Reviewed by William Wade
What are the characteristics of a biography that make it truly outstanding? First, it provides the reader with a well researched and organized narrative, written with both style and grace. Second, the author includes personal characteristics, even eccentricities and foibles,that give depth to the subject’s persona rather than being no more than a cardboard cut-out. Third, the author seeks to define his subject in the timeframe in which he lived, in short, his importance and influence in history.
Judged by these standards, A. Scott Berg’s recent Wilson, a biographical study of our World War I president, is a stunning success. There have been many studies of Woodrow Wilson over the last century, but this one now stands forth as the definitive choice. It is a long book – over 700 pages – but Wilson lived a full and energetic life, most of it in the public eye. While one can read selectively those passages that are of most interest, the full impact of Wilson on his times calls for a steady reading from cover to cover, even if it takes a considerable time.
Berg presents Wilson (1856-1924) as a man driven by two fundamental characteristics. First of all, he was bred in 19th century American Presbyterianism, which held that God was active in all aspects of life and it was the duty of every Christian to shape his life by a careful following of Christian principles. Second, Wilson had an abiding faith in democracy, strongly persuaded that people fare best in democratic societies. These two impulses made him a crusader, and throughout life he found himself battling for God-ordained democratic standards against evil and corrupting influences.
As president of Princeton University, he sought to abolish the snobbery of exclusive eating clubs; when governor of New Jersey he battled the entrenched bosses who made a mockery of a functioning democracy; as President he set forth the principles of the New Freedom, that enlightened government could be a constructive force reinforcing an egalitarian democratic society; when he led the nation into World War I, the cry was to “make the world safe for democracy”; and when he fought cynical world leaders for a just peace at Versailles, it was for the principle of “self determination of all peoples.” Finally, when he battled a reluctant Senate for American membership in the League of Nations, it was the necessity for enlightened American wisdom to save Europe from another World War. Little wonder that in the latter stages of his life, he was felled by a paralytic stroke that left him with a rigid personality, unable to made modest compromises to enable America to join his beloved League.
This is an important book, because so many of the international issues that beset us today – an autocratic regime in Russia, the search for peace in the Islamic world, and the rise of a Communist-nationalist state in China – were all shaped by events taking place when Wilson was president. It’s instructive not merely for a century ago, but for the world in which we live today.
Wilson, by A. Scott Berg. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013. 743 pages. Classification: 973.913/Ber.
Dr. Wade is professor emeritus at King University where he taught history and political science. He is a member of the Nevermore Book Club which meets on Tuesdays at 11:00 AM at the Bristol Public Library. Join us for coffee, books, and doughnuts from the Blackbird Bakery!