“Woodrow Wilson: American Prophet” and “Woodrow Wilson: World Prophet” constitute Arthur Walworth’s two-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Wilson. Both volumes were published in 1958 and they are often sold together as one document. Walworth was a graduate of Yale and worked at Houghton Mifflin before becoming an author. He died in 2005 at the age of 101.
Walworth apparently undertook the mission to complete a biography of Woodrow Wilson at the behest of Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. When published (after a decade of research by Walworth) this biography represented the most substantial effort on Wilson since Ray Stannard Baker completed an eight-volume study of Wilson in 1939.
The first volume (“American Prophet”) follows Wilson from childhood to the third year of his presidency while the second volumes follows the build-up to World War I, Wilson’s reluctant engagement in the global conflict and his efforts at ensuring an enduring peace. Wilson’s post-presidency was covered efficiently (in about a dozen pages) but effectively.
The earliest impression this biography offers is one of reverence – not for Wilson himself (which the author may have intended) but for the historical value of the biography itself. The painstaking work Walworth undertook to meticulously reassemble Wilson’s life is obvious. And Walworth’s portrayal of Wilson, while generally flattering, also exposes many of his flaws.
Three sections of the biography stand out. The lengthy review of Wilson’s tenure as Princeton’s president is fascinating and may provide the most insight into Wilson’s character. The discussion relating to Wilson’s deliberations as he assembled his presidential cabinet proves equally compelling. And the numerous pages devoted to Wilson’s peace-related efforts are excellent.
However, much about this biography fails to meet a modern non-academic reader’s expectations. One thing is immediately obvious to the reader: this is not fluid, descriptive prose written with a contemporary audience in mind. Instead, it is relatively “old-school”: scholarly and stiff, detailed and dry. Few chapters are so tantalizing that the reader is tempted to skip a meal in order to push further ahead.
More importantly, this often seems less a biography of Wilson than a history text which happens to focus on the world as seen from Wilson’s perspective. And while Walworth carefully documents the important historical events that penetrated Wilson’s political sphere, there seldom seems an appreciation for – or an examination of – broader historical context.
Walworth’s coverage is appropriately reflective of the fact that Wilson’s presidency was dominated by events relating to World War I. But there is scant evidence Wilson possessed a domestic policy agenda at all. And even in the global sphere, the discussion of war is so narrowly focused on Wilson that one never gets any sense of the war’s horror or enormous human cost; it is presented as little more than an academic concept.
Finally, Walworth fails to convey to the reader a sense of who Wilson really was. Family members are mentioned in passing but never become important figures in the drama. There is little mention of his closest friends, and even his important political allies such as Colonel House generally linger in the shadows. And Mary Hulbert Peck, with whom Wilson is rumored to have had an affair, appears only long enough to be recognized as a personal muse rather than a possible romantic interest.
Overall, Arthur Walworth’s two-volume biography of Woodrow Wilson is a carefully crafted and remarkably detailed recitation of Wilson’s life. Unfortunately it proves too dry and academic for most readers and provides little insight into Wilson himself, or his family. And while it is often enlightening, it is also frequently exhausting and tedious.
Overall rating: 3 stars