The Presidency of the United States is arguably the most difficult and complicated job in the entire world, and in order to be effective at it, the men (and, hopefully soon, women) who do it are called upon to master many skills. One of the most important skills is writing. Some of the milestones of American history are in the form of documents written by Presidents: the Emancipation Proclamation, the Monroe Doctrine, the Fourteen Points. But, as effective writers as Presidents have to be, Americans have traditionally paid shockingly little attention to the fiction written by Presidents. In this blog—and hopefully other entries that will become a series—I’ll take my writer’s eye to the novels penned by our chief executives, and see how they stack up as works of fiction.
Instead of taking a specifically chronological approach, I will instead highlight a few Presidents and the novels they’ve written, which range the gambit of styles, subject matter and quality. After even a very short perusal of Presidential novels, the reader will notice how new insights on each man’s presidency and his role in history is shaped by a consideration of his fiction.
John Adams (1735-1826, President 1797-1801)
Let’s start with John Adams, the second person to hold the job and the first to live in the White House. Our sophomore president was known as something of a cold fish, a technocrat, an egghead with little appreciation for the passion and vivacity of life. This portrayal, however, crumbles instantly when confronted with the surprisingly engaging novel he wrote in his later years, A Sanguine Account of the Thrilling Adventures of Ambrose D. Trillburn Fighting the French on the Bounding Main. Titles of this length were not unusual at the time of the novel’s initial publication (1810), but subsequent editions have shortened it to The Adventures of Ambrose Trillburn or simply Ambrose Trillburn.
One familiar with Adams’s presidency—in which he pressed successfully for the construction of a standing navy, which stood the young republic in good stead during the upcoming War of 1812—might not be surprised to see that The Adventures of Ambrose Trillburn is a nautical adventure story. The story is set in 1778, during Britain’s war with France, as the latter was aiding the breakaway American colonies in their struggle for independence. The title character, a young lieutenant aboard the British Navy ship-of-the-line H.M.S. Astonishment, unexpectedly finds himself in command when an errant French cannonball gruesomely beheads his commanding officer, Captain Nigel Bathshower. Despite a restive crew, a deadly outbreak of food poisoning (caused by a dead rat in the crew’s rum barrel) and a Spanish captain pursuing him like a bloodhound, Trillburn overcomes impossible odds to lead a successful raid against a key French fort in the Mediterranean. Although the characters are fairly shallow, the action sequences in Ambrose Trillburn are quite thrilling, and Adams’s writing style, while somewhat stilted, at least shows the occasional sign of brilliance.
Unfortunately, The Adventures of Ambrose Trillburn proved a commercial failure and faded from public view soon after its publication. Part of the problem was that its hero was British—Adams was always accused of being an Anglophile—and at the time the novel emerged Britain was most definitely the enemy. A few years after the novel’s publication the United States was again at war with Britain. However, some literary critics credit Adams’s novel with inspiring later generations of swashbuckling nautical adventure stories, such as C.S. Forster’s Horatio Hornblower series and the novels of Patrick O’Brian, whose works were most famously amalgamated into the 2003 adventure film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Had Adams tried his hand at a sequel—perhaps waiting until after the War of 1812 was over—he may very well have blossomed as one of America’s preeminent adventure writers of the early 19th century.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, President 1801-1809)
Almost everyone familiar with the world of early American letters agrees that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was far and away the best writer the EarlyRepublic had to offer the world. His thrilling political phrasemaking—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—has become a part of our national culture and indeed the world still speaks his language of freedom. It is therefore all the more baffling and disappointing that the elegant Virginia gentleman, so prized for his prowess with a quill pen (and, judging from what happened with Sally Hemmings, his prowess with another kind of pen), should have turned out to be such a lousy novelist.
Perhaps the problem was Jefferson’s choice of subjects. His milieu, at least with regard to fiction, was the kind of high-class, genteel social romance novel that Jane Austen was doing so successfully in Britain, but a clone of Pride and Prejudice set instead in the Virginia aristocracy didn’t come off so well. Jefferson began writing his first novel, Drive and Determination, in 1811. Its plot was fairly simple: Priscilla, the attractive young daughter of a wealthy tobacco planter, wants to marry the dashing young Robert Wyeth, but her overbearing mother insists on a match with the richer but much more odious Bartholomew Crowninshield. The only thing even remotely interesting that happens over the course of Jefferson’s 165,000 turgid words is Priscilla’s quick roll-in-the hay with rough farmhand Pete Smallwycke, and even that occurs “off-screen,” merely hinted at through a couple of arcane puns common in early 19th century prose. In short, Drive and Determination is an utter bore, and by the end of it you really don’t care who Priscilla marries. In fact you wish she would just die.
