A couple of years ago Dave Odegard of Buzzfeed took on a project dear to my heart and looked at the favorite book of each of the American presidents. What more can we learn about them, he wondered, from the works they loved? I focus here on the presidents who, as Odegard sees it, favored poetry and fiction. In a couple of cases I’ve added to the list from my own knowledge.
In today’s post, I look at the presidents up through Franklin D. Roosevelt. I’ll look at the other presidents in a future post.
George Washington, Joseph Addison, Cato
I have to admit being bored to tears by Addison’s Cato in grad school, but it was much admired at the time. (It had fallen out of favor by the following century and Percy Shelley takes a swipe at it in Defence of Poetry.) This Wikipedia description of the play makes it clear why Washington would have liked it:
Based on the events of the last days of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95–46 B.C.), a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric and resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar made him an icon of republicanism, virtue, and liberty. Addison’s play deals with, among other things, such themes as individual liberty versus government tyranny, Republicanism versus Monarchism, logic versus emotion, and Cato’s personal struggle to hold to his beliefs in the face of death.
If Cato was Washington’s favorite work when he was being serious, Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal was his favorite when he wasn’t. Cato is about how politicians are supposed to behave while Sheridan’s intricate play about out-of-control gossip is closer to how they actually behave. Washington must have found Scandal a relief. It’s also a much better play than Cato.
Thomas Jefferson, everything
I agree with Oedgard that it’s impossible to choose a single work. After all, Jefferson’s library would go on to kickstart the Library of Congress, and you can find a list of books he recommended here. In addition to all the great classical writers making the list (Homer, the Greek tragedians, Virgil, etc.), the list includes Pope’s Essay on Man and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This makes sense as the first one shows up in Jefferson’s political writings and the other must have given him a satiric perspective. Like Washington with Addison and Sheridan, Jefferson needed to balance seriousness with humor.
John Quincy Adams, Christoph Martin Wieland, Oberon
I have to plead absolute ignorance of both Weiland and Oberon, but apparently Adams, himself a poet, translated “the epic German fairytale poem.”
Andrew Jackson, Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield
Jackson was a horrible man but that didn’t prevent him from being a sentimental softie when it came to literature. Odegard says he didn’t read much, but Goldsmith’s novel about virtue triumphing over misfortune is an easy read. Had Jackson extended Goldsmith’s generous heart to the Cherokee nation, we wouldn’t have had the Trail of Tears.
Abraham Lincoln, the plays of William Shakespeare
According to Odegard, Lincoln’s favorite plays were King Lear, Richard the Third, Henry the Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I find it interesting that all are about overweaning ambition and the abuse of power, especially Macbeth. Well aware of how even good men can go off the rails, it sounds like Lincoln used Shakespeare to keep a check on himself.
Ulysses S. Grant, the novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton
According to Odegard,
Grant admits to blowing off his studies at West Point and instead spending his time reading popular novelists in the library, like James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Walter Scott. But Edward Bulwer-Lytton is the one that Grant recounts reading the most, claiming to have read “all of Bulwer’s [15 novels] then published.”
I have to plead ignorance of Bulwer-Lytton’s novels. I note that, although Cooper and Scott’s wrote highly romantic novels of individual combat, Grant chose a different kind of warfare, an entirely unromantic strategy that involved sacrificing hundreds of thousands of men because the Union could afford to lose more men than the Confederacy. Earlier Union generals were ineffective because they were more Scott-like.
James Garfield, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Garfield’s childhood, which taught him self-sufficiency, helps explain his attachment to the story of a man who single-handedly conquers an island. According to Odegard,
Garfield was raised on an Ohio farm by his widowed mother and older brother. The Garfields didn’t own many books, just a few volumes plus the Bible and some school books, so when Garfield borrowed a copy of Robinson Crusoe his mind was blown. He spent hours reading and rereading it by the fire and would compare all other books from then on to it. As one biographer put it: “The impression made by that book upon his mind was never effaced. It only sharpened his appetite yet more for reading.”
Chester Arthur, Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray
It makes sense that a social reformer, which Arthur was, would have been drawn to Dickens.
Benjamin Harrison, Walter Scott
Like so many people of his time, Benjamin Harrison was a noted fan of Walter Scott’s so-called “Waverly novels.” From a young age, he absorbed Scott’s swashbuckling tales of adventure and honor. It’s probably what influenced the then 29-year-old Harrison to not only volunteer to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War without any prior military experience, but also recruit a regiment on behalf of the governor of Indiana. Harrison would start off the war as a second lieutenant, march with Sherman, fight in the battle of Nashville, and finish his military career as a brigadier general.
William McKinley, Byron’s poems
William McKinley was the last president who was also a veteran of the Civil War. As a boy growing up in Ohio, he developed an affinity for romantic poets like Longfellow, Whittier, and Byron. In fact, McKinley reportedly brought a book of Bryon’s poems with him on his way to fight in the war.
Maybe McKinley was inspired by “The Eve of Waterloo,” which concludes with the stanza:
And there was mounting in hot haste; the steed,
The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed,
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war;
And the deep thunder, peal on peal afar;
And near, the beat of the alarming drum
Roused up the soldier ere the morning star;
While thronged the citizens with terror dumb,
Or whispering, with white lips — “The foe! they come! they come!”
Teddy Roosevelt, the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson
Odegard mentions a different work, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History, but I know from having read a Robinson biography that Roosevelt was a fan and even found the poet a job. Maybe the progressive president liked Robinson’s ability to capture ordinary people going about their lives.
Herbert Hoover, Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
If you know anything about Herbert Hoover’s life, you’ll understand why he favored Dickens’ David Copperfield above any other book. Like the Dickens character, Hoover was an orphan with a troubled childhood who persevered despite all that happened to him. Hoover was a self-made man, working his way through Stanford (then in its first year) and eventually becoming a millionaire in the mining industry.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the poetry of Rudyard Kipling
Apparently Roosevelt’s favorite poem was “If,” and, with the American economy imploding, he certainly had to keep his head when all around were losing theirs. Kipling, with his affection for the common foot soldier, would have approved of Roosevelt’s support for the downtrodden.
I’ll do the rest of the presidents tomorrow.