When Famous Writers Met U.S. Presidents

Posted by Cybil on February 17, 2020


Journalist and historian Craig Fehrman's new book, Author in Chief, tells the story of America’s presidents as authors—and offers a new window into the public and private lives of our highest leaders. We thought who better to find a reader-approved way to discuss this year's Presidents' Day than Fehrman, who researched these meetings between famous authors and American presidents. 

There are literary celebrities, and there are political celebrities. And then there are times when both kinds of celebrities meet. While researching Author in Chief, my new history of presidents and the books they wrote, I found a lot of these encounters—and the authors’ accounts of the presidents are just as fun as you’d expect.
 
Here, just in time for Presidents’ Day, are five of my favorites.
 
The time Ralph Waldo Emerson dropped in on John Adams
 
In 1825—when Emerson was a young man, and Adams a very old one—the writer visited the ex-president at his Massachusetts home. He found Adams resting in an overstuffed armchair, wearing a hat to warm his balding head. Adams’s mind remained agile. “He speaks very distinctly for so old a man,” Emerson wrote in his notebook, “enters bravely into long sentences, which are often interrupted by want of breath, but carries them invariably to a conclusion.” They talked about the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. They talked about how John Adams wasn’t getting enough credit. “The world does not know,” he told Emerson, “how much toil, anxiety, and sorrow I have suffered.” That’s one reason Adams wrote a forgotten 440-page autobiography—to explain to everyone just how much he suffered.


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The time Herman Melville shook hands with Abraham Lincoln
 
In 1861, Melville headed to Washington to try and land a job in Lincoln’s administration. He met with senators and saw the sights, including the still-unfinished Washington Monument. But the thing he remembered most was an evening at the White House. It was, Melville wrote to his wife, “a great crowd and a brilliant scene”—beautiful flower arrangements, music from a full band, and hundreds of attendees in lavish dress. It took Lincoln more than an hour to shake every hand. “Of course I was one of the shakers,” Melville admitted. “Old Abe is much better looking than I expected, and younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow—working hard at it like a man sawing wood.”

The time Edith Wharton dined with Teddy Roosevelt
 
Soon after Roosevelt became president, in 1901, he invited Edith Wharton to have lunch with him at the White House. (Wharton and Roosevelt had moved in the same Manhattan circles, and he admired her fiction.) When she entered the president’s new home, the author heard him roar happily: “Well, I am glad to welcome to the White House someone to whom I can quote The Hunting of the Snark without being asked what I mean!” Roosevelt explained that no one in his administration knew Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to say nothing of Lewis Carroll’s lesser works. He’d tried joking with a cabinet secretary, saying, “Mr. Secretary, what I say three times is true.” All he got in response was groveling. “Mr. President,” the secretary replied, “it would never for a moment have occurred to me to impugn your veracity.”

The time Robert Lowell partied with JFK
 
John and Jackie Kennedy cared deeply about promoting culture—and about promoting the image of them promoting culture. The first couple threw sumptuous, salon-like parties in the White House, including one in 1962 that was attended by Saul Bellow, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Lowell, among other authors. A few weeks later, Lowell admitted in a letter to Edmund Wilson, who was also at the event, that the whole thing felt fraudulent. “Everyone there seemed addled with adulation at having been invited,” Lowell wrote. “It was all good fun but next morning you read that the president . . . might have invaded Cuba again.” Lowell believed that the Kennedys’ party had been a distraction—that America’s authors should have known better. “We should be windows,” he wrote, “not window-dressing.”
 
The time Toni Morrison got a call from Barack Obama
 
One day, in 2007, Toni Morrison’s phone rang. It was a long-shot presidential candidate named Barack Obama. While Obama hoped Morrison would endorse him in the primary, they started by talking books. “He began to talk to me about one of the books I had written, Song of Solomon, and how it had meant a lot to him,” Morrison said. The novelist had also read Obama’s first book, Dreams From My Father, and left it impressed. “I was astonished by his ability to write, to think, to reflect,” she said. Morrison eventually decided to write an open letter endorsing Obama—the first time in her career that she had endorsed a presidential candidate. And yet when she reflected on that phone call, many months later, it was the literary discussion that stuck with her. “We were writers,” Morrison said, “talking on the phone.”

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Elle (new)

Elle Rudy Sad that our current president is basically illiterate


message 2: by Tanya (new)

Tanya I scrolled through, hoping to see Toni Morrison make the list, and was not disappointed. Song of Solomon is one of hers I still haven't read.


message 3: by Eliza (new)

Eliza ☕️ Elle wrote: "Sad that our current president is basically illiterate"Yeah, lol


message 4: by Holly (new)

Holly I would have loved to have sat down to lunch with TR and Edith Wharton; and I'm sure they had a fabulous time.


message 5: by Sunita (new)

Sunita Dhurandhar I love the story about Toni Morrison and Barack Obama.


message 6: by Chris (new)

Chris Elle wrote: "Sad that our current president is basically illiterate"
I think he almost made it through an Archie Comics comic book once. Almost.


message 7: by Eliza (new)

Eliza ☕️ Chris wrote: "Elle wrote: "Sad that our current president is basically illiterate"
I think he almost made it through an Archie Comics comic book once.
Almost.
"
Yeah but he only looked at the pictures


message 8: by Shawn-Joy (new)

Shawn-Joy Martin All these stories are so cool and all some of you can do is dump on the current president. Why not celebrate what is here in front of you? Embarrassing.


message 9: by Art (new)

Art Elle wrote: "Sad that our current president is basically illiterate"

It's the curse of being a stable genius, having all the best words notwithstanding. Sad.


Peachy Keen Reads Shawn-Joy wrote: "All these stories are so cool and all some of you can do is dump on the current president. Why not celebrate what is here in front of you? Embarrassing."

Finally! An optimist on this article! The best one was when Edith Wharton dined with Teddy Roosevelt. Also, all presidents must be able to read or they can't do well, basically anything.


message 11: by Mikayla (new)

Mikayla hmmm. Sad how some people jump immediately to disparaging people.


message 12: by Sean (new)

Sean O How about the time when Mark Twain helped Ulysses Grant publish his memoirs?


message 13: by Shawn-Joy (new)

Shawn-Joy Martin Peachy Keen Reads wrote: "Shawn-Joy wrote: "All these stories are so cool and all some of you can do is dump on the current president. Why not celebrate what is here in front of you? Embarrassing."

Finally! An optimist on..."


YES! That one was fantastic. It is so easy to forget that Presidents are REAL people with thoughts outside of national security and budgets. It must be such a relief to have a few minutes of "real" time to be themselves when they can.


message 14: by Richard (new)

Richard Tanya wrote: "I scrolled through, hoping to see Toni Morrison make the list, and was not disappointed. Song of Solomon is one of hers I still haven't read."

On point. I also remember quite distinctly that Bill O'Reilly interviewed Donald Trump and published The United States of Trump: How the President Really Sees America. Goodreads cherry-picked, displaying its bias?


message 15: by Rodrigo (new)

Rodrigo The time Hunter S Thompson met Nixon and had a chat with him about pro football is quite interesting, considering Nixon was his all time nemesis


message 16: by Supper (new)

Supper That time when the author of "The Art of the Deal" met Donald Trump.


message 17: by Wevere (new)

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