Chitchat about presidents, writers; Presidential Anecdotes, by Paul F. Boller Jr. New York: Oxford University Press. The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes, edited by Donald Hall. New York: Oxford University Press. $15.95.
I've always thought that, given the choice, I'D rather be a poet than a president, but after reading the two Oxford collections I've changed my mind. In spite of the cares of their office, presidents enjoy a happier lot. And although they are more likely to be shot at than poets, poets (and their novelist brethren) succumb far more often to occupational hazards of a degenerative nature. But more on that subject later.
Most presidents enjoy their jobs, according to historian Paul Boller, who has amassed an impressive collection of anecdotes on all 39 of them. All in all, US presidents have been a quintessentially American bunch, and the stories people like to tell illustrate qualities that Americans hold dear. Some presidents, like LBJ, displayed astonishing vigor. Johnson packed a lot into one day. Between breakfast and bed he once visited five countries in Central America. Teddy Roosevelt's fighting spirit was mythical, and John Quincy Adams used to rise an hour or two before dawn and go for a walk, or for a swim in the Potomac.
Not all of the 39 have been energetic. Calvin Coolidge took a lot of naps. He slept more and said less, according to H. L. Mencken, than any other president. He also had a mischievous sense of humor. His wife told the story of the time Coolidge was seated next to a society woman at a dinner party. "You must talk to me, Mr. Coolidge," said she. "I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." "You lose," said Coolidge.
"Silent Cal" had a homespun informality Americans love. When he married, he gave his wife 52 pairs of socks to darn. Jimmy Carter followed later in a similar, but more egalitarian vein. He mended his clothes himself.
The folksy informality and east that Americans have especially treasured in later presidents may contribute to Boller's observations about the rise and fall of presidential reputations -- the increasing popularity of TR and Truman, for example, and the declining favor for Jefferson, Wilson, and FDR, who espoused a more dignified statesmanship.
While presidents are supposed to display a punchy style, poets, according to Donald Hall (who is himself a poet) are assumed to be dreamy-eyed, uncompetitive Ferndinands. If that is true, his book about poets and writers will set the record straight. A portrait of the anecdotes within can be had from the index, where rivalry is one of the largest entries, second only to drinking. To the extent that writers are a barometer of our age I think we may be in trouble.
There is a loss of innoncence that becomes increasingly apparent as the reader makes his way from Anne Bradstreet to Anne Sexton. Early on there is a delightful story of a reunion between Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Among the Concord crowd we have a description of Hawthorne, Melville, and Thorelau out of together for an afternoon of skating. And later in the century there are stories of the elegant circumlocutions of Henry James, who, according to his friend Edith Wharton, needed several paragraphs to ask a stranger for directions.
In the 20th century the stories are often degenerate. We are told of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, both sodden, rollin down a Florida beach in the moonlight, and Ezra Pound eating two red tulips at a London club because Yeats stole the show.
Judging by Hall's collection, 20th-century literature largely has been written by a hard-drinking crew: Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway, and Edna St. Vincent Millay to name a few. And then there are the tragedies: Theodore Roethke's mental illness and the suicides of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Are these anecdotes, then, a true reflection of spiritual malaise, something gone awry, or do they say more about the tastes of the editor? I suspect probably a little of both. Hall is perhaps too eager to divert.As he admits himself, "Any story to appear in print is 'grist for this mill.'" It is ironic that an anecdote which appears in both volumes is much funnier according to Boller's welldocumented version. It is an Abe Lincoln story or an Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. story, depending on how you tell it.
In Boller's story, Holmes escorted President Lincoln to a battlefield when the enemy suddenly commenced firing. Holmes, while-dragging Lincoln under cover forgot himself and yelled, "Get down, you fool!" Upon leaving, Lincoln allegedly said, "Goodbye Captain, I'm glad to see you know how to talk to a civilian."
As Hall would have it in his book, Holmes didn't recognize President Lincoln until after he hollered, and there was no reply.
Between the editors of these two entertaining collections, the historian gets the last laugh.