Presidential reading matter(s)

It was recently revealed which books president Obama intended to read while vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard (and for the record, I’m not going to join in the chorus of pundits that pounced on him for taking a break in these troubled times – first, because the Presidency is indeed a tough job and Calvin Coolidge also took regular and fairly lengthy breaks, and second, because to me, this particular president is less harmful when vacationing than when he’s on the job). As the article mentions, other recent presidents (and current candidates) have similarlyhad their reading matter publicized, although at least to me it is unclear whether these lists truly represent what the president reads and wants to read, or whether they are merely for show. In any event, they represent another set of tea leaves to read in order to get a glimpse into the man’s interests and passions.

Little is known (unless some one of my vastly more knowledgeable readers corrects me) about Calvin Coolidge’s book list while in the White House. We do know that he was more of a man of letters than most recent presidents have been, in the sense of having been schooled in the classic canon of Western literature and philosophy. Having begun learning Latin and Greek while at Black River Academy, he recalls in autobiography that he derived much joy from the poetry of Homer, and the orations of Demosthenes and Cicero. Later, at Amherst College, he read the speeches of Lord Erskine, of Webster, and Choate, the essays of Macaulay, and the writings of Carlyle and John Fiske, and of course much Milton and Shakespeare while not neglecting the more contemporary poems of Kipling, Field, Whittier and Riley. It also is important to note that the reading of “novels” was frowned upon by men of serious mind well into the 20th century – novels were something that women purchased and read. It is therefore safe to assume that he did not indulge in much “frivolous” reading – he simply had neither the time nor the inclination for popular literature such as the works of John O’Hara, Pearl S. Buck, Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, although we may be sure that his wife was well acquainted with the best sellers of the day.

Coolidge over the years did acquire a sizable personal library. While still in the White House, he had David C. Mearns, chief of the Library of Congress’ manuscript divison, catalogue his books. When the writer and Coolidge friend Bruce Barton visited the by then retired Coolidge at his new home, The Beeches, in Northampton in 1931, he wrote:

After supper Mr. Coolidge and I went to the library and talked of all sorts of things. Only part of his books are there, he explained. He has more than four thousand, and the shelves will hold only fifteen hundred. “After trying to divide four into one and a half, I gave it up, and stored the others. Some day I’ll have to build on an extension.”

Calvin Coolidge was a classically educated and well-read man, who throughout his career returned to the great works of literature for inspiration. We may never know whether he sometimes sneaked in a cheap paperback crime novel, but I highly doubt it.

One thought on “Presidential reading matter(s)

  1. Scholar and historian Jerry L. Wallace was good enough to provide some more background information that I trust I may share here:

    As for Coolidge’s reading material, I should mention
    to you that the White House in President Coolidge’s
    day was located next to a large structure that housed
    the Departments of State, War, and Navy (today, it is
    know as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building).
    The building contained a sizable and most impressive
    library that was full of published matter pertinent
    to the operations of the concerned departments and
    other matters in general. I suspect that in part,
    Coolidge’s needs for reading and research materials
    were provided by this library. (As one of my first
    projects in the National Archives in the summer of
    1970, I helped to disperse the few remaining volumes
    from this once vast library.) Unfortunately, there
    is no record of what materials President Coolidge or
    his staff withdrew from this library’s
    collection.
    Coolidge, of course, also had available to him the
    great collections of the Library of Congress. And
    he, no doubt, drew upon them as needed. But again I
    know of no records of what he withdrew. There were
    also the specialized libraries of the various other
    departments and agencies of the Federal government,
    which he could call upon for special materials as
    might be required, for instance, in speech
    preparation.

    On a more positive note there is an essay that you
    might wish to read: It is found in David Chambers
    Mearns’s Largely Lincoln (St. Martin’s Press, 1961).
    This volume contains an essay, “A Neglected Bookman:
    Calvin Coolidge” (pp. 199-227). Chambers, who was
    with the Library of Congress, recounts his work in
    inventorying President Coolidge’s personal library,
    which was located in his White House study.
    According to Mearns, it contained some 4,000 items.
    The tone of this essay I find grating, but it does
    contain useful information on Coolidge reading
    material. I believe you would find it of interest.
    Surprisingly, the Mearns’ volume is available today
    over the internet; see
    http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/largely-lincoln-david-chambers-mearns/1017947518.

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