The Reading List of JFK

                 When John F. Kennedy gave the commencement speech at Yale and was given an honorary degree, he remarked, “I now have the best of both worlds: a Yale degree and a Harvard education.”  When he hosted a dinner for all the living American recipients of the Nobel Prize, he  wrote on the margin of his prepared remarks a line that put in perspective the changes in what education had come to mean: “There has not been this much intelligence gathered together in a single room of the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.”  Everyone laughed, but behind the easy charm and civility, Kennedy wanted to remind them that for all our so-called progress, the mind of Thomas Jefferson was beyond our reach, if not our comprehension.

             Kennedy had always been a voracious reader.  His list of favorite books includes biographies of Lincoln, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and the speeches of Daniel Webster.  He read the seven volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the two thousand pages of Winston Churchill’s biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, which some consider the greatest work of history written in the twentieth century.  His favorite novel was Stendhal’s The Red and The Black, written in the early 19th century.  With his interest in American history, his interest in Thomas Jefferson, it seems more than possible that he read among Jefferson’s papers a letter written in 1785 prescribing a course of study for a young man still in school, a letter that demonstrates, as well, or better, than anything else could, the difference in the way we think about education.

             “For the present,” writes Jefferson, “I advise you to begin a course of ancient history.”  If this seems to us, with our modern, scientific, knowledge, a strange thing to suggest, what Jefferson next suggests seems almost demented.  Everything, he insists, should be read, “in the original and not in translations.”  The histories of Herodotus, Xenophon, Arrian and Diodorus Siculus, the philosophical works of Plato, Cicero, Seneca and Epictetus, are to be read in the original Greek or Latin.  Almost in passing, Jefferson adds, “You have read or will read in school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles,” only to then observe the necessity of “reading Milton, Shakespeare, Pope and Swift.”

             What Kennedy would have learned from Jefferson’s letter, he would have learned all over again from the writings of a more immediate predecessor in the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt, who read, and wrote about, nearly every great work of literature and history ever written.  In an essay with the curious title, The Pigskin Library, Roosevelt explained that he always took books with him when he went on hunting and other expeditions, but that they would invariably be “stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle looks.”

             Among the books he took along on his journeys were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristotle, the Odyssey, Gibbon, Parkman, Theocritus and Lord Acton’s Essays.  That was just the beginning.  “Once I took Ferrero’s History of Rome, and liked it so much that I got the author to come to America and stay at the White House.”  There is something irrepressible in the eager enthusiasm of a president who thought reading not just one of the most serious, but one of the most exciting, things any one could do.  His interest, his curiosity, were unceasing, and grew  with each new thing he read.  He took Euripides because he had been reading Murray’s History of the Greek Epic.  He read Mahaffey’s essay on Hellenistic Greece and took Polybius on his next trip.  He read a book about Alexander the Great and took Arrian on the next.  He took Moby Dick because he was reading Omoo and Typee.  “I took Dumas’ cycle of romances dealing with the French Revolution because I had just finished Carlyle’s work thereon – and I felt that of the two the novelist was decidedly the better historian.”

             Teddy Roosevelt read everything and enjoyed, and learned from, every word.  President Eliot of Harvard published a list of books every well-educated person should read, the once famous “five-foot shelf” of the greatest books ever written.  Roosevelt found it insufficient.  He would not have included, “as Mr. Eliot does, third or fourth rate plays, such as those of Dryden, Shelley, Browning, and Byron (whose greatness as poets does not rest on such exceedingly slender foundations as the dramas supply), and at the same time completely omit Gibbon and Thucydides, or even Xenophon and Napier. Macaulay and Scott are practically omitted from Mr. Eliot’s list; they are the two nineteenth-century authors that I should most regret to lose.”  Eliot includes the Aeneid, but leave out the Iliad, “to my mind this is like including Pope and leaving out Shakespeare.”

             On August 27, 1912, four years after the end of his second term, Roosevelt, now the president of the American Historical Association, delivered the annual address, entitled History as Literature.  “The great speeches of statesmen and the great writings of historians can live only if they possess the deathless quality that inheres in all great literature,”  he insisted.  History should “possess that highest form of usefulness, the power to thrill the souls of men with stories of strength and craft and daring, and to lift them out of their common selves to the heights of high endeavor.”

             Those who were young enough to still have youthful dreams when John F. Kennedy first took office will not have to be reminded that “the power to thrill the souls of men” was once more than just a memory of what Winston Churchill had done during the Second World War.  No one, certainly no other American president after the Second World War, has used the English language to inspire a generation to think of “the heights of high endeavor.”  No one, certainly no American president since Kennedy, has suggested that the purpose of American life should be the pursuit of “human excellence.”  And if what we read has some bearing on what we learn to think, it is with more than ordinary interest that we learn that of all the books that John F. Kennedy read, his two favorites were both about British politics, which, more than American politics, were shaped and guided, and often decided, by a statesman’s ability to speak

             Lord M, David Cecil’s biography of Lord Melbourne, prime minister in the early years of Queen Victoria’s long nineteenth-century reign, is a wonderfully well-written book.  Lord Melbourne was Charles Lamb, who had the misfortune to marry a woman too beautiful for her own, or anyone else’s, good. Lady Caroline Lamb was not just beautiful, but erratic, with the  childlike confidence that the world was a magical place and that all the other people in it wanted nothing so much as to pay tribute to whatever she decided to do, however outrageous it might be. As there was nothing more likely to draw public attention than to fall in love with Lord Byron, she did so, or at least acted as if she had.  Byron, for his part, was perfectly prepared to fall in love with her, or act as if he had, until he got tired of her and it was time to conquer someone new.  Lady Caroline, who would write a novel about her great lover affair, was certain that this was not how a great love affair was supposed to end.  She became frantic, then she became insane.            

