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)
* My third Wilson biography was “Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman.” This 1987 biography by Kendrick Clements was the shortest of my six Wilson-related biographies with just 224 pages.
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
Excellent synopsis of the Wilson literature. I too have difficulty embracing his legacy. My reluctance is based on the ultimate outcome of Versailles.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/24/opinion/what-woodrow-wilson-cost-my-grandfather.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region®ion=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0 I thought this was interesting.
Interesting indeed! Thanks for sharing the link-
Michael Zahn said:
Grateful for your research. I was reading Berg’s book last night after after the first few chapters, then skipped ahead to Wilson’s federal government segregation policies. I thought Berg excused Wilson’s actions too easily, and then this morning somewhere on the Web discovered that Berg is a current member of the Princeton governing board. Hmmmmm . . . I may give Berg to Goodwill and start over again with the Hecksher book.
Again, thanks for doing all of that reading!
Thanks for your comment, and I can’t wait to hear what you think of Heckscher’s bio! Ruthlessly objective biographers seem to be the exception rather than the rule, so while I’ve gotten used to a little adoration in the average biography I certainly prefer someone who didn’t hang posters of the person on his wall as a child 🙂
I hope this comment gets read by the writer of this article. John Kass a columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote an article wondering if the same thing could happen if Hillary got sick. (if she gets elected) He reminded me about Edith Wilson. A commenter mentioned a reporter won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about how Wilson was healthy. The reporter of course was Baker. Since this is a year old I wonder if Best has read any of Stannard’s collection and what did he say about Wilson’s health.
Ray Stannard Baker’s multi-volume series on Wilson is not something I read initially…but it is on my “follow-up” list so I will get to it (eventually!)
Found your site from the google. Thanks greatly for producing such a wonderful resource.
Approaching the end of Berg’s work, I have to agree with you; it is quite nuanced, giving fair play (if not equal time) to many different aspects of his life.
I believe that while much of the book is of a character-centered nature, Berg goes astray with the chapter entitled “Armageddon”, which seems lost, as if the sudden embedding of a more dry and historically broad chapter would deepen the book’s roots. Instead it seemed out of place and a sudden ‘Wilson-free zone’.
I am interested in Heckscher’s work from your appraisal.
Best regards. Keep on reading!
Thanks for stopping by and thank you for your views of Berg’s biography of Wilson. I was really hoping to *love* his coverage of Wilson but just found it “ok.” If you read the Heckscher biography let me know what you think –
Dimitri Portnoi said:
If you were picking between reading both Cooper and Berg, for the yin and yang, and the Hecksher, which would you pick?
Personally, I’ve always found value in reading differing perspectives in order to more fully round out and fill out the portrait of the person. So if forced to choose between Cooper & Berg, or just Heckscher, I wouldn’t hesitate to go with the former even though the Heckscher bio was probably my favorite single biography of Wilson (but not by a huge margin).
Alan O Kogan said:
I purchased the Heckscher biography on your recommendation and found it to be the most insightful of those I have read (Clements, Cooper, Berg). In addition I was intrigued by Heckscher’s friendship and working relationship with Arthur Link. He talked of Link as a friend who encouraged him to write the bio when interviewed in the 90’s by Brian Lamb on C-span Book TV (dig it up on YouTube). In the acknowledgments section of his book Heckscher described Link as making all of Princeton’s resources available to him and providing support and friendship, He “patiently answered questions, discussed my bewilderments, and, with an unfailing eye for errors, has read the complete manuscript.”
This makes me think that the spirit of Arthur Link was speaking through Heckscher. Perhaps the latter’s book was Link’s way of completing the biographic series he was never able get back to.
I’m glad you enjoyed the Heckscher bio! It was definitely my favorite of the group, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading Link’s volumes at some point. I think the video you are referring to is: https://www.c-span.org/video/?23740-1/woodrow-wilson-biography (but I haven’t watched it yet…!)
Have you read the Ray Stannard Baker volumes yet? I am curious as to your thoughts about it if you have.
Sorry for the tardy reply – I thought I already responded to your comment but see I had not! I have not read the Ray Stannard Baker series but I have it on my “follow-up” list to read once I get through the rest of the presidents. It’s one of the old classics that I somehow missed the first time through, so I’m eager to get to these volumes and see what I think.
