In her first, bestselling book, “River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” (2005), author Candice Millard tells the story of the 26th president’s harrowing adventure traveling down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River in one of the most remote parts of the world. In her new book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Millard focuses her formidable research and narrative skills on the shooting of president James Garfield and his death, 79 days later, from the misguided medical care he received. Like its predecessor, her new book is a page turner, and Millard has found compelling characters and narrative drama in historical events that have been largely overlooked. I caught up with Millard at a coffee shop in Kansas City to talk about Garfield and “Destiny of the Republic.”
Q. Both of your books focus on events in the lives of former US presidents. It seems the reading public can’t get enough of Theodore Roosevelt, but James Garfield is all but forgotten. How did you come to write about him and is it just a coincidence that both of your books are about past presidents?
A. It’s a coincidence. I was casting around for another book idea and I wasn’t necessarily interested in writing about another president. I like to write about science. I was researching Alexander Graham Bell and stumbled upon the story of him trying to invent something to find the bullet in Garfield. I didn’t know anything about Garfield beyond the fact that he had been assassinated, so I started to research him and I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe what an extraordinary man this was who has been almost completely forgotten.
Q. Do you hope your book will revive Garfield’s memory?
A. Absolutely, I do. Who knows how many people will read the book or what they’ll come away with, but having spent three years with the man and this time in history, I found him very admirable and I found it a real loss to the nation that he’s been forgotten. I think there’s a lot we can learn from him and from this tragedy.
Q. Like what?
A. What struck me is that it doesn’t take a large event to cause a national tragedy. In this case it was one man’s madness and another man’s petty ambitions that led to the death of a president. To me, the lessons are the dangers of arrogance and the importance of things like scientific progress, of broadmindedness, of education. And these are all things that Garfield stood for, that he embodied.
Q. In all the research you did, was there any one thing in particular that you found that was especially striking?
A. As someone who has long loved history and reads a lot of history, especially when you get a distance like 130 years, these people can seem almost mythical and you need something tangible to make them real. I had a moment in the Library of Congress among the presidential papers. I opened a folder and there was an envelope in it. The front of the envelope was facing the table, so I didn’t know what was in it. I opened it and out spilled all this hair. I turned the envelop over and it says “Clipped from President Garfield’s head on his deathbed.” It’s blond hair that looks like you could have cut it from your child’s head. It made him so real and so immediate. This was a real person. This was a father and a husband and a man who died at 49 with so much promise. To me, that was a really moving moment.
Q. You make in interesting comparison between Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, which further split an already badly divided country, and Garfield’s 16 years later, which united the country like never before.
A. With the Lincoln assassination, the South didn’t feel it could mourn along with the North. But Garfield was beloved by all the American people. He was trusted and respected by North and South, by freed slaves and former slave owners. Also by pioneers, which his parents had been, and by immigrants. They saw in this man his incredible rise from poverty and it gave them hope. He was an interesting combination of one of their own, but also someone who embodied all their hopes and dreams.
Q. All your chapters but one begin with a quote from Garfield. He was quite the orator. Were the quotes all from his speeches?
A. They’re all from speeches. Garfield was very eloquent and I found so many of the things he said so prescient. He almost seemed to see into the future. There were all these things that I had hoped to get into the book. And I knew going into this that I would have to fight, not just that people didn’t know Garfield, but that people thought they knew him and thought he was boring and thought there was nothing interesting to say about him. So I started the chapters with quotations from Garfield to give a quick, easy way to begin to understand, not just his eloquence, but his wisdom and his broadmindedness and his kindness.
Q. Your first book, River of Doubt, was a bestseller. Did that surprise you?
A. Yes, it was a surprise. It’s Theodore Roosevelt and I knew there is an insatiable interest in him. But you never know what’s going to happen and certainly being a first-time writer I was surprised. And very happy. It meant I can keep doing work that I really love.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I can’t talk about it in detail, but I do have a contract and the book is going to be about Winston Churchill.
Q. Do you ever see yourself writing a full biography?
A. Not really. I love to read biographies, but what interests me are these smaller stories that, I hope, are illuminating about that person’s character and that moment in time. So I think that’s what I’ll continue to do.
David Conrads is a frequent Monitor contributor.