Despite its dullness, Drive and Determination was a modest success, and Jefferson came out with his second novel, The Dullards of Albemarle County, in 1814. No novel has been more appropriately named. The plot is basically the same with the genders reversed: Francis Dullard, the son of a wealthy tobacco planter, wants to marry the fetching young Gracious Bosworth, but his overbearing father insists on a match with the richer but more odious daughter of…oh, do you really care? The Dullards of Albemarle County is so snooze-inducing that it singlehandedly introduced the main character’s surname into our language as a synonym for someone of decidedly lowbrow and boring company. At an astonishing 230,000 words, the experience of reading The Dullards of Albemarle County is sort of like having a root canal while listening to Kenny G on heavy Quaaludes. You really can’t believe this is from the same guy who wrote scurrilous (but far more interesting) broadsides against Alexander Hamilton and blasted the holy bejeezus out of the Barbary Pirates in 1805. Tom, what happened to you?
Jefferson’s first two novels were so stupefying that I couldn’t even bring myself to read his third and final book, titled simply, Blick. Evidently Blick is a mulatto farmhand on a Virginia plantation who dreams of running away to marry a white girl, or something. Although quite groundbreaking for being willing to deal with the issue of slavery and interracial love—both taboo subjects for Southern writers in 1819, the year of its publication—I really couldn’t bring myself to give Blick the benefit of the doubt and actually read it. My copy of it has been sitting on my shelf gathering dust since 1989. I’m sorry, Mr. President, but after inflicting the agony of the Dullards on me I just don’t trust you anymore. I’d rather read one of Millard Fillmore’s samurai books.
Blick was a financial flop and mercifully ended Jefferson’s career as a novelist. In a few years the Sage of Monticello was quite infirm, and the formerly steady flow of his letters choked to a bare trickle by the end of his life. It is said that a copy of Adams’s Ambrose Trillburn was found on Jefferson’s bedside table the day he died (on the same day as Adams, July 4, 1826), but this story may be apocryphal.
William Howard Taft (1857-1930, President 1909-1913)
Taft has really gotten a raw deal. Our most obese president is far more well-known by Americans today for once getting stuck in a White House bathtub than he is for any achievement of his brief administration or, shockingly, for his prowess as an avant-garde novelist. But his novel Rickshaw Boy Boy, actually begun in the White House but not finished and published until 1916, stands as a unique early precursor of the modernist stream-of-consciousness novel made famous a few years later by James Joyce and his seminal Ulysses, which Rickshaw Boy Boy resembles in many ways. In fact, some literary critics have gone so far as to assert that Ulysses was directly inspired by Rickshaw Boy Boy, though this charge is impossible to prove.
Like Ulysses, Rickshaw Boy Boy takes place on a single day, that being August 19, 1899. Before Taft was President he was appointed Governor of the Philippines, which the United States had recently wrested from Spain and which fought a bloody insurgency against American occupation until Taft crushed the rebels in 1902. The main character of Rickshaw Boy Boy is Tagogi, a 16-year-old rickshaw driver in Manila. The novel begins with Tagogi waking up and follows his thoughts and actions throughout the course of the day as he encounters various persons who patronize his rickshaw: an old Spanish war hero, a blind man with one arm, an American Marines colonel, and, most poignantly, a thieving street urchin who turns out to be Tagogi’s long-lost younger brother. Like Ulysses, the novel takes place almost entirely in the main character’s head, and Tagogi’s ruminations on race, politics, inequality, sex and God form a fascinating portrait of life on the streets of Manila at the end of the 19th century.
Most notable in Rickshaw Boy Boy is Taft’s curious self-reflection, which some historians have portrayed as showing doubt of the rightness of his actions while in charge of the Philippines. One of Tagogi’s passengers is an American merchant who spews a diatribe about Taft (who was actually governor at the time the novel takes place). “A fat fool, a pestiferous and dunderheaded swine!” fulminates the merchant, while chomping on his cigar and dropping the ashes into Tagogi’s hair. “All that blood and treasure lost, and for what? This country smolders like a Poughkeepsie ash heap on Easter Sunday, riven by wooly-headed rats and ant-like sycophants scrambling for scraps from Plantagenet’s table! And Taft—damned he, the rotund tepidness of his putrefying flesh, he sits astride the colossus as if it were America’s commode, emptying ebullient effluvia into the rushing brown waters of imperialist calumny!” Seldom has a former U.S. President directed such withering words at himself and his own accomplishments, and for that reason alone Rickshaw Boy Boy must be regarded as one of the most remarkable documents ever written by an American chief executive.
