- The President and His Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker
It is a sacred tenet of book reviewing that we review the book which the author wrote and not the book we think the author should have written. So it is discomfiting to begin a review knowing that, in the end, the assessment is going to be that Merrill Peterson’s The President and His Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker fails because it is not the book he should have written. There is so much promise in the title and the project. Even if the author were not Peterson, who is best known for his perceptive analyses of the constructions (and re-constructions) of Jefferson and Lincoln in our collective memory, a reader picking up The President and His Biographer would still anticipate learning about how Baker constructed Wilson on the page and how the two men’s relationship shaped that construction. Indeed, the front flap of the hardcover dust jacket claims that Peterson “looks not just at Wilson’s life and career, but also at the way Wilson was represented by Baker and other biographers.” It is disappointing to find that this is not what Peterson offers in this treatment of the much-studied Woodrow Wilson and the littlestudied Ray Baker.
Peterson himself never actually claims that he is going to explore Baker’s representation of Wilson (or compare Baker to other biographers). Nor does he ever replace the book jacket’s claim with his own statement of purpose or articulation of argument. What he does provide is an accessible, 226-page narrative of Wilson’s life based almost entirely on Ray S. Baker’s eight-volume biography of Wilson, published between 1927 and 1939, and Wilson’s [End Page 773] published papers. Bookending this six-chapter trot through the key events of Wilson’s life are a Preface and final chapter that describe how Baker, a journalist, became Wilson’s friend and occasional aide, and how he came to be Wilson’s authorized biographer.
The result is a book that is neither here nor there. The narrative of Wilson’s life is insufficiently analytic to earn welcome as a contribution to the biographical literature on Wilson, and the discussion of Baker’s work as a biographer is far too anecdotal to qualify as an analysis of the biographer’s challenges and choices.
As biography, The President and His Biographer offers no discernibly new argument about Wilson’s motivations or operations. Moreover, its reliance on Baker’s 75-year-old narrative means that Peterson’s text actually ignores the historiography that has complicated our image of Wilson in recent decades, while replicating Baker’s journalistic effort to produce an appreciative record, not an interpretation. Modern biographers are not required to engage in historiographical debates on the pages of their texts but, as Merrill Peterson well knows from his work on Jefferson and Lincoln, every biographer has an angle, and modern readers expect biographers to announce that angle somewhere—in an introduction, in a meaty historiographical endnote—somewhere. Nothing of the sort appears in The President and His Biographer. Having problematized the treatments of Jefferson and Lincoln, Peterson treats Wilson’s life as a simple, straightforward tale of a brilliant-if-flawed man with a largely brilliant, occasionally flawed, record. Wilson experts will find this a vapid treatment; Wilson novices may be informed about the basic arc of the story, but they will come away with no clue that intelligent people, viewing the same evidence Peterson viewed, debate the brilliance, the flaws, and much more.
It is not as traditional biography, however, that Peterson’s book on The President and His Biographer raises the greatest expectations—and provides the greatest disappointment. Rather, it is as an analysis of how a journalistbiographer who had a friendly, admiring relationship with his subject (and an affectionate tie to his subject’s widow) navigated the always-choppy waters of biographical writing. The narrative line driving this...