The yarn-spinners of Pennsylvania Avenue: Novels of the Presidents [Part II].

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Way back in March of 2013 I wrote an article for this blog highlighting some of the remarkable, and mostly forgotten, works of fiction that have been written over the years by U.S. Presidents. After what easily qualifies as the longest single hiatus between articles in a series in the history of this blog, today, April 1, 2015, I return to the subject at last. I know that this subject is particularly appropriate given today’s date.

Most people are surprised to realize that many American Presidents have been pretty fair storytellers, and even more surprised that some of them have managed to pen novels while in office–though admittedly most of them, like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that I highlighted last time, turn to fiction-writing in their retirement. While no occupants of the White House have emerged as bona fide kings of American letters, it’s interesting to analyze their works of fiction in the context of their political personalities and their presidencies. So let’s get started!

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Millard Fillmore (1800-1874, President 1850-1853)

More than 150 years after he left office, Millard Fillmore remains an enigma to most Americans. Elevated to the Presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor, Fillmore did little to heal the sectional rifts that were roiling in the years before the Civil War. His case is interesting because Fillmore’s fiction is one of the few Presidential novels that stems directly from his term as President.

During his time in the White House, Fillmore prepared and dispatched the naval expedition of Commodore Matthew C. Perry to open Japan to commercial intercourse with the West. Although Perry didn’t actually leave (much less return) until after Fillmore had left office in 1853, the former President was so captivated by the tales of Japan that Perry brought back that he immediately began writing a series of novels based on the swashbuckling romanticism of Japanese warriors. His first novel, titled simply The Samurai, was published in 1855. A pretty paint-by-numbers swords and damsels-in-distress type adventure, it was basically a tale of European knights and ladies fair (think Sir Walter Scott) with poorly-transliterated Japanese names and a few references to Japan. The Samurai was forgettable, but remember that almost nobody in the West knew anything about Japan in 1855, so there was little left to go on.

The Samurai was a huge hit and sold like hotcakes. Unfortunately this didn’t help Fillmore’s campaign for President under the Know-Nothing ticket in 1856, and, when defeated, he wrote a sequel, Son of the Samurai, to try to pay off his campaign debt. This book was even more successful than the first and has never been out of print. Its plot was almost exactly the same as the first volume, involving a samurai avenging the death of his master and trying to woo the daughter of a rival warlord. The third book in the series, The Samurai’s Nephew, however, was a critical and commercial failure when it came out in 1860. This ended Fillmore’s fiction career. The Civil War soon distracted most people from luxuries like pleasure reading. Fillmore never wrote again, sadly.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945, President 1933-1945)

Easily the most remarkable feat of Presidential fiction-writing is that of Franklin Roosevelt. When he became President in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression FDR seemed like a superman to many people–ironic considering he was confined to a wheelchair–but his penchant for being tireless and everywhere at once was even more burnished when the world learned, in 1936, that he was also a science fiction writer. Roosevelt’s first novel The Spannerhanders was serialized in the pulp sci-fi magazine The Strange World of the Future beginning in April 1936, just as he was running for re-election. This ingenious SF tale involves a cargo ship of robots, created by an alien species, that crash-lands on Earth, and the robots struggle to fit into society until someone realizes that their hands are excellent industrial tools. But one robot, the peckish Thorvo, dreams of being human and falls in love with a human woman. Certain elements of The Spannerhanders were likely influences for later science fiction, such as Alien Nation from the 1980s and possibly even the 2009 film District 9. FDR’s visionary sci-fi was pretty groundbreaking for 1936.

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With as much as Roosevelt had on his plate as President and a world statesman, it’s incredible that he found time to write another book while in office, but that’s exactly what he did. Watchmaker Men also ran as a serial, this time in the little-remembered Radio Planet magazine, starting in May 1940: the same sad month that Adolf Hitler began his world-shaking attack on France. It is believed that FDR wrote Watchmaker Men while on vacation at Warm Springs, Georgia in 1938 and 1939. Unfortunately it lacked the visionary elements of the first novel; Watchmaker Men is a standard paint-by-numbers alien invasion story. But with all of his worries in 1938-39, you can forgive Roosevelt if his mind was elsewhere. Sadly, the burdens of World War II kept him too busy to write another book, and he died in April 1945 while still in office. Nevertheless, his two novels stand out as some of the most imaginative ever written by a President.

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Ronald Reagan (1911-2004; President 1981-1989)

Reagan is somewhat unique in the history of Presidential novel-writing because he wrote his fiction before entering office, rather than during or after his presidency. Reagan’s film and acting career began to wane in the 1960s, but before he entered politics–famously boosting Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election–he tried his hand at writing. It’s not surprising that Reagan, famous for numerous milquetoast cowboy films of the 1950s, chose Westerns as his subject. His first (and only) novel was called Wrongaway Ranch and came out on a small Western paperback press in 1964. It was utterly forgettable. In 1964-65 Reagan was working on a program called Death Valley Days, and the plot and characters of Wrongaway Ranch are right out of TV Westerns. In fact it’s rumored that the novel was based on a script treatment that was submitted for Death Valley Days but never actually used. A further rumor is that the writer of the unused script was none other than Gene Roddenberry, who later went on to create Star Trek, but this is probably just an urban legend.

