The Year of the Six Presidents
A Selection of the History Book Club
Carroll & Graf Publishers ISBN # 0786716223
Writer's Voice Coordinator Glenn Raucher's Introduction of 1920:
The Year of the Six Presidents author David Pietrusza at
Manhattan's West Side YMCA, May 11, 2007
As someone whose interest in history only flourished long after I was out of high
school, I remember with a shudder those grim history books I was made to read. I
know that the manner in which history is told can determine whether or not the subject
really connects to a reader. Usually, it is done badly, and most people wind up not
caring or learning about the past.
David Pietrusza's remarkable new book 1920: The Year of Six Presidents is exactly
the way history should be written. It is riveting, involving, filled with verified fact and
compelling anecdote. It makes the era come alive, challenges presumptions about
well-known figures (showing, for instance that we could use a man like Herbert
Hoover again) and methodically reveals a country changing--coming out of a War into
relative prosperity, and trying to figure out how to relate to other countries, as well as
the shifting relationship of citizen to citizen, white, black, man & woman.
David take a cast of almost literally thousands, a twisting path to nomination and
election, and issues and events such as women's suffrage, sedition laws, the Palmer
Raids, Sacco & Vanzetti, the resurrection of the Klan (and President Wilson's tacit
endorsement of the racial politics of both the Klan and related things like Birth of a
Nation), the rise of the labor movement and its ties to the socialist revolution, and
much, much more, and renders them with amazing clarity. He has the knack for
choosing the smallest detail to communicate the most information about a person or
incident. For instance, his relating that Hoover got married in a brown suit reveals
much of the man that pages of exposition could not.
He also creates real tension--despite our knowing how things turned out--in extended
chapters like the one where Warren Harding wins the Republican nomination. We
read page after page as the tides shift from one candidate to another, Harding far
behind, until finally, he rises, and wins.
And, being both talented writer and expert historian--a combination rarely present in
the same person--David manages to balance all of these things, giving us as much
information as we need in order to understand what the book tells us: That the
election of 1920, and the events and characters surrounding and involved in it, was
one of the most remarkable of any ever held in our country. In lesser hands, an 87
year-old political campaign would surely be a recipe for boredom, or irrelevance. But
1920 connects to our current affairs subtly and unobtrusively, and relates a tale well
worth telling, leaving us glad that it is now well-told.