Finding the biographer in the biography

[Wall Street Journal]

In this Sunday’s Wall Street Journal I’ve got a  long review of A. Scott Berg’s new biography Wilson. It’s also an essay on what exactly a biographer adds to any biography. Just four years ago, another excellent biography of Wilson  appeared — John Milton Cooper Jr.’s Woodrow Wilson — and that means we’ve got an excellent test case for just how two different biographers create two different versions of Wilson.

Anyway, read the review for more. One of my main points is that Berg tries too hard to fashion Wilson as a president who feels distinctly modern. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s Berg talking to to Los Angeles magazine: “As I was writing,” he said, “there were literally days I would say, ‘I’m going to forget the name is Wilson. I’ll pretend it is Obama. And I will write it as though it is Obama.'”

Berg’s an excellent biographer. (Last month, in a separate review, I praised his decades-old book on Max Perkins.) But this method strikes me as problematic, to say the least. Cooper is also an excellent biographer, and I think his book is a better fit for anyone new to Wilson. But Berg’s scrupulous research — he spent a decade on Wilson — has unearthed lots of new supplementary detail, and for experts it’s worth checking out, as well.

One last thing: not many people know that Sigmund Freud cowrote a biography of Wilson with William Bullitt. It’s called Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-eighth President of the United States, —A Psychological Study, and it’s really, really awful. Freud’s estate worked very hard to separate Sigmund from it, and a lot of historians still seem dubious about his involvement. But in 2008 J. F. Campbell published a scholarly article based on his research in Bullitt’s papers. It turns out Freud more than earned his status as co-writer, and more scholars should check out Campbell’s work.


3 thoughts on “Finding the biographer in the biography

  1. I enjoyed your WSJ review today of Berg’s “Wilson.” Did you know Barbara Tuchman wrote a review of Freud and Bullitt’s psychological study on Wilson in her 1981 “”Practicing History?” It’s really very well done. Wilson is a hard guy to get to know, I think. James Loewen really tears him a new one in his 2007 “Lies My Teacher Told Me” which criticizes our American history textbooks. Berg was also interviewed on CSpan on 9/8/13 for an hour – seemed like a nice guy.

  2. Hey Peter,

    Thanks for your comment. I think you’re right about Wilson being a tough guy to know. Cooper, in his excellent bibliography essay, talks about how Wilson wrote more (and more about himself) than almost any other president. And yet he’s still a bit of mystery.

    I did not know about the Tuchman or Berg’s CSpan interview — I’ll check them both out.


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