Announce a political campaign, write a book. This two-step is a national pastime. In “Author in Chief,” Craig Fehrman dives deeper into the books that have been written by presidents, before or after they were in office, including Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” and Ronald Reagan’s little-remembered 1965 autobiography “Where’s the Rest of Me?” Fehrman calls John Adams’ unpublished autobiography the first example of a president trying to write “his own legacy,” in a manuscript that was “extraordinarily personal and pathologically petty.” Barack Obama published his memoir “Dreams From My Father” well before he became president. “He mentioned he was torn between writing a novel or going into politics,” one editor remembers of Obama. “I encouraged him to write a novel.” Below, Fehrman talks about Abraham Lincoln as a best-selling author, the minor historical characters who captured his attention and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
Back in 2008. Like most Americans, I was obsessed with the presidential election. I was struck by Obama’s books, both how good they were and how much they were appealing to readers. And I wondered: Is there a history to this? Are there other books that resonated this way? That history was so much richer than I expected. The tradition was as old as America. These books have been at the center of our history, and have made a huge impact.
It started with that sense of curiosity. No one had written on this topic in any extensive way, so I had to do some preliminary research before I even knew if this could be a book. This research was old-school, going to card catalogs and finding out how many of these books there were. There’s this cultural amnesia about books written by presidents. I just started creating a list, and then once I saw how robust it was, I thought: What are the stories here? What’s in the archives? Are there interesting things to say about all these books? And the answer was yes.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
Definitely that Abraham Lincoln wrote a best-selling book. Even big Lincoln biographies have missed this story. It started in 1858, when Lincoln had just lost his famous Senate race against Stephen Douglas. You’d think he would be feeling frustrated, feeling down. Instead he just got to work. He tried to find the most accurate transcripts of the debates he had had with Douglas on the trail. His contemporaries were thinking: Why do you care about this? Everyone has moved on. But he understood that in those debates, he had given his fullest and most eloquent answers about slavery and why it shouldn’t expand. He finally got the best transcripts, put them together really carefully and used them as the source text for the published book, which became a huge best seller. One store in Chicago put together a stack of copies that was seven feet tall, and by the end of the day the books were gone.
I think the fact that Lincoln saw that this book could be successful says a lot about how ambitious he was, and about him as a book lover. It came out in 1860, just early enough to help him in the Republican primary, and during the general election is when the book became a national sensation. It sold 50,000 copies, which was a big number, but if you adjust it — and it’s a rough adjustment — it’s the equivalent of half a million copies today. People would ask him what he thought about this issue, and he would send them to the book. He used it to stand in for himself and his ideas.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
There’s a lot more material for book lovers than I expected. This was a big reason it took me 10 years. I had to go deep into the list of publishers, bookstores, presses. To go back to the Lincoln example: One of the reasons his book sold so many copies was because there were steam-powered trains that could bring the book across the country. And there were steam-powered printing presses, which made the book more affordable. Those technological shifts helped explain why the book was important.
Obama is another example. “Dreams From My Father” was difficult to write. He lost his book deal at one point. He was totally stumped at another point, and had to rewrite it. He reread Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior,” and it helped him. It was a book a lot of people were talking about in the 1980s, when memoirs were having a big moment, in M.F.A. programs and book reviews.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
David Milch. His TV show “Deadwood” will always be my favorite, and one of the reasons is the minor characters. My favorite characters feel like all the characters — the town doctor, the person who runs the inn. They really made the world of the show this rich and fascinating place.
I tried to capture that feeling in my book. The same publisher, Mathew Carey, wrote letters with Thomas Jefferson and employed the bookseller who went on to write the George Washington biography that established the cherry tree myth. He published novelists like James Fenimore Cooper and helped the novel become an important part of American culture. I have him show up in multiple chapters because I hope that helps it feel like a coherent story. I wanted to preserve that sense of overlap because it helps the world feel more real, whether it’s in “Deadwood” or a book of narrative nonfiction.
Persuade someone to read “Author in Chief” in 50 words or less.
Nowadays it’s easy to roll your eyes at political books, but they’ve made a huge impact on American history. These books have been best sellers that changed campaigns and changed careers. They’re also a unique way to go behind the scenes and see the more human side of our presidents.
This interview has been condensed and edited.