Over a decade ago, I realized that I couldn’t name all of the American presidents, and so, to remedy that, I read a biography of each one, in order, which is maybe the less efficient way of doing so. About the time that I finished all that reading, I was becoming interested in the lyric essay and how it could be built from research and history instead of personal experience and memoir.
I started messing around with all these facts I had in my head from the nearly four dozen biographies I’d read. I decided to take a very unfashionable thing—the Important Man school of American History, the kind of biographies that my students think nonfiction means at the beginning of the semester—and see what happened if I wrote short, lyric essays about each president. It seemed like a slow-moving target, which appealed to me, a slow-moving writer. I could mess around with language and form while my subjects stayed relatively stable.
Then the presidency destabilized and my understanding of the American presidency changed. Whereas I thought the book would end with the first woman president and hey, the imperfect project of America is still progressing, how about that? I had to figure out what a book of essays about the presidents looked like in the age of Trump, a man who made the distinction between fact and fiction blurrier than any MFA student ever could.
Presidents’ Day isn’t about hero worship for me. It’s about thinking about this country, and how we’ve invested so much into the men who’ve run it for almost two hundred and fifty years. It’s thinking about its failures and successes, about their humanity and their power. Below are fourteen books that shaped the essays that became my forthcoming collection, Execute the Office: Essays with Presidents. Too often, we’ve ceded being interested in American history to reactionaries and conservatives, but this history belongs to every one of us, and it’s ours to claim.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
When people find out that I read a biography of each president while researching my book, they inevitably ask me “who’s your favorite?” It’s a complicated question, because most of them have some redeeming quality, and all of them have some stain on their record. But I’m always able to answer that James Garfield feels like the biggest loss—a Radical Republican who could have done so much for the country in the wake of the Civil War, especially the formerly enslaved, but who was killed twice, first by an assassin’s bullet, and again by the incompetency of the doctors who attended him. Millard writes history with an essayist’s voice.
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
I stan Abraham Lincoln so hard that I can’t tour Ford’s Theater without getting depressed for the rest of the day, but Long Soldier’s poem “38” is simultaneously one of the best ten poems of the last thirty years and a necessary check on my hero. Utterly devastating in the most important of ways.
A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison by Paul Jeninngs
From 1865, the first tell-all White House memoir by a man who helped evacuate the White House before the British burned it down in the War of 1812, helped organize a slave rebellion, and bought his own freedom. I mean, Madison’s interesting—but my essay about Madison is really about Jennings.
The World Is on Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse by Joni Tevis
Tevis’s second book collects essays about Buddy Holly, atom bombs, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and textile factories—essentially, she’s writing about America in some of the most beautiful, powerful, immediate prose at work today. I might have stolen the title “Warp and Weft” for my Andrew Johnson essay from her.
Hall of Waters by Berry Grass
Working your way through American history via the presidents means that you’re constantly running up against the founding myths of the country. Fortunately, writers like Berry Grass exist to push back against those stories and explore who made this country. Using the “healing” waters of their hometown, Excelsior Springs, Missouri, as a starting point, Grass explores questions of art, inheritance, identity, and more, looking for what’s behind the front page; it’s no coincidence that the Excelsior Springs Hotel is where Harry Truman hoisted the “Dewey Defeats Truman” newspaper.
And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman
This utterly wonderful book, collected from Kalman’s illustrated blog for the New York Times, perfectly encapsulates the stance of skeptical patriot that I try to assume in my book. In gorgeously painted images, Kalman combs through the big men and the small details of America in a way that acknowledges, maybe even embraces, its complexity without falling into flag-waving.
Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
I don’t know if understanding the Boomers is a thing you’re interested in doing, but Perlstein’s political history of the late 1960s and early 1970s is written with fire. His chapter on the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention ought to be taught in creative nonfiction classes as a shining example of using research to write scene. After finishing this, I called up my Boomer dad and asked, “Was it really that bad?”
The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own edited by Veronica Chambers
When the clock struck twelve on Inauguration Day 2017, I was sitting at my desk, eating lunch and quietly reading this book. It was, as they say, a tonic. The next day, we drove up to DC and marched.
Mississippi: An American Journey by Anthony Walton
Walton, whose family was part of the Great Migration of African Americans northward in the nineteenth century, returns to Mississippi to try to understand the most-mythologized region of the USA. The book is an incredible collage that asks, over and over, what does this place mean?
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horowitz
I often feel like the challenge of being a white guy in Virginia who’s interested in the Civil War is managing to engage that interest without, well, becoming a White Guy in Virginia Who’s Interested in the Civil War. The late Tony Horowitz follows along with one of Those Guys in an attempt to understand just what’s going on with them.
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson
Normally, I push back against praising nonfiction by saying “it reads like fiction!” but holy cow, does this book cook like a beachside detective novel. Did you know the guy who shot John Wilkes Booth had castrated himself? That’s maybe the fifth-most interesting fact in this book.
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
A great road trip book about the assassinations of three presidents (Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield), written by Sarah Vowell at her snarky peak.
To the Bramble and the Briar by Steve Scafidi
I know, I know, this list keeps coming back to Lincoln. He and Washington were the hardest for me to write about, because they loom so large in our collective consciousness, and because so much has been written about them already. Steve Scafidi writes a biography of Lincoln in poems that tackle the man’s human side, the boy in Kentucky and Indiana, the gangly young lawyer, the exhumed corpse. I probably ought to write him a thank-you letter, since Execute the Office tries to be this book but times forty-five.
Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss
It’s as good as you remember it being when you first read it, and eleven years on, has gained an urgency that’s even more palpable. With my book, I was trying to get history to sing on every page. Reading Biss’s work is a reminder to myself that it’s possible.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Colin’s new collection, Execute the Office: Essays with Presidents, out now from Baobab Press! – Ed.
Execute the Office: Essays with Presidents by Colin Rafferty
Colin Rafferty’s Execute the Office uses lyric prose and formal invention to explore the humanity, or lack thereof, that thrived in each of the forty-five American presidents. Whether these powerful individuals were celebrated for infamous deeds and heroism, or forgotten as placeholders in the annals of American history, too often presidents are commemorated by the sterility of simple fact. Execute the Office builds upon factual accuracy with essays that are equally invested in lyricism and experimental forms. To balance these factions, Execute the Office uses constraint, metaphor, allusion, and epiphany to explore not just the facts and artifacts of history, but describe the connections between those facts and human nature. These essays discuss the modes in which we remember through death songs, footnotes, infinite rooms, evacuation routes, and nomenclatures, to name a few examples, engaging with history from fresh perspectives. Execute the Office contains histories in and of unusual objects. While unfamiliar at first, they soon become distinct, unforgettable, profound, human.