             The world in those days, as Churchill once put it, “was for the few, and the very few.”  Marriages were arranged for reasons more durable than love, and infidelity was both common and, if done discreetly, ignored.  It was only when it became notorious, and a threat to the reputation of the ruling class, that society closed its ranks and the woman, though almost never the man, was officially, and permanently, forgotten.  Caroline Lamb was deserted by everyone, everyone except her husband.  Because of his astonishing self-possession and generosity of sentiment, Melbourne became one of the most admired men of his time. Even more than his easy temper, Melbourne’s ready wit and quick intelligence made his selection as prime minister seem almost inevitable.  It was Melbourne, with his rare sensitivity and remarkable tact, who taught the young Queen Victoria her duties as a sovereign and gave her the confidence she could perform them as well, or better, than anyone had.

             John Buchan’s Pilgrim’s Way, is an account of how the world changed between the end of the nineteenth-century and the beginning of the Second World War.  Buchan, who studied classics at Oxford at the end of the nineteenth-century, knew everyone who played an important part in British politics and government.  After everything that happened, after the First World War, after all that science, applied science, had produced, all Buchan could see was a nightmare, not a return to “barbarism, which is civilization submerged or not yet born, but to de-civilization, which is civilization gone rotten.”  In such a world, “everyone would have leisure.  But everyone would be restless, for there would be no spiritual discipline in life.”  Everyone “would be comfortable, but since there could be no great demand for intellectual exertion, everybody would be also slightly idiotic.  Their shallow minds would be easily bored and therefore unstable.  Their life would be largely a quest for amusement.”  Reading Pilgrim’s Way, which was written in l939, this is the kind of future the young John F. Kennedy was warned about:  “It would be a feverish, bustling world, self-satisfied and yet malcontent, and under the mask of a riotous life would be death at the heart….Men would go anywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing…a world which claimed to be a triumph of the human personality would in truth have killed that personality.”

             Both the bright promise of Thomas Jefferson’s eighteenth-century America in which education meant learning Greek and Latin so the ancient authors could be properly read and understood, and the chance for Americans in the industrial age  to rise above themselves and live lives of “high endeavor” by the constant, lifelong reading of history and literature, passed out of sight for John Buchan, replaced by a world of cold indifference to everything but the narrow calculations of small-minded men.  If it is impossible to know, it is hard not to imagine, that much of what John F. Kennedy tried to do, the call to greatness, the call to sacrifice, the insistence that nothing was more important than the pursuit of human excellence, was inspired, not only by what he had seen with his own eyes, a young man in Great Britain while Britain struggled with whether or not it was willing to go to war, but what he read, and read more than once, Pilgrim’s Way, the book that, along with David Cecil’s Lord Melbourne, remained through his brief life one of his two books he prized more than all the others.

             In The Education of Henry Adams, Adams, the grandson of one president and the great-grandson of another, remarked that a line drawn from the presidency of George Washington to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant would turn the theory of evolution on its head.  But while Grant lacked the capacity to be a decent president, he was a great general and the author of the greatest memoir any American president has written.  Extend the line Adams traced from Washington to Grant father out, draw it through more than two centuries to the present day.  – What do we see?  After Teddy Roosevelt, who not only read everything, but wrote some of the best history written by an American; after John F. Kennedy who, if he did not read as much, or as widely, as Roosevelt, read enough to learn how powerful the English language can be – What do we have?  Hillary Clinton, it is true, had a list of favorite books, but with the exception of two biographies of contemporary politicians, and one work of modern history, the books she preferred  were  mysteries and thrillers, the popular and ephemeral fiction of the present day.

             Theodore Roosevelt wrote more than twenty volumes of serious prose, essays on literature, histories of American statesmen and world  events.  John F. Kennedy wrote Why England Slept, an account of England’s failure to act in the years leading up the Second World wars, and Profiles in Courage, a history of  members of the United States Senate who sacrificed their political careers to do what they thought was right for the country .  Bill Clinton wrote, with James Patterson, a mystery, the name of which no one now remembers.  Donald Trump, before he became president, only wanted to write books about himself and hired other people to write them, and then, after he became president, was too busy watching himself on television to think of much of anything else. 

             It used to be said that the world would end, not with a bang, but with a whimper. It will more likely end with the flickering images of an electronic device, and the blank stares of millions of eyes watching through the endless night, the only past remembered what was watched the night before.  Kill the past, we kill the future.