Wrongaway Ranch was terrible. What few reviews exist of the book uniformly pan it. I haven’t read it; Westerns really aren’t my thing, and the book was nearly impossible to find until a cheap Bantam reprint edition came out in 1984, just as Reagan was running for re-election. Needless to say the poor reception of the novel and the fact that Reagan was soon running for California Governor, to which he was elected in 1966, put the kibbosh on his writing career. That was probably for the best.

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Barack Obama (1961-present, President 2009-present)

One of the most little-known facts about current President Barack Obama–except maybe that he is a Christian, was born in the United States and is not actually the Antichrist, facts which a number of Americans don’t seem to grasp–is that he’s also a novelist. That fact has actually been deliberately hidden from the American public. Many people know Obama is a writer, having published Dreams of my Father and The Audacity of Hope before his historic election in 2008. But that he wrote fiction is virtually unknown. When he completed his first novel, The Man Who Hated Manatees, in late 2011, his campaign staff was adamant that the book not see the light of day until after the 2012 campaign. They thought the book would be denounced as a cheap campaign stunt and that Republicans would try to use it against him. Obama reportedly wrote it in small snippets of time while on vacation away from the White House, most notably at Martha’s Vineyard. He is said to have used the writing process as a way to blow off steam during difficult times, most notably during the dark days of the budget crisis with John Boehner in the summer of 2011. The novel was quietly published by Penguin in 2013 after Obama’s second inauguration, but was given no promotion, which was why you probably have never heard of it.

I honestly don’t know what to make of The Man Who Hated Manatees. It’s sort of a postmodern pastiche of Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce. The novel is a stream-of-consciousness internal monologue by an African-American man struggling to enter the corporate world of New York City in the greedy 1980s, but the novel quickly goes off into numerous incomprehensible tangents which may be nothing more than the main character’s disjointed fantasies. Obama’s prose is top-heavy and rambling, often resembling Faulkner’s endless punctuation-less sentences. The book has absolutely nothing to do with manatees. In fact, the word “manatee” never even appears in the text. I have no idea what it means. I’m not sure Obama knows what it means. I suppose there could be a brilliant work of postmodern literature in here somewhere, but I’m damned if I can find it.

It’s clear that the world of American literature has yet to take Presidential fiction seriously. Although there are some excellent novels that have come from the pens of our chief executives, perhaps the world isn’t ready to take them seriously as storytellers and novelists. Or perhaps it’s just that these men have so saturated history with the view of them as politicians and leaders that there’s nothing left over for them as writers. Nevertheless, if you can find these novels, they’re well worth a try. If you’re interested, I’ve created a special page (here) which will list all the links where you can get copies of these novels for yourselves.

It makes one wonder…does Hillary have a manuscript stashed away in a drawer somewhere?

The cover of Wrongaway Ranch includes a painting (public domain) by William Herbert Dunton. All the “mashups” and book covers were created by me, though the “Pulp-O-Mizer” site helped with the Roosevelt ones.
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1 Comment

  1. Regarding FDR. like a number of other Presidents (Wilson, Truman, Kennedy) he enjoyed mystery or detective fiction. In 1936 he invited a dozen then prominent mystery writers, such as Erle Stanley Gardner (“Perry Mason”) and Rex Stout (“Nero Wolfe”) to the White House for a dinner, and discussed detective story writing with them. It turned out he had a proposed story to hand them. At this time there had been several collaboration efforts among British detective story writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to each write a single chapter to a mystery novel with the final chapter wrapping things up left to the last writer in the group. One of these two collaborations was a novel called “Ask a Policeman”.

    F.D.R.’s plot was this. A wealthy man vanishes with six million dollars (quite a larger sum in 1936 than today). What happened to him, and how is it nobody can find him. The invited authors agreed to jointly write a novel based on this plot (it was published as “The President’s Mystery Plot”) and did so. The book’s sales were somewhat successful, and F.D.R.’s share of the profits went to charity. In the 1960s the book republished.

    Curiously Abraham Lincoln wrote a story too, which has published occasionally. It is a short story, and a murder mystery. Nobody knows if Lincoln was simply relating something he heard or actually writing a piece of fiction. It turns out that while most people are aware that Lincoln liked Shakespeare’s plays, he was also fond of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

    While not quite the same thing (as the author was only Vice President) Spiro Agnew wrote a novel called “The Canfield Decision” about (you guessed it) a U.S. Vice President who has to make a vital choice on a matter of national importance in international affairs. It was published in the late 1970s, after Agnew had resigned his office in disgrace.

    Also not quite the same, but curious in it’s way, is a book published in the 1920s entitled “Philip Drew, Administrator”. The book is about how, due to some crushing social upheaval, the Federal system of government collapses and a well known public man – a Presidential style advisor, comes forward at the request of various powerful individuals, and is appointed “Government Administrator” to fix the system up again so we can have our democratic form of government back again. The author of this novel, was Colonel Edward House of Texas, who had been the closest friend and advisor to President Woodrow Wilson from 1910 to 1919 (they split in the League of Nations matter). Whether House actually had would-be Presidential ambitions of his own is not known (and not really likely – the Colonel liked to advise and influence, not actively create policies). A discussion of the book in an article about it in American Heritage years ago suggest it is certainly an intriguing book to read).

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