The Washington Post’s usually great blog on politics, The Fix, features a list of the best presidential biographies. This comes just in time for the holidays, of course. It could be a guide to getting the book for that wonk you know, the one who says Franklin Pierce is underrated, or the woman you know who is fixated on what might have been had Warren G. Harding not died in San Francisco.
The list links to good versions of obscure and arcane history, as well as some major stuff — any good biography of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt, has to have some major chops going for it, in those crowded niches of good biographies of important people.
Then there is poor old, hapless Millard Fillmore.
We can excuse Natalie Jennings and Sean Sullivan, perhaps. After all, there are not many books on Millard Fillmore. Pickings are slim.
Ever since America’s favorite curmudgeon, H. L. Mencken, created a World War I hoax on the gullibility of the public, with a completely invented history that claimed the only thing of note ever done by Millard Fillmore was putting a bathtub in the White House, against the advice of the American Medical Association, poor Fillmore has been the butt of jokes, but more often the cruel butt of unintended slights when people cite the fictions of his life rather than his accomplishments. We approach the anniversary of the Mencken “Fillmore’s Bathtub” Hoax, on December 28.
I said the pickings on Fillmore books were slim. The list at The Fix includes a parody history of some five years back by George Pendle, The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President.
Millard Fillmore has been mocked, maligned, or, most cruelly of all, ignored by generations of historians–but no more! This unbelievable new biography finally rescues the unlucky thirteenth U.S. president from the dustbin of history and shows why a man known as a blundering, arrogant, shallow, miserable failure was really our greatest leader.
In the first fully researched portrait of Fillmore ever written, the reader can finally come face-to-face with a misunderstood genius. By meticulously extrapolating outrageous conclusions from the most banal and inconclusive of facts, The Remarkable Millard Fillmore reveals the adventures of an unjustly forgotten president. He fought at the Battle of the Alamo! He shepherded slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad! He discovered gold in California! He wrestled with the emperor of Japan! It is a list of achievements that puts those of Washington and Lincoln completely in the shade.
Refusing to be held back by established history or recorded fact, here George Pendle paints an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary man and restores the sparkle to an unfairly tarnished reputation.
Of course it’s parody! There’s no indication Fillmore, never a member of the military, fought at the Alamo. Fillmore never made it to California, nor was he the Mormon who discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill. In one of his greatest acts, Fillmore dispatched Commodore Perry to Japan to coerce that nation to open its doors to American sailing ships, and trade with the rest of the world. Fillmore himself did not journey to Japan, and never met the Japanese emperor, let alone wrestled the man. (After his presidency, Fillmore visited Europe; Queen Victoria is attributed with having said he was one of the handsomest men she’d ever met; he refused an honorary degree because, he said, he couldn’t read the Latin it was written in — you can’t make up the real stuff.)
Despite its clearly being a parody, however, there it is on the list of The Fix, as the best biography of Millard Fillmore.
The Ghost of H. L. Mencken notes that this item appeared on December 5, 2012, the anniversary of the end of Prohibition — and knocks back a brew. Every other president gets a serious biography mentioned; for Millard Fillmore, The Fix lists a hoax book as his “best presidential biography.”
- An accurate biography of Millard Fillmore, online, at Big Mo
- A serious work on Fillmore’s presidency: Millard Fillmore: The American Presidents Series: The 13th President, 1850-1853 (American Presidents (Times)), by Paul Finkelman, with series editing by Sean Wilentz and Arthur M. Schlesinger
A note on fairness to Mr. Pendle: Pendle has argued here before that his book does contain real history, and it’s there despite the embellishments which he says at least get the book sold. Earlier, in comments he said:
I am the author of the recently published ‘The Remarkable Millard Fillmore’, which I have just discovered has been mentioned by your website on a couple of occasions. Judging by your website’s wonderful name, and your obvious interest in making people more aware of American history, I was slightly troubled to see that you thought I treated Millard Fillmore unfairly in my book.
I don’t know if you have had a chance to read ‘TRMF’ yet, but I can assure you that while it is a faux-biography, and does indeed poke fun at Millard Fillmore’s perceived image (or lack of it), its larger target is that of presidential biographies that are unthinkingly reverential of the office of the president. The cynical revision of history, in which one man is placed at the center of the world’s events is a historical fallacy, as you are probably well aware. Yet it is one which – unlike my book – many historians perpetrate with a straight face.
In ‘TRMF’ I attempted to mock this school of biography by extrapolating the most ridiculous situations from the most basic and inconclusive of historical facts. For instance, I have Millard Fillmore stowing away to Japan, and Sumo-wrestling with the Mikado’s champion, because in real life Fillmore opened up Japan to western trade (albeit from a safe distance in Washington D.C.).
Lest you think I am playing too fast and loose with the truth (some readers have complained that they did not realize my book was a spoof, despite the picture of Millard Fillmore riding a unicorn on its cover!) my book also includes a large appendix of strange but true historical notes to show that many of the ridiculous situations I place Fillmore in were actually based on fact. By reading them I hope one can discover that even the most staid of human lives can be touched by the fantastic.
In short I come not to bury Fillmore, but to praise him, and all those forgottens who have not been granted a role as a ‘Great Man of History’ by the Academy. I very much hope that although ‘The Remarkable Millard Fillmore’ is primarily a spoof and designed to make people giggle, readers will, possibly without being aware of it, come away from the book with a better knowledge of American History than when they started it.
So we are left with a little mystery. Did the WaPo reporters know that Pendle’s book is a parody, and are they saying it works wonderfully as a tool of history telling? Or, did they not know?
Update: Comes word this morning that The Fix changed its listing for Fillmore, to the Rayback book (Thanks, Lea). The column says only that it’s been “updated,” but doesn’t explain where or why. Mr. Pendle might argue his book should be there: How many books are there on Fillmore after all?