American history, biographies, book reviews, Calvin Coolidge, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Sobel
When published in 1998, Robert Sobel’s “Coolidge: An American Enigma” was the first comprehensive biography of Coolidge to appear in over thirty years. Sobel was a professor of history at Hofstra University for four decades and a prolific author, focusing heavily on American business life. He died in 1999 at the age of 68.
Early in this 419 page book Sobel makes clear that his goal is to reintroduce this enigmatic and often misunderstood man and to catalyze a reconsideration of his legacy. He promises a fresh interpretation of Coolidge without major revelations and quickly gets to the business of dissecting traditional caricatures.
Sobel’s writing style is not flashy or colorful; instead it is straightforward and unpretentious. The book often reads like a relatively interesting history book rather than an engrossing character study, a weighty academic dissertation or even a traditional biography. And although the author’s desire to elevate history’s view of Coolidge is rarely in doubt, the book is generally well-balanced.
Sobel’s focus is almost always centered on Coolidge, but at times the reader feels as though the view might be through the long lens of a powerful telescope rather than one you might enjoy as a “fly on the wall” – or which you would savor observing the world through Coolidge’s own eyes.
Ironically, while the author’s intention is not to provide a detailed survey of Coolidge’s presidency, the five chapters covering his time in the White House are excellent – they are extremely well-organized and coherent. And Sobel’s discussions of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination processes in 1920 (when Harding was nominated) and 1924 (in which incumbent Coolidge was nominated) are fascinating.
But while Sobel promises the book will not provide a comprehensive review of Coolidge’s era, significant effort is expended describing the context of the times. The digressions can be useful (particularly to those who are historically-inclined) but take time away from the opportunity to understand Coolidge better. The Teapot Dome scandal, for instance, could have been dispatched in several paragraphs; instead, it occupies a dozen pages. Coolidge’s family life receives far less attention.
Sobel also feels compelled to periodically inject historical tidbits and trivia which, while usually interesting, can seem forced or out of place. And the narrative itself is frequently interrupted (or supplemented, depending on your perspective) by long quotes from Coolidge or his contemporaries. While adding supporting evidence to the discussion, they leave the reader feeling the book could have been meaningfully abbreviated without losing much punch.
Overall, Robert Sobel’s biography of Calvin Coolidge provides a solid if not vivid review of the thirtieth president’s life. Readers new to Coolidge will find it a useful, but not exhaustive, introduction which also provides a thoughtful critique of traditional caricatures and a reassessment of his career. Those more familiar with Coolidge will learn little new of him (personally or politically) but will wish Sobel had provided more insight into the fascinating contradictions embedded within his policies as well as his personality.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Alec Rogers said:
I take it you’re not reviewing Greenberg’s entry into the American Presidents Series, but you are reviewing Leuchtenberg on Hoover. Is that because there are fewer bios of Hoover? How do you choose which books to read?
The Leuchtenberg bio of Hoover is actually the first I owed because it was the first I could get my hands on…and there are few others in any event. I tend to shy away from A/P Series bios due to their brevity. But for presidents where there are few choices, or the A/P bio seems comparatively popular, I occasionally include them. In my experience they tend to do an excellent job of laying out the basics and providing key facts without becoming bogged down in unnecessary tangents…but rarely probe deeply or provide great insight into a subject’s character or personality.
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