American history, biographies, book reviews, JFK, John Kennedy, Nigel Hamilton, presidential biographies, Presidents
Nigel Hamilton’s “JFK: Reckless Youth” was published in 1992 and was intended to be the first installment in projected three-volume series on John Kennedy. This New York Times bestseller was also the inspiration behind an ABC mini-series which aired in 1993. Hamilton is a British-born biographer and Senior Fellow at the University of Massachusetts. Among his recent works are a two-volume series on Bill Clinton and two volumes focusing on FDR during WWII.
Unfortunately, this is the only volume in Hamilton’s series ever published. Almost immediately after publication it became the subject of enormous controversy – much of it generated by the Kennedy family (with the help of Doris Goodwin and others). As a result of his unflattering portrayal of the Kennedys in this first volume, Hamilton lost access to critical primary source documents and was forced to abandon the series.
With 800 pages of text, this volume proves an exhaustive but riveting account of JFK’s early life up through his election as a twenty-nine-year-old Massachusetts Congressman. Nearly every aspect of Kennedy’s youth is examined with encyclopedic – and occasionally graphic – detail.
The book’s strengths are numerous; among them are a lively, expressive and captivating narrative and the author’s incorporation of historical context throughout the text. On a more granular level, Hamilton provides better insight into JFK’s relationship with his parents than almost any other biographer and a more thoughtful view of JFK’s older brother than I’ve seen elsewhere.
Hamilton also provides a more thorough discussion of Joseph P. Kennedy’s life (including his volatile relationship with FDR), the most descriptive and interesting discussion of JFK’s military service in the Pacific and the best introduction to Inga Arvad (one of Kennedy’s more infamous girlfriends) of any JFK biography I’ve read.
The author is favorably disposed to his subject, praising him for his intellectual and interpersonal strengths, but rarely fails to castigate JFK for his appalling foibles. While Hamilton shows reasonable balance toward his subject, however, he demonstrates clear contempt for Kennedy’s father who is portrayed as a swindler, a coward, an abusive spouse and a serial philanderer. JFK’s mother fares little better as a repressed, emotionally distant Victorian figure whose response to her flawed marriage is to travel abroad without her family.
For better – and for worse – much of the narrative’s vibrancy is derived at the expense of JFK and his father whose “extracurricular relationships” are often described in significant detail. While helping to debunk the “Camelot myth” and adding texture to the narrative, much of this extra insight is gratuitous and unnecessary. In addition, the author’s aversion to JFK’s father is displayed with a frequency and ferocity that seems almost pathological.
If providing the reader a thick layer of historical context is a notable strength of this book, at times it is also a weakness. There are several occasions when this volume seems more like an engrossing history textbook than a biography. In many of these moments it is also clear the book’s length dilutes the central themes regarding JFK which the author intends to impress upon the reader.
And during the more numerous moments when the book does feel like a biography, it frequently reads a dual-biography (of both JFK and his frequently-mentioned father). It is hard to imagine any of Joseph P. Kennedy’s traditional biographers capturing more of the man than has Hamilton…in a book ostensibly focused on JFK.
Overall, “JFK: Reckless Youth” is a fascinating if flawed study of the young John F. Kennedy. No biography I have read on any president dives into its subject’s early life with the depth or color Hamilton provides…though others have come close (and with fewer distractions). For all its faults, this introductory volume to John Kennedy is a compelling read and it is regrettable Hamilton was unable to complete the series.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Gary Schantz said:
Based on this review, perhaps you should read the Patriarch by David Nasaw. The primary focus was Joe Kennedy but there a great deal written about JFK.
Your comment is incredibly prescient. I just discovered that biography a few weeks ago and have been planning to put it on my “related reading” list. Your comment forced my hand; thanks! Based on what I’ve learned about JPK this could prove a fantastic biography-
Amy Carroll said:
I read “Reckless Youth” when it was published, and was absolutely fascinated by JFK’s early life. His relationship (and times lack thereof) with his parents throws the adult JFK into clear relief. The fact that he was able to grow up to be as statesmanlike as he was is remarkable given the rotten family life he had. Hamilton busted every Kennedy myth to reveal the family as morally bankrupt.
I am surprised that Steve’s review thinks too much is made of Joe Sr’s myriad of failings. Those failings helped make JFK what he was, for better or worse. I particularly thought that JFK’s charisma was interesting in contrast to his older brother’s and father’s lack of likability. If JFK could make it into the Porcellian Club, perhaps it was not only anti-Irish prejudice that kept Joe Sr and Joe Jr out?
All in all I think it is a disgrace, and a blow to history that the Kennedys (and Goodwin) actively worked to keep Hamilton from finishing his treatise. We would all be richer if they had understood that JFK belongs to history, not only to themselves.
I agree it’s shameful that Hamilton was unable to complete his series on JFK. Hamilton’s effort ranks right up there with Robert Caro’s when I think of biographical projects I [wish could have been / hope will be] successfully concluded. Hamilton’s ability to dig into Kennedy’s life reminds me of the tenacity with which Caro has been able to dissect LBJ. And I still can’t wait to read David Nasaw’s biography of Joe Sr…
James Carroll said:
Having read Caro’s Johnson books 3 times and Reckless Youth twice, I can confidently support the favorable comparison of the latter with the former. Doris K Goodwin should be forever condemned for her role in shutting off access by
Hamilton to the Kennedy Library source materials, which has deprived us of what most assuredly would be a singularly penetrating treatment of the JFK’s public life and presidency.
Gary Bryan Schantz said:
While I don’t know the ins-outs of Goodwin’s role regarding Nigel Hamilton but I do know that her treatment of LBJ was typical of someone that worshipped JFK. Matter of fact, I have never understood anyone’s idolizing of JFK and the Kennedy family. Sad that he was assassinated but after that??