by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
There is a long and storied history of presidents who have been authors of books that display admirable literary skill.
By now we know what to expect from a presidential memoir: a doorstop of a book, with just enough tidbits to justify the multi-million-dollar advance, but not quite enough to anger anyone who might be important to the ex-president’s lucrative post-White House existence.
Yet post-White House memoirs weren’t always like this. In fact, there is a long and storied history of presidents who have been authors of books that display admirable literary skill. Author in Chief, a labor of love that took journalist and historian Craig Fehrman ten years to write, is far more than just a jaunty tour through presidents, their books, and their American readership, although it is that. It is also a smart exploration of how the roles of both books and the presidency in American life have evolved throughout our history.
The most famous memoir by a former president was probably that of Ulysses S. Grant, who, when swindled out of all his money in 1884, had to write a book in order to provide for his family. …
… Complicating matters was the fact that the Civil War hero was diagnosed with throat cancer. He moved to the Jersey Shore—cheaper than Manhattan—and raced to finish his book before the disease took his life. Mark Twain stepped in as publisher, which was a good partnership, as Grant and Twain were the two most famous men in America.
The nation followed Grant’s struggle with great interest. Grant made it, just barely, finishing two days before he died. Thanks in part to Twain, the book was a huge financial success, earning his widow, Julia, the equivalent of more than $12 million in today’s dollars.
Perhaps still hoping for Grant-like successes, modern publishers pay enormous sums for books from former presidents.