to take the reader on a wonderfully scenic literary journey. (I’m tempted to go back and re-read the first chapters on McKinley just to experience Leech’s particular brand of wisdom and style once more.)

But make no mistake – this book is not easy to read (quickly or otherwise). Not only is it lengthy, but it is also quite dense. Even the best passages can require extraordinary care and patience to fully appreciate, and important messages can be lost in language that is alluring but cryptic. Readers who are accustomed to a carefully delineated timeline will find themselves quickly bewildered.

In addition, Leech’s biography is both wonderfully and tediously detailed. Historians focused on the late 19th and early 20th centuries will love this book but casual readers will often find it dull and sluggish. The fact that much of the book focuses on events of the era, rather than on McKinley himself, may add insult to injury for some.

Finally, although Leech has an uncanny ability to dissect and analyze people as well as historical events, it seems ironic (and disappointing) that she is committed to providing far more detail than analysis or interpretation. I suspect most readers would gladly trade a large chunk of the book’s detail in return for a handful of additional pages offering Leech’s perspective on McKinley’s actions or his legacy.

As a historical document, Margaret Leech’s “In the Days of McKinley” is immensely valuable and provides an astonishingly detailed account of the most important events of McKinley’s presidency. It also provides rich, if not equally exhaustive, insight into the man himself. But as a presidential biography it is far from perfect, requiring significant patience, providing too little of the author’s perspective and underemphasizing McKinley at the expense of world events.

Overall Rating: 3¼ stars

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