Ron Bodinson said:
I recently obtained through an estate about 85 volumes on Wilson: 10 volumes Wilson wrote, the Link volumes and several of the Wilson Papers edited at Princeton, the Baker volumes as well as the Colonel House writings in 4 volumes, and then many , many biographies of Wilson including a first edition of Hoover’s in 1958. Most biographies are signed by the authors in gratitude to either a Wilson Papers editor or a librarian at the Library of Congress. Can anyone suggest someone or some institution that might be interested?
I’ve never read a full scale Wilson bio (only the shorter Auchincloss work). I bought Heckscher after reading your review, and just recently started to read the new O’Toole bio (which is highly readable, but burns through his first 25 years or so at lightning speed). Which of the single volumes best captures these years?
It has been awhile (more than two years) since I read these Wilson biographies, so I have a hard time drawing too fine a distinction between my two favorite single-volume bios (August Heckscher’s “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography” and Scott Berg’s “Wilson” as it relates to Wilson’s early years.
Just flipping quickly through the two books, it looks like Berg’s bio takes about 80 or so pages to get through the period of time you referenced while Heckscher’s takes somewhat less – about 50-60 pages to get to the same point.
Whichever you choose…enjoy!
Thanks! I can probably just read the Kindle sample part of the Berg bio and get his take on those years.
FWIW O’Toole really seems to want to focus on Wilson’s presidency and to the extent she covers the pre-presidential years it seems like her coverage of the early years is more focused on helping us understand the presidency rather than for its own sake.
for anyone that has read both,if you are just starting out on Wilson,what would be the better read for starters,Berg or Cooper’s?
Alan O Kogan said:
I would start with Berg rather than Cooper because it provides more background color and a fluid writing style that makes it more engaging even though 200 pages longer. Cooper’s full biography of Wilson is more scholarly especially if you are keen on the policy issues and political trends, but it is best appreciated as a second or third reading. If you want to read only one biography that is a good balance between Berg’s qualities and Cooper’s think about the August Heckscher book.
Thank you Alan.even though Berg’s is the best for starters,would you say Berg’s is balanced and does it cover Wilson’s whole life in pretty good detail on it all?
alan kogan said:
John, I thought Berg’s biography of Wilson had the best coverage of Wilson’s childhood and adolescence of any that I read (Cooper, Heckscher, Clement, Berg, O’Toole. He also covers his post-stroke end of life best. His coverage of the politics, academic life and diplomacy is good but not best. Hope that helps.
Curious if anyone’s read the American Presidents series book on Wilson? I’ve read several entries in the series, and found them pretty similar. The Wilson book, however, was written by H.W. Brands–well known as an engaging presidential biographer.
Hi Steve. Love this site as a resource for my own biographical adventure. I have used your reviews to help determine which book I will get for each POTUS. However, my principal interest is actually on the presidency itself – the politics, lawmaking, and decisions. Hence why I have chosen things like “Theodore Rex”, Reeves’s JFK book, Eizenstadt’s Carter, etc. A bulky pre-presidential section is not required, though one that is well-written and covers significant events (such as Jefferson, Grant, Nixon, etc.) is of course welcome. I did, however, go with the whole Caro saga since it is placed on such a high pedestal – I’m currently at the point of LBJ winning his first election, and can’t wait for “Master of the Senate” since the upper chamber is one of my pet interests.
Anyway, my question right now is: which Wilson book do you think does a better, and/or longer, job explaining his presidency? The Heckscher one or the 2009 Cooper one? (Both annoyingly called the same thing.)
Also, so I don’t have to make a another comment, which Ford bio has more meat as far as the presidency goes: “An Honorable Life” or “Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party”?
Thanks – and keep up the good work!
Thanks for the note, and apologies for the tardy response!
In terms of pages allocated to Wilson’s presidency, the Heckscher and Cooper biographies are almost *exactly* identical (just shy of 400 pages in each case). In terms of “quality”…I preferred the Heckscher bio overall by a bit but I can’t give you a breakdown for presidency vs. pre-presidency – – I just don’t remember. So all other things being equal I might go with Heckscher’s bio but I don’t think you can go wrong.
For Gerald Ford, the two biographies you mention also provide very similar space to Ford’s presidency (as opposed to his earlier life and career or his retirement years). And because I rated the two books similarly (and didn’t take separate account of the quality of coverage of his presidency) I consider this one too close to call (sorry to bail on providing one over the other). I just looked back at my notes to see if anything would give me a hint as to whether to suggest you read one over the other, and nothing jumped out at me. I would buy the one that is least expensive (or most easily accessible if you’re going through a library) and just read it without looking back or second-guessing yourself.
Alan Kogan said:
Given your interest in Wilson’s presidency alone I would suggest the 2009 biography by John Milton Cooper rather than the Hechsher book because it is more scholarly and, in my opinion, contains more factual material particularly on the domestic side of his 8 years in office. Cooper’s writing style is quite readable if not elegant as is that of Hecksher.
Another benefit of reading Cooper is its coverage of Wilson’s writings on the American government model and presidential leadership. Woodrow Wilson was a student of American government (and British as well) and wrote extensively on the subject while at his three teaching positions and later as president of Princeton.
one thing I wanted to ask between Berg’s Cooper’s and Heckscher’s books on Wilson is are all three very balanced and objective if that’s what you are looking for?Also for the early years has anybody read the book By George Osborn to say wether it is good?
Alan Kogan said:
All the above mentioned biographies of Wilson are factual and well documented, but I would not call any presidential biography “objective” since the author chooses which facts and sources to include. Interestingly, Patricia O’Toole’s “The Moralist” relies more on the diaries of figures who dealt with Wilson. That gives a somewhat different picture of him and is more focused on the war and Versailles. Another interesting memoir, “Brother Woodrow” by Wilson’s brother in law, Stockton Axson (and Arthur Link), is worth a read if you want a loving family member’s very positive take on Wilson.Just be aware that you are viewing Wilson through the author’s eyes and enjoy whichever book(s) you choose!
Jo Ann Fields said:
I searched best bio of W. Wilson after reading John M Barry’s The Great Influenza. Mr Barry suggests that Wilson got Influenza while in France and then had long term mental status changes including confusion and cognitive impairment which may have been long-term effects of the influenza virus. It was influenza, not a stroke. At the time they may have thought it was a stroke, or maybe they did not want to say it was influenza. Today we are learning about the long-term side effects of COVID19, including mental status changes. As a medical doctor practicing primary care medicine, I see the long term consequences of an illness or a treatment as I follow a patient over the long term, not just in the immediate illness as the specialist does. Is there any other resource that you can recommend about Wilson’s illness that made him debilitated? Thank you.
I’m not aware of anything that went into much greater depth on Wilson’s medical issues but if someone else is, I’m sure they’ll chime in!
Alan Kogan said:
Good to hear of interest in this subject from a fellow physician. I am a retired psychiatrist. The issues around Wilson’s illness are of interest to me also.
There is quite a bit of literature about Wilson’s multiple illnesses but not about his well documented bout with influenza suffered while he was in Paris negotiating the peace treaty and the League of Nations. It is pretty certain that Wilson had CNS symptoms as a complication of his influenza. His symptoms were consistent with a mild delirium. The 1918 flu produced mental complications in a significant minority of patients especially at risk individuals. He had paranoid delusions, visual hallucinations and confusion (i.e., delirium) that lasted a short time, and some mild encephalitis that impaired cognition before resolving over a few weeks. His personal physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, unfortunately did not document very well and was probably more interested in concealing his condition. There is no evidence of acute symptoms lasting more than a few weeks, but he may have some judgement impairment that continued after he returned to the U.S. in the last summer, early fall. There is no single reference on this episode and my conclusion is speculative. The better bios cover it superficially. The notes and diaries of Clemenceau and Lloyd George mention his behavior as well. Most of this material is available in Vol 65 of the Collected Papers of Woodrow Wilson which I have not reviewed.
Hope this helps.
Garjala Satyanarayana said:
I like so much Thomas woodrow wilson because he was peace maker of the world