By Sam Roos
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Sam Roos, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Kenneth Whyte about his book, Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (Knopf), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2017 NBCC Awards.
In Hoover, author Kenneth Whyte delivers as intimate a portrait of the 31st US President as exists in the genre. Whyte presents the full life of a man for whom the presidency was only one of many chapters, including his difficult childhood, his rough-neck years as a engineer and mining executive in Australia and China, and his titanic humanitarian efforts during and after the first world war. The result is a deeply sympathetic portrait of one of America’s most misunderstood presidents. I spoke with Whyte to discuss his process and his subject.
Sam Roos: This book is incredibly well sourced, including over sixty-five pages of citations. How long was your research period?
Kenneth Whyte: The research really didn’t end until I stopped writing, so, about seven or eight years. I did it all chronologically, because I didn’t want to get too far ahead of the story looking back at his career with the knowledge that he had: A. become president, and B. that his presidency had been difficult. I wanted to experience his life as he lived it, from the beginning through the end, without a lot of preconceived ideas. So, I would go back and forth, from Toronto to [The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in] West Branch, Iowa, every six months or a year, to sort of pick up the next segment of his life and start anew.
SR: So you were trying to let the storylines guide you, rather than the other way around. Did that lead to specific storylines emerging that maybe you wouldn’t have found with a different approach?
KW: Absolutely. Every piece of it was different because of that approach. I think there’s a tendency in presidential biography to be respectful and ‘presidential’ in the presentation of the subject. So for instance, in Hoover’s boyhood there were some very difficult periods. After he was orphaned he was a neglected boy living with an uncle in small-town Oregon and having a very difficult time of it. I think this has been systemically underplayed by all the other biographers that have approached Hoover, because it doesn’t really fit the picture of presidential character. His business career as well: Hoover was much more ruthless and dastardly in his business activity than I had been led to expect by other biographical material. When you’re closing negotiations with other parties by waving a gun around and making threats, it doesn’t really fit with preconceived notions of how a president behaves.
Some of those in the last year might have changed a bit, but generally speaking, that’s not how we see our presidents.
SR: Do you think that’s the main reason people have this mischaracterized impression of Hoover as a failure? As I was reading, it felt to me like the biggest reason was FDR’s characterization of Hoover in the 1932 election.
KW: It’s never one thing in particular. Certainly FDR colored Hoover a certain way and was very effective at it. Hoover in his own speeches tended to idealize his background and make himself look like an ‘all-American boy’. He thought that would sell better to the electorate. So he’s kind of the author of his own cover up, as well as his biographers. They put in tangents, but mostly to try and make him look good, or look presidential, and that tended to highlight the more salubrious aspects of his career, and his childhood, more than the troubling ones.
SR: Many of the details Hoover’s personal life came through secondhand recollections and letters from people around him. Is there a reason you favor these adjacent accounts over, say, the George Nash biography of Hoover?
KW: First of all, George Nash wrote three volumes on Hoover’s career up to the age of 40… I think he’s done a tremendous job of researching and understanding Hoover. I learned a lot from him. That said, George’s biographical work was part of an official biography commissioned by the Hoover library, very much interested in explaining and understanding Hoover, the president. I was more interested in Hoover, the man. So I felt a need, not to look so much at public records, but to get a sense of what his life was like as lived by those around him as he lived it. He wasn’t an introspective person, he had no diaries, he wasn’t a letter writer, and he wasn’t inclined to sort of pick his own Boswell to tell a story, he just wasn’t tuned that way. But from a very early age he was surrounded by people who were really interested in him as a personality, saw something unique and great about him, and a surprising number of them kept very close records in their own diaries, notes, letters, about his comings and goings, his thoughts and his decisions. They allowed me to get a lot closer to Hoover than frankly I expected I would at the outset.
SR: We know from your last project, “The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst” that you’re interested in early 20th century America. Was there something specific that drew you to Hoover besides your interest in the era?
KW: Well, I don’t see much use in writing a book, and going to all that trouble, unless you’ve got something new to say, or you’re bringing someone to life that isn’t known. I was looking in the first half of the 20th century. I just wanted to move up a generation or two (from Hearst). So I was looking for a subject and reading a lot about the first world war, and Hoover kept popping up as this incredibly effective competent character— “a man of great capacities”— who was getting things done when no one else could get anything done, during the war and in the immediate aftermath. And the picture of him was so at odds with anything I’d read about Hoover that I got curious. You know, which was the real Hoover? How do you square the Hoover of the Great War with the guy who was a failed president? When I looked to see what was on the record biographically, I was surprised at how slight it was, and I started to think that he might be the subject. The fact that he has so little written about him, yet had such a critical role in American history, it was like this big gaping hole in the middle of America’s story. For me, that’s like the best thing you can find as a writer: some interesting, complicated subject, that nobody else has treated, that occurs at a very pivotal moment of history. So I felt like stumbled on a great opportunity.
SR: It feels to me like this book is meant to be redemptive for Hoover, or a least a correction of the record. How conscious of you were creating that narrative. Was it something you consciously did in your writing, or did you try and let his record, presented here in full, speak for itself?
KW: I felt that, in my Hearst book, I spent too much time arguing with other people’s estimations of [Hearst]. If I had to go back and do it again, I would just tell the story and let it speak for itself, rather than arguing with other writers and historians. So I went deliberately into Hoover determined not to think about ‘rankings’, what Arthur Schlesinger jr. had said about him, and just accept, good or bad, what I found. For instance, I came across, inevitably, the bonus army episode in 1932, which is one of the critical points in his career and in Roosevelt’s career. In the standard telling of the history of the period, Hoover screwed it up and Roosevelt, being more politically savvy, saw that immediately and capitalized on it and won the election of ’32 partially in consequence. What I found on the record was so completely at odds with that telling, I did feel I had to go out of my way at that point and note that there was this other telling of history in this period and this is what it was and this is why it was wrong. But, on the whole, I just let Hoover and his activities speak for themselves.
SR: Hoover’s legacy is inexorably tied to the question of who’s to blame for the Great Depression. You don’t shy away from the details when this subject comes up. There are times where you get very specific with statistics about economic policies and performance. How conscious were you of balancing that level of detail and keeping the book from delving into policy wonkiness?
KW: Yeah, that was a problem not only in the Presidency, but in the 8 years before that when he was commerce secretary, and I was very concerned about that, because it’s not a book about political science, it’s a biography. At the same time, he was a politician, so that was his business of the day so you have to sort of understand what he was doing and why he was doing it in order to understand the man. I tried to collect what, to my mind, were the most essential and illustrative examples of Hoover’s performance. I spend quite a bit of time on his efforts to fight the depression because I think that’s where he did a lot of his best work, in crisis-to-crisis management of the issues, coming up with novel, imaginative, creative solutions, sometimes very brave solutions, to the problems that faced the nation at that time. Not all of them were successful, you could argue that none of them were successful in that the economy never bounced back, but he went farther than any president had gone before him. When you admit how far Hoover went during his term, a lot of what Roosevelt does as his successor seems less novel, and the break between the republican era of the 20s and the new deal era of Roosevelt is then not anywhere near as sharp as it’s often portrayed.
SR: Were there parts of Hoover’s life that you researched and then ultimately left on the cutting room floor?
KW: I left books on the floor. One of the reasons that I think that Hoover was sitting there and really hadn’t been thoroughly done as a biography is there’s just too much! I think I spent one half sentence on Hoover in Poland and you could easily write a whole book on that. Or on Hoover in child welfare. The social science research that he commissioned as president was voluminous and informed 40 years of social policy. His work with Eisenhower and Truman on essentially reconstructing the administrative branch of government, I mean I gave it a few pages, but that was one of the most important episodes in the history of the presidency.
SR: You do that a few times, paying a paragraph or even a sentence’s worth of attention— oh by the way, he founded the FCC and the FDA—to these massive accomplishments.
KW: There’s just so much that he was involved in… the founding of the commercial aviation industry, the founding of the commercial broadcast industry, I said very little about the Hoover dam… But I wanted to get things in one volume, so you could get a good, close, honest rendering of his life, and that meant not going down all of the byways that were open to me.
SR: First Hearst, then Hoover… can we assume Hughes is next?
KW: Someone asked me if it was Hitler, another two syllable name starting with H. No, in fact, I’m not doing a biographical. And I’ve moved up a half a century, so I’m in the 60’s and the 70’s in this one, writing about what happened to American business in that time. There was a big shift with America ceasing to be a country in that Calvin Coolidge mode, “the business of America is business”, and becoming much more concerned about the consequences of economic growth and business activities. So I’m writing about that using the history of General Motors as my way into it.
Kenneth Whyte is the author of The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, a Washington Post and Toronto Globe and Mail Book of the Year, and a nominee for four major Canadian book awards. He is a publishing and telecommunications executive and chairman of the Donner Canada Foundation. He was formerly editor in chief of Maclean’s magazine, editor of the monthly Saturday Night magazine, and founding editor of the National Post. He lives in Toronto.
Sam Roos is a first-year MFA fiction candidate at The New School. His work has appeared in The New School’s own The Inquisitive Eater, as well as NBCSports.com, The Second City Network, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He’s originally from Portland, Maine, currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, and is the biggest Red Sox fan you’ve ever met. You can find him on twitter, @Roostafarian.