Despite taking several excellent history classes during my sixteen year journey through academia, I cannot recall a single significant historical encounter with Calvin Coolidge.
But Coolidge is not the type of person who would necessarily make a strong first impression – or even, perhaps, much of any impression.
Often described as a man of very few words and almost no humor, Coolidge apparently could be quite terse, impatient, cranky and downright dour. But caricatures, no matter how firmly rooted in fact, often obscure the true complexity of a person.
Ideally, a biographer should attempt to reveal the various and sometimes contradictory facets of his or her subject and to uncover and reveal important nuances. Not particularly well-regarded by historians, Coolidge’s standing seems burdened by shallow labels. His reputation fares slightly better than Nixon and Carter but often well below luminaries such as Taft, Cleveland and Chester Arthur.
As always, I hope that a couple-thousand pages of illumination will reveal this president’s true character – and that one or two of the six biographies I plan to read will provide the perfect combination of insight, balance, flavor and comprehensive coverage.
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I’m beginning with Amity Shlaes’s 2013 bestseller “Coolidge” which is currently the most popular biography of Calvin Coolidge. Shlaes is an unabashed admirer of the 30th president and her appraisal of his life seems to have assisted in revitalizing his reputation. I’m hoping her biography will provide a broad, deep and vivid understanding of his life and character and that it will be easy to compensate for any embedded bias.
Next I plan to read “The Preparation of Calvin Coolidge” by Robert A. Woods. Published in 1924, this is reportedly a solid (if dated) introduction to the political path Coolidge followed to the presidency. This biography can be challenging to find and obtain, but it can be even more difficult to find an insightful review of this book.
My third Coolidge biography will be “The Life of Calvin Coolidge” by Horace Green. Also published in 1924, this biography is equally difficult to obtain but is highly recommended by two frequent visitors to my site.
William Allen White’s “A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge” is next. Published in 1938, this biography has the reputation of being very well written but excessively critical and frequently inaccurate. Somewhere I read that “friends don’t let friends read William Allen White”…and that’s when I knew I had to read this book.
Next I will tackle Donald McCoy’s “Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President.” Published in 1967, this was the first serious biography of Coolidge in nearly thirty years. McCoy apparently attempted to chart a middle course between the prevailing extremes in attitude toward Coolidge. I’m quite interested to see whether or not McCoy was successful.
My last biography of Coolidge will be “Coolidge: An American Enigma” by Robert Sobel. Published in 1988, this is a modern study of Coolidge that promises no major revelations but does provide a fresh interpretation of this seemingly misunderstood president. And this was the most widely-read Coolidge biography prior to the arrival of Shlaes’s “Coolidge” two years ago.
But wait, there may be more!
It’s abundantly clear I need to read Claude Fuess’s 1939 “Calvin Coolidge: The Man from Vermont.” Fuess was one of the early “authorized” Coolidge biographers and penned a very sympathetic study of his life. I trust it will provide a nice counterpoint to White’s highly critical biography of Coolidge. I’ve already ordered it and if the Pony Express operates with reasonable efficiency I should be able to read it as part of my initial group of Coolidge biographies.
Last but not least:
Few neglected or overlooked presidents are as lucky as Calvin Coolidge in at least one respect: Coolidge has an extremely committed and enthusiastic supporter who maintains a website chock full of interesting material. I have found no better insight into the world of Coolidge-focused biographies than this site…and on this page, in particular.