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 incomplete work at this point…particularly since it would delay my arrival at the Warren G. Harding presidency. 🙂