Advertise a political campaign, write a book. This two-stage is a national pastime. In Author in Chief, Craig Fehrman delves into books written by presidents before or after their tenure, including Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and Ronald Reagan's 1965 autobiography Where & # 39; s the rest of me? "Fehrman called John Adams & # 39; unpublished autobiography the first example of a president trying to write" his own legacy "in a manuscript that was" extraordinarily personal and pathologically insignificant. " Barack Obama published his memoirs "Dreams From My Father" long before he became president. "He said he was torn between writing a novel or entering politics," an editor recalls Obama. "I encouraged him to write a novel." Below, Fehrman talks about Abraham Lincoln as a bestselling author, the little historical figures that caught his eye, and much more.
When did you first come up with the idea of writing this book?
Like most Americans, I was obsessed with the presidential election. I was impressed with Obama's books, both how good they were and how much they appeal to readers. And I asked myself: is there a story about this? Are there other books that resonated in this way? This story was so much richer than I expected. The tradition was as old as America. These books were at the center of our history and made an enormous impression.
imageRecognition…Alessandra Montalto / The New York Times
It started with that feeling of curiosity. No one had written extensively on the subject, so I had to do some preliminary research before I even knew if this could be a book. This research was old-fashioned, went into card catalogs, and found out how many of these books there were. There is this cultural amnesia about books written by presidents. I was just starting to make a list, and when I saw how robust it was, I thought: what are the stories here? What's in the archives? Are there any interesting things to say about all of these books? And the answer was yes.
What is the most surprising thing you learned while writing?
Definitely that Abraham Lincoln wrote a bestselling book. Even large Lincoln biographies have missed this story. It started in 1858 when Lincoln had just lost his famous Senate race against Stephen Douglas. You'd think he'd feel frustrated and depressed. Instead, he just had to work. He tried to find the most accurate record of the debates he had had with Douglas. His contemporaries thought: Why do you care? Everyone moved on. But he understood that in these debates he had given his most eloquent and eloquent answers about slavery and why it shouldn't expand. He eventually got the best transcripts, put them together very carefully, and used them as the source text for the published book, which became a huge bestseller. A Chicago store put together a stack of copies two meters high and by the end of the day the books were gone.
I think the fact that Lincoln saw that this book could be successful says a lot about how ambitious he was and how interested he was in books. It appeared in 1860, just early enough to help him in Republican primary school, and during the general election the book became a national sensation. 50,000 copies were sold, which was a large number, but if you customize it – and it's a rough adjustment – it now equates to half a million copies. People asked him what he thought on the subject and he sent them into the book. He used it to stand up for himself and his ideas.
How is the book you wrote different from the book you wrote?
There is a lot more material for book lovers than I expected. That was a big reason why it took me 10 years. I had to dig deep into the list of publishers, bookstores, and presses. To come back to the Lincoln example, one of the reasons his book sold so many copies was that there were steam trains that could take the book across the country. And there were steam powered presses that made the book more affordable. These technological changes helped explain why the book was important.
Obama is another example. "Dreams From My Father" was difficult to write. At some point he lost his bookstore. At another point he was completely baffled and had to rewrite it. He reread Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior" and it helped him. It was a book that many people talked about in the 1980s, when memoirs had a big moment in M.F.A. Programs and book reviews.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
David Milch. His TV show "Deadwood" will always be my favorite, and one of the reasons is the supporting characters. My favorite characters feel like all characters – the city doctor, the person who runs the inn. They really made the world of the show this rich and fascinating place.
I tried to capture that feeling in my book. The same publisher, Mathew Carey, wrote letters to Thomas Jefferson and employed the bookseller who wrote the George Washington biography that gave rise to the cherry tree myth. He published novelists such as James Fenimore Cooper and helped the novel become an important part of American culture. I've made it appear in several chapters because I hope it feels like a coherent story. I wanted to keep this feeling of overlap because it helps the world feel more real, be it in "Deadwood" or in a book with narrative nonfiction.
Persuade someone to read “Author in Chief” with a maximum of 50 words.
Rolling eyes on political books is easy these days, but they have a huge impact on American history. These books were bestsellers that changed campaigns and careers. They also offer a unique opportunity to take a look behind the scenes and see the more human side of our presidents.
This interview was condensed and edited.