“The Life of Calvin Coolidge” by Horace Green was one of several biographies of Coolidge published in 1924 during the first months of his presidency. Green was a contemporary (and seemingly an acquaintance) of Coolidge and may be best known for his biography “General Grant’s Last Stand.” Green died in 1943.
Relatively short (with just 224 pages), this early biography of Coolidge is pithy, clever, easy to read…and distressingly difficult to obtain. Green’s writing style is unconventional but not quite “dated” in the way one might expect from a book of this vintage. The book’s tone might be best characterized as lighthearted and almost casual, but also sagacious and artful.
Because of its date of publication (the Coolidge presidency was only about 10% complete at the time) this biography can hardly be considered comprehensive. And although it notionally covers his entire life up to his early presidency, Coolidge’s childhood is covered far too efficiently. But it provides a fascinating perspective of Coolidge in a way that is sympathetic without being obsequious and is revealing without being needlessly detailed.
Green’s narrative proceeds strictly chronologically but reads far more like a series of anecdotes and stories (glued together with relevant facts) than it does a dense history text. Coolidge’s own words often speak for themselves while the author ensures they are liberally accented with astute one-liners and conclusory remarks.
The biography is at its best while covering Coolidge during his two terms as governor of Massachusetts and during his vice presidency. Here the narrative flows effortlessly and the reader learns more about the enigmatic future president than anywhere else in the book. The last chapters are far less revealing, covering the earliest months of his presidency and the still-unfolding Teapot Dome scandal. Green wisely ignores the temptation to evaluate Coolidge’s nascent presidency or his role (if any) in the budding bribery scandal.
But for all its merits, modern readers may find Green’s biography lacking in several ways (in addition to its lack of cradle-to-grave coverage). First, very little is revealed of Coolidge’s family life; but this is not surprising since it was written while the key figures were still living. In addition, the author’s writing style is usually engaging and intelligent but never feels particularly deep or probative. Finally, the biography’s informal “feel” makes it particularly easy to read…but also leaves the occasional impression of not being particularly scholarly or rigorous.
Overall, Horace Green’s biography of Calvin Coolidge is a brisk, refreshingly unique and interesting review of the first five decades of Coolidge’s life. It is respectful of Coolidge without being reverential, intelligent without being exhaustive, and insightful without being deep. Although “The Life of Calvin Coolidge” lacks many elements of an ideal presidential biography, it adds a unique perspective and wonderful texture to the portrait of Coolidge which more recent biographies have painted.
Overall rating: 3¼ stars