Despite the brilliance of Rickshaw Boy Boy, Taft failed to develop his talent as a novelist. He was reportedly working on a second novel, tentatively titled Roosevelt’s Wake, at the time he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1921, and then his heavy caseload made additional fiction writing impractical. He died in 1930 and is one of only two U.S. Presidents to be buried at ArlingtonNationalCemetery (JFK is, of course, the other).
Richard Nixon (1913-1994, President 1969-1974)
After resigning the Presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal in August 1974, Richard Nixon wrote prodigiously, coming out with well-noted books such as The Real War and his memoirs, titled simply RN. That this brooding, insecure man should also have turned to fiction in his later years should not surprise anyone who has studied him, but many Americans are surprised to discover that “Tricky Dick” did a turn as a yarn-spinner, and at grand space-opera science fiction at that.
Nixon apparently began writing Space Blast: Battlefield of the Cosmos at his San Clemente ranch in the fall of 1974, reportedly (so says his daughter Tricia) as a way to get his mind off the shame and depression that followed his ignominious resignation from the White House. As a storyteller Nixon certainly thought big. Space Blast begins with an epic prologue, taking place 95,000,000 years ago as the immortal intergalactic tyrant Cox Archiba’alda declares Earth a prison planet for the survivors of the destroyed planet Haaldemaan, a race of beings whose souls have been detached from their bodies by the use of the universe’s deadliest weapon that is hidden in the core of the planet Saturn. Fast-forwarding to the 29th century, after the descendants of Cox Archiba’alda have again conquered the Earth through the deployment of cybernetic warriors called the Democla’ats, the heroic, valiant Haaldemaan space plumber Dykk “Miami” Beech sets out on a mission to penetrate the clouds of Saturn to find the weapon, turn it against the Democla’ats and liberate Earth once and for all. A series of spectacular space battles and epic showdowns—some reminiscent of scenes in samurai films of the 1950s—make Space Blast a rollicking adventure that never lets up for a minute. I seriously read the entire 150,000-word novel in one sitting, though I admit it took an entire bottle of Chianti to make it all the way to the end. One wonders if Nixon had tapped the reservoir of creativity he used for Space Blast to, say, come up with a more plausible explanation for the Watergate break-in, perhaps he might have survived the scandal and saved his crippled presidency.
Published in 1978, Space Blast: Battlefield of the Cosmos reviewed poorly but was quite a triumph for Del Rey Books, its original publisher, perhaps owing to the sudden resurgence of science fiction in the wake of the release of George Lucas’s Star Wars. Indeed some have suggested that the later Star Wars films contain veiled homages to Nixon’s work; the climactic lightsaber battle in The Phantom Menace between Quai-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul resembles the fight in the Tethys gravity generator between Miami Beech and Cox Archiba’alda at the end of Space Blast. There was much interest in translating Space Blast into a film, but Nixon jealously refused to sell the movie rights, having become vaguely embarrassed by the book in his later years. Since Nixon’s death in 1994 his daughters have similarly refused to option the book to Hollywood, but it is possible that, as Nixon’s historical reputation slowly rehabilitates, we will finally see an adaptation of his seminal space-opera opus on the big screen.
As Americans we demand much from our chief executives. In order to even get the job they have to betray many of their principles, pander to every conceivable special interest and after all that they wind up in a lonely ivory tower being viciously blamed for every problem in the world. It is no wonder that so many ex-Presidents, when free of the burdens of office, have chosen to channel their restless energy into flights of literary imagination. The fiction that Presidents write can tell us almost as much about their time in office as can the official documents of the historical record. This is a sorely underappreciated resource of American history.
In future installments of this series, I will profile Millard Fillmore’s sword-slashing samurai epics, Franklin Pierce’s literary love letter to his own drunkenness, and, if there’s time, explicate the home-on-the-range homilies of Ronald Reagan’s little-known Westerns. Stay tuned!