[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-FedHist]: Marx on McFarland, 'John Hay, Friend of Giants: The Man and Life Connecting Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Theodore Roosevelt'
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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Wed, Oct 9, 2019 at 2:57 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-FedHist]: Marx on McFarland, 'John Hay, Friend of
Giants: The Man and Life Connecting Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Henry
James, and Theodore Roosevelt'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
Philip James McFarland. John Hay, Friend of Giants: The Man and Life
Connecting Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Theodore
Roosevelt. Lanