The President's Pen: A Literary History of American Presidential Autobiographies

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Title of dissertation: The President's Pen: A Literary History of American Presidential Autobiographies

Allen Fletcher Cole, Doctor of Philosophy, 2010

Dissertation directed by: Professor Robert Levine, Department of English

  Approximately half of American presidents have produced either a full or partial narrative record of their lives, and recent presidential autobiographies have been released to full-scale media attention. Yet, despite the genre's familiarity, there has been no comprehensive analysis of this set of presidential autobiographies. The goal of this project is to examine a selected number of presidential memoirs in order to chart the development of this genre.  Aside from considering the merits of the individual texts through extended readings, this dissertation will trace the history of the publication, marketing, and reception of these texts. In addition, it will trace the formal changes and development of the presidential memoir in the context of the changing relationships between the president and the American people, popular conceptions of public and private, and the confluence of politics and celebrity.

   In order to achieve these goals, the dissertation is arranged chronologically and centers on selected texts that mark the genre's evolution. The first chapters are devoted to the earliest presidential autobiographies, those of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. These three works demonstrate a careful delineation between public and private and ostensibly serve public ends. The second chapter focuses on books by James Buchanan and Ulysses Grant, both of whom sought to market their life narratives in order to reach the broadest possible audience. The third chapter takes up the autobiographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, two presidents who used the expansion of technology to project carefully constructed public characters to the American electorate. Therefore, their texts take on the voice and character of these public characters, stamping them distinctively and underscoring both men's popular images. The final chapter posits Ronald Reagan as the ultimate blending of celebrity and politics and suggests that comparing his two autobiographies--one the story of a movie star and the other the story of a president--demonstrates the uneasy line between institutionalized power and popular celebrity.