Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg had at least one thing in common with his latest subject, Woodrow Wilson: Both grew up with very unusual role models.
As a teenager in Reconstruction-era Columbia, the future 28th president of the United States was likely the only young man in the state with a portrait of English Prime Minister William Gladstone on his bedroom wall.
Berg, likewise, may well have been the only 15-year-old in the city of Los Angeles with a portrait of … Woodrow Wilson.
Actually, Wilson was one of a quartet of heroes on Berg’s bedroom wall, the others being F. Scott Fitzgerald, Adlai Stevenson and Don Quixote. Except for the Man of la Mancha, they all pointed Berg in the direction of Princeton. They also had something else in common.
“They’re all tragic idealists,” Berg says, during a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I don’t know which appealed to me more, the tragedy or the idealism.”
Among this quartet of windmill-tilters who dreamed big and fell hard, it was Fitzgerald who led the way to Berg’s first major success — Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius. The book, which began as a thesis paper, rescued from oblivion the man who shaped the novels of Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. It went on to win the National Book Award.
Subsequent biographies have focused on similarly iconic individuals, from Goldwyn (about film producer Samuel Goldwyn, a book that earned Berg a Guggenheim Fellowship) to Lindbergh (Pulitzer) to Kate Remembered, a memoir of Katharine Hepburn.
But it is Wilson — the subject of the eponymous 2013 biography which Berg will discuss this Sunday at the Robert Mills House — who has haunted him the most.
“I was so intrigued by this man who was willing to lay his life down for a cause, and that is what pulled me through the ensuing decades up to the writing of this book,” he says.
Berg describes Wilson as a man who took all of his public roles very seriously, not just the presidency but also “the one great cause that he fought for and gave his life for, and that was fighting for the League of Nations. He brought the United States reluctantly into the First World War, because ultimately he believed he could help write the peace.”
That ultimately led to the League of Nations, “which he thought might ensure that the world had just fought the war to end all wars. That was something he went to his grave fighting for, and believing he had fought for.”
Consequently, Berg sees Wilson as the single most influential figure of the 20th century, whose legacy can be seen on the front page of any newspaper. The Wilsonian ideal of “making the world safe for democracy” remains a guiding principle of American foreign policy, and both the modern income tax and the federal reserve system were established under Wilson’s presidency.
He was also a deeply passionate individual, politically and personally, which is revealed both in the thousands of love letters he wrote while courting his two successive wives and the way he pursued public legislation and molded public opinion.
It’s an enormous American life and, in some sense, it really got going in Columbia. That’s where the Wilson family moved in 1870, when Wilson was 14, and would stay over the next four years.
Wilson’s father, Joseph, taught at Columbia Theological Seminary and served as the interim pastor of Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church.
“The Columbia years were definitely a turning point in Woodrow Wilson’s life,” Berg says. “I think they were extremely formative intellectually, socially, spiritually. This was a period when he, who had been a slow reader, somebody who had been slow in coming to read because of dyslexia, really overcame that and became something of a thinker for the first time. It was here, even though he was the son of a Presbyterian minister, that he really found his religion.”
It was also here, possibly, that Wilson’s unique brand of tragic idealism began to take shape. As he became more aware of the corruption in post-Civil War America, he became more attracted to the stark counter-example of Gladstone.
By contrast with Reconstruction carpetbaggers and scalawags, Gladstone was a public servant who saw politics as a noble calling. He was also a man who saw no conflict between the life of the mind and the life of the soul, and he was a world-class speaker.
“As is often the case with a lot of dyslexics, they really do rely on the aural part of the language, and Gladstone was of course one of the great orators of the day,” Berg said. “So I think he would read these speeches and just the content of them was thrilling for Wilson.”
As a biographer, Berg says he tries to let the facts — collated through years upon years of research — provide the story, the character and the dramatic structure.
“Once I see that, I begin to take this giant block of marble, this giant block of facts that I’ve assembled, and start chipping it away, to bring out the strengths in the stone, in the man.”
The goal is to let Wilson reveal himself. Berg said he doesn’t care whether readers like or hate Wilson, so much as he hopes they can understand and feel empathy.
“Most people who can even picture Woodrow Wilson envision this rather severe-looking Presbyterian minister’s son, and he was that,” Berg says. “But they don’t realize what was underneath that, what was behind that visage, was in fact a pounding heart.”
Wilson biographer A. Scott Berg will be giving a talk, followed by a book signing, at the Robert Mills Carriage House, located at 1616 Blanding Street in Columbia, this Sunday, Sept. 7, at 3 p.m. Berg will also hold a book signing at 5 p.m. on the porch of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home at 1705 Hampton Street. Both events are free, but advance registration is required for the 3 p.m. talk. For more information, visit historiccolumbia.org.
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