Happy new year! To start off 2016 (election year—it’s getting real now), journalist, historian and author Craig Fehrman was kind enough to take some time to talk about campaign books. Mr. Fehrman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and Slate, among others, and he is currently working on a book on presidential books through American history, published by Simon and Schuster. A lot of the questions I’ve been posing here have been largely historical—where have these started? How have they changed?—and Mr. Fehrman’s research sheds some amazing light on them. I’ve split our conversation into three parts: today, read on for the early days of the campaign book, how campaigning has changed through American history, and why the term ‘ghostwriter’ can be so misleading. Later, we’ll move on to questions of authenticity and style, and finally the relationships between presidents and books, Washington and books, and why we should be both cynical and optimistic about campaign books today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Anne: So, you’ve started looking at, as you say, the ‘prehistory’ of the Presidential books—where do we see this starting?
Craig: It actually starts at the very beginning, before the American presidency emerges. In my book I’ve divided these into two categories: you have campaign books, books that are either written to influence a campaign or books that become an issue during the campaign, and then you have legacy books, which are what more people think of today in terms of presidential memoirs—you know, a president trying to reflect on his legacy and trying to shape his legacy. The interesting thing is that both of these things start really in the 1780s. Let’s stick to campaign books to keep it simple.
[Thomas] Jefferson writes Notes on the State of Virginia in the 1780s, it comes out in 1785. He didn’t intend to publish it necessarily, although in my book I try to make the case that he was certainly not disappointed that it became public, and there was a part of him that was happy that it became public. But it came out in 1785. By the time he runs for president in 1796 and 1800, the book is a huge issue on the trail. There are meetings where people are quoting from his book. Part of the reason for that is that campaigning was just different back then. It was considered ungentlemanly for somebody to go on the campaign trail and say ‘this is why I should be president,’ so somebody like Jefferson just retreated to Monticello and would write a couple of letters, but even writing letters to talk about the presidential campaign that was happening all around him was dangerous: if those got out, it would become evidence of him being too ambitious, too proud—exactly the wrong kind of person to be president. So, you have this vacuum created by him not saying or doing anything, and into the vacuum steps his book, which was actually really popular, and his critics use it to attack him, his defenders use it to defend him, and you can see that happening even as early as, like I said, the 1780s and 1790s.
Anne: So Jefferson’s not really passing comment on the presidents before him, then?
Craig: Right, this book was written in 1785, so Washington isn’t elected until a few years later, and the presidency itself isn’t really defined until the Constitutional Convention. That was very controversial because for the same reasons you don’t want somebody campaigning for president, you don’t want the presidency to be too powerful. You have to remember that with America splitting from England, there were a lot of anxieties about monarchy and the power of the individual, and so for all those reasons, people didn’t campaign, the president didn’t exert too much influence. Jefferson didn’t really delve into those issues that much. Probably the most political stuff in Notes on the State of Virginia is where he just talks abut being governor of Virginia, because that was an office he had held, and he held while he was working on this a little bit. And it’s really interesting, when he gets the time to talk about this. [Jefferson], of course, was governor during the Revolution, an extremely important time and an extremely important state—probably the most important state. He just says ‘it would basically be a waste of time for me to dwell on this period because the state is the same thing as myself. So if you want to know what’s happening during this period, just go look at the official state histories.’ And this is another difference in how things evolve and why I kind of have to call it the prehistory: Jefferson doesn’t even view himself as really an individual actor, he says ‘let’s just look at what the state does.’ It’s not the way a President would talk today, you know, ‘I did this’ or ‘I worried about this behind the scenes.’ There’s a link between the individual and the state in a way that we slowly break down and move away from.
Anne: So I’m curious, with Jefferson’s book and maybe with the other early ones, who is the audience? Who did they expect to be reading these books?
Craig: Sure, that’s a great question. We have a good idea of Jefferson’s audience, because the first edition he printed, he printed privately. So he distributed it, and he would send copies to all the heavy hitters from this era—Madison, Monroe, John Adams. Actually one of my favorite parts in my book is when I describe John Adams and Abigail and their daughter traveling from Paris to London, which was, of course, a very difficult journey back then because you’re on coaches, you’re on boats—but their entertainment is that they have this freshly-printed copy of Jefferson’s book. So they’re reading passages aloud to each other, talking about their favorite parts, talking about their least favorite parts. It’s just amazing to imagine, you know, these people who would play crucial roles in American history interacting with a book like this.
So Jefferson’s book is intended for this kind of courtly, refined audience—at least early on. But because Jefferson is a celebrity, this private edition gets into public hands. The literary economy was vastly different back then than it is now, there weren’t a lot of books that would become bestsellers—certainly not a lot of books like the books we think of today, like single-author, nonfiction—but Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was a book like that. So printers would get copies of it and start to print it, and then they would say “this is written by Mr. Jefferson of America.” He himself was enough of a celebrity and America was an interesting enough topic, whether for people in France or England or America, that this became a huge bestseller. One thing I do in my book, and I’m not sure historians will be huge fans of it but I think it’s worth doing, is I talk about sales numbers, which are hard to nail down. But I also adjust those numbers for population, because America is a lot different now than it was then. If we take a very conservative estimate of how many copies Jefferson’s book sold and adjust it for today’s population, it would be the equivalent of a book selling half a million copies today. So, you yourself know that, with exceptions, that would be a really good return for a campaign book to sell that many copies. And so, Notes on the State of Virginia, just in terms of its ideas and influence, was one of the two most important books written by an American in the 18th century: you have [Notes], and you have Franklin’s autobiography, and those are kind of the two defining and influential works from that period. So it’s amazing that a campaign book could be that influential, but also could matter in terms of its ideas and in the way it defined America for an international audience.
Anne: That’s really interesting. So, I’m thinking about the writing process, because it sounds like Jefferson did write this book, but we hear a lot about ‘ghostwriters’ and running things past focus groups now. So how did the writing process change with Jefferson, after Jefferson?
Craig: Sure. So, one thing I try to talk about with ghostwriting is that there’s an interesting irony in that we often talk about authors, and we use authors as a way to simplify. You know, a book doesn’t come from just one writer, there’s an editor, there’s questions of distribution, they might have people giving him or her advice, so it’s a really complicated process that we try to just simplify down to that one name on the book. It’s an interesting twist that we do the same thing with ‘ghostwriter.’ We have this one term, ‘oh, that’s a ghostwriter,’ we all think we know what we mean by that, but it’s actually incredibly complex, and there are all kinds of different relationships. You can have a ghostwriter and work really hard with that ghostwriter if you’re a candidate, or you can have a ghostwriter and just let that ghostwriter do whatever he or she wants and end up with a really poor book.
So, with ghostwriting, to me, you can talk about something like Andrew Jackson’s campaign biography: so this came out in 1817, when he was thinking about running for the presidency, and then there were revised editions before his campaign in 1824 and 1828. And this was another book that sold tens of thousands of copies, so it was extremely popular for that time. It’s just a biography of Jackson, so, most presidential historians haven’t considered it a book that is Jackson’s book. But if we go back and look at how the book was assembled, to start with, Jackson sat down and wrote kind of a sketch of the Battle of New Orleans, which made him a famous figure and the presidential aspirant that he became. So, he sits down and writes this out in his own handwriting—and it’s terrible, it’s very difficult to read. My book tries to defend Jackson as more literary and more savvy than most people think, but he wasn’t literary in terms of sitting down and writing a good narrative. Still! He made an effort to do it. And then his writers—and through some pretty crazy circumstances, he ended up having three different writers work on this book—had his sketch to work with, they could ask him questions, they could review his letters. Most people believe that he reviewed every single page of his campaign biography because his writers would move to his house in Nashville, and so they would be working on his papers, and so if you have a question, you go talk to Jackson in the other room, Jackson reads the pages and says hey, we maybe need more of this, or less of that.
So, you know about ghostwriting today, and how that’s created. To me, this process of Jackson personally choosing writers, overseeing writers, offering advice, is no different from what we call ‘ghostwriting’ today. And nobody has ever said that Jackson wrote his book with the help of a ghostwriter—part of the reason is that, because of all the pressures we talked about, Jackson wouldn’t get any benefit from saying he wrote his book. The worst thing that could happen for Jackson would be for everybody to find out how ambitious and diligent he was behind the scene to craft his own image. But still, that relationship between Jackson and his authors feels really modern—it feels exactly like how books are assembled today, in almost every situation. You can see that kind of ghostwriting and that kind of symbiosis throughout history, there are always different versions of it, but that’s why ‘ghostwriting’ can be a kind of distorting word, just in the same way ‘authorship’ can be.
Parts 2 and 3 coming soon.