A Scott Berg, American history, Arthur Link, Arthur Walworth, August Heckscher, biographies, book reviews, John Milton Cooper, Kendrick Clements, presidential biographies, Presidents, Ray Stannard Baker, Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson is a surprisingly difficult person to get to know. Even after navigating six biographies of Wilson totaling nearly 3,500 pages, he remains a study in contrasts…and a difficult person to fully decipher.
More than a few of his contemporaries noted he was distant and aloof, and yet his friends and family found him warm, funny and engaging. He was a polished, erudite intellectual…and yet he was often seen as a champion of the common man.
But no matter your take on Wilson, one thing is certain: his rise to the nation’s highest office was spectacularly swift and impressive. His audition for the national presidency consisted of a single term as Governor of New Jersey.
A man of lofty ideals, Wilson’s first two years as a reform-oriented president were nothing short of historic: he enjoyed a phenomenal string of domestic legislative successes. Later, his high-minded commitment to global peace led to the formation of the League of Nations…and a Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, Woodrow Wilson’s world wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
His wife died halfway into his first term and, nearly simultaneously, World War I broke out. In addition, Wilson’s track record on racial relations was poor – certainly by today’s standards and, arguably, even by the standards of his own time. Only slowly did he come to support women’s suffrage. And then there was that alleged affair…
And yet there was more. Wilson’s presidency essentially ended in October 1919 when he suffered a debilitating stroke. What ensued was perhaps the greatest cover-up in the nation’s history to that time. With help from his second wife and his personal physician, Wilson finished out his term – while struggling to perform basic tasks.
Even though Woodrow Wilson was, by most metrics, a bit boring, the story of his life is anything but. And although I’ve never been able to fully embrace his stellar reputation among historians (who recently ranked him 8th out of 43 presidents) he was undeniably a president of enormous consequence.
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* My first biography was Arthur Walworth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-volume series published in 1958: “Woodrow Wilson: American Prophet” and “Woodrow Wilson: World Prophet.” This proved to be a solid reference on Wilson: comprehensive, well-organized and full of facts.
But by modern standards it was dry and somewhat unfulfilling. I barely got to know Wilson personally (his friends and family lurked even deeper in the shadows) and Walworth’s writing style was anything but fluid and descriptive. This Pulitzer Prize winner was my least favorite biography of Woodrow Wilson. (Full review here)
* Next I read John Milton Cooper, Jr.’s 1983 comparative biography “The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.” In many ways, this book reminded me of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent “The Bully Pulpit” – a dual biography of Roosevelt and Taft.
Because of the broad mandate of “The Warrior and the Priest” (as well as its relative brevity, with just 361 pages) it is really a comparative study and less a biography. Happily, it proved sprightly, readable and intellectually intriguing. But because it had little time linger on details it is not ideal for readers new to Wilson. As a second or third book on either president, however, this could be an interesting choice. (Full review here)
The casual reader will find it packed with facts and extremely readable. The more academically-oriented audience, however, will find it lacking in both detail and color. For someone inclined to read just one biography of Wilson – and in a hurry – it is quite good. But for someone looking to savor that one perfect Wilson biography, Clements’s book falls short. (Full review here)
* Next was “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography” by August Heckscher. Published in 1991, this is often considered the best single-volume study of Wilson – and for good reason. Where most biographies portray Wilson as a stiff, two-dimensional figure, Heckscher provides a more complex, perceptive analysis of his subject. And with a sophisticated but easy writing style, most readers will find this book far less effort than its 675 pages might suggest.
Like every Wilson biographer, Heckscher excuses at least some of Wilson’s faults and sometimes fails to fully examine Wilson’s actions in the context of his environment. But in terms of combining solid political and historical insights with an interesting character analysis, there may be no better biography of Woodrow Wilson. (Full review here)
* My fifth biography was John Milton Cooper, Jr.’s 2009 “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography” – the 2010 Pulitzer Finalist in the Biography category. Cooper’s book is clearly the result of significant research and is possibly unsurpassed in terms of either detail or scope.
But while it is intellectual, it is not particularly elegant or descriptive. It reads like the sophisticated lecture notes of a renowned professor who harbors a clear fondness for his subject. This book is the friend you rely on to get you through a difficult exam, but who you might not hang out with for fun. (Full review here)
* Last I read the popular 2013 biography “Wilson” by A. Scott Berg. Sparked by a lifelong fascination with Wilson, this biography was the result of more than a decade of research and writing…and it shows. In no other Wilson biography are there so many unique details, observations and descriptive nuances.
Berg’s writing style is excellent – simultaneously intelligent and engaging – and his ability to describe his characters and their surroundings is unmatched. The longest of the single-volume Wilson biographies, this was easily the most fun to read.
But despite claims by its publisher, nothing particularly momentous is revealed and Wilson’s image is not so much “filled-in” as it is rounded-out. And if Berg had injected as much analysis into this biography as he did context and color, it would be one of the best presidential biographies in print. (Full review here)
…in many ways, this book and Cooper’s recent Wilson biography are Yin and Yang. Where Berg’s biography is essentially a well-written novel, Cooper’s biography is a well-written history book. Fused together – minus some of the adoring enthusiasm for Wilson – they would almost form the perfect presidential biography.
***Follow-up item: It became clear early in my journey through Wilson’s biographies that I desperately needed to read Ray Stannard Baker’s eight-volume “Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters” (often condensed into seven volumes). Baker was a contemporary and friend of Wilson’s and this is an “authorized” biography. Nonetheless, it is considered serious literature and the final volumes won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940. I plan to read this as part of my “follow-up” list.
***Arthur S. Link was a well-known historian and Woodrow Wilson expert. Between 1947 and 1965 he published five volumes covering Wilson’s life through the first half of his presidency. Unfortunately, Link was sidetracked and never completed the series. The five published volumes are reportedly excellent, but I haven’t convinced myself to read an incomplete series that is likely to appeal to a relatively narrow audience.
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Best Biography of Woodrow Wilson: “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography” by August Heckscher
Best-written Biography of Woodrow Wilson: “Wilson” by A. Scott Berg