American history, Arthur Walworth, biographies, presidential biographies, Presidents, Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson holds the distinction of being the most highly regarded president I know least well.
Presidential rankings consistently place Wilson among the Top 10 presidents of all time. Yet all I remember of this hard-shelled sphinx from high school history is an infatuation with world peace, an affinity for Princeton University and a stroke-induced decline in his second term.
I bumped into President Wilson a dozen times over the past five months as I worked my way through the best biographies of Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft. But he never really emerged from the shadows of his two larger-than-life predecessors.
I’ll be reading a half-dozen biographies of Woodrow Wilson over the next 6-8 weeks, so this time he won’t be able to hide…
I’m beginning with Arthur Walworth’s two-volume classic “Woodrow Wilson.” It consists of two volumes (“American Prophet” and “World Prophet”) which were published simultaneously in 1958. The first volume won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize. Because they are often sold in a single bound edition and are frequently treated like a single book, I will review the two volumes together.
Next I’m reading John Milton Cooper’s “The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.” This 1983 dual-biography is no longer widely-read and it receives mixed reviews. But it appears similar in approach to Doris Goodwin’s comparative study of TR and Taft (“The Bully Pulpit“) which I really liked, so I’m going to give this a try.
Third, I’ll be reading Kendrick Clements’s 1987 “Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman.” This comprehensive biography is no more beloved than “The Warrior and the Priest” but is the shortest of my Wilson biographies with just 224 pages. So it may appeal to impatient readers and may be worth the modest investment of time.
Next I move to what is often described as the best single-volume study of Woodrow Wilson: August Heckscher’s 1991 “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.” In addition to his interest in politics, Heckscher taught at Yale, wrote and lectured widely on the arts (serving as a consultant to JFK’s administration on the topic) and was NYC Parks Commissioner. I can’t wait to see what this multifaceted author has to say about Woodrow Wilson.
The fifth Wilson biography I’m going to tackle is John Milton Cooper’s “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.” This was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist and is currently the second most popular biography of Wilson. I’ve been told Cooper is far too sympathetic toward Wilson…but that wouldn’t be the first time I’ve encountered a biographer completely enamored with his or her subject.
I’m wrapping up with “Wilson” by A. Scott Berg. This 2013 biography is both the youngest and the longest (with 743 pages) of my Wilson biographies. It also happens to currently be the most popular Wilson biography by a huge margin. Berg’s biography has the reputation for being highly readable…but of resembling the biography that Wilson would have written about himself.
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There are two seemingly worthy biographies that are not included above and which I’m already placing on my follow-up list:
1. Ray Stannard Baker published an eight-volume (seven volumes in the Potomac Edition) work on Wilson between 1928 and 1939. Baker was both a friend of Wilson’s and his “authorized” biographer. But despite their close friendship this series is considered serious literature, and the final two volumes won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.
But I’ve had difficulty acquiring the entire series economically. And if I’m having a hard time, I assume this series isn’t sitting on your bookshelf, either. So I’ll save this one for later-
2. Arthur S. Link was a well-known historian and expert on Woodrow Wilson. Between 1947 and 1965 he published five volumes covering Wilson’s life through about the first half of Wilson’s presidency. Unfortunately, Link never completed the series.
In 1958 (after he published the first two volumes) the Woodrow Wilson Foundation asked Link to oversee the organization and publications of hundreds of thousands of documents related to Wilson’s presidency. Link agreed to take on this enormous task yet still found time to produce three more volumes. But his energy was finally depleted and he never finished the series (originally projected to contain eight volumes).
As excellent as Link’s volumes are reported to be, I can’t bring myself to read an incomplete work at this point…particularly since it would delay my arrival at the Warren G. Harding presidency. 🙂
The Potomac Edition (which is complete in 7 volumes by combining the first two volumes in one) is probably the most economical edition of Baker’s bio. First editions are not common and it took me a number of years to put them on my shelves.
Good luck with Woodrow.
Thanks much – I thought the “Potomac edition” I found online was incomplete with just 7 volumes. I’ll go back and see if I can grab it before it disappears…!
It’s a nice uniformly bound edition – perfect for reading.
Heckscher’s biography is generally well-regarded for its readability and its insights into Wilson’s character, but more than one reviewer trashed it when it came out for its outdated and narrow examinaton of events. Basically it’s Wilson’s life from the perspective of the Wilson papers, with little contextual analysis of his activities or achievements.
Thanks – that’s very helpful. I hesitate to read detailed reviews before I read books, but I love tips, tidbits and flavor. I’m not sure whether I’m looking forward to it more or less now, but at least I know what to expect.
I hate to add stuff to your already ambitious list, Steve, but the world of psychobiographies is great for some presidents — especially Wilson. One very influential one is “Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study,” by Alexander and Juliette George. They attempt to explain various aspects of Wilson’s life through his character. And since you will no doubt confront Wilson’s health problems, another option is “Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography,” by Edwin Weinstein. Both books are accessible to the layman, and Wilson’s hypertension and small stroke disease had MASSIVE consequences for the nation and the world. Finally, on the more journalistic side, Gene Smith’s “When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson” is very readable and poignant. But check out the George’s book and Weinstein — you may find the concentration on mental and physical health interesting. I’d recommend taking a look a them AFTER you read more traditional biographies — that way you can better judge the quality of the arguments.
This is great – thanks! I’ll try to take a look at each of these and figure out how to incorporate at least one now and enhance my follow-up list with the rest.
Susan Barsy said:
I enjoyed visiting the Woodrow Wilson House in DC. It could help get you in the mood for reading all these books! SB
Great idea – especially since I live so close to DC! I’m already planning to visit Staunton, his birthplace, to get a feel for his youth but I should definitely Washington, too-
Leopold von Ranke said:
(Started to write and post this message over a week ago before my computer crashed. Thankfully, I was able to save it to a thumb drive first.)
Actually, BOTH volumes of the Arthur Walworth biography won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959. A mistake in the official announcement of the awarding of the prize has been passed down through the years in most reference sources. The Pulitzer Prize administration has now corrected the listing on its own website after I wrote to them questioning the apparent anomaly of why only one half of a biography would be honored and not both halves, especially since the two volumes were originally published and sold together only as a boxed set, though the box itself, being rather flimsy, is seldom found today (later editions consolidated the biography into one volume).
According to records kept by the Pulitzer Prize administration, the historians’ jury that read through all of the nominated biographies and made the recommendation in favor of Walworth’s effort clearly intended to see honored both volumes. In transmitting its judgment to the final committee made up of journalists and newspaper publishers, the historians’ jury mistakenly listed the uniform title as “Woodrow Wilson: American Prophet,” rather than as just “Woodrow Wilson.” Both the titles and dust jackets of the two volumes of the first edition are hard to tell apart at a quick glance, hence the confusion. The members of the final committee probably had not read the biography themselves, just took the experts at their word; at any rate, the error was not caught, and no one at the time, including the author, questioned the announcement that seemed to indicate that only the first half of the biography was being honored. (One well-wisher actually wrote to Walworth that he hoped that the Pulitzer board would see fit to honor “Woodrow Wilson: World Prophet” with next year’s prize!)
I am currently writing a collector’s guide to first-edition presidential biographies and have done research in the papers of Walworth as well as other biographers.
Thanks for the note – I thought it was strange that the two volumes were originally published together and that only one of them received the award. Can’t wait to see your collector’s guide when it’s ready – let me know!
Pat McKim said:
Steve, with regard to Wilson’s biography….. I literally just read The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara Tuchman, one of the finest nonfiction writers I’ve ever read. Her writing is almost poetic and often reads like a fictional suspense novel. In my opinion she is the closest writer to the Durants in quality of writing and clarity of analysis. She said at the end of the Zimmerman Telegram on the question of whether Wilson went to war with Germany because of the Zimmerman telegram, in which Germany asked Mexico to invade the US with the help of Germany and thus have the US become occupied at home. She said, “Only Wilson can answer that, and he never did. One answer has been offered by a man whom the President trusted and made the recipient of all his papers. When Wilson, in the last letter he ever wrote, a week before his death, asked Ray Stannard Baker to write his official biography, he said, “I would rather have your interpreation than that of anyone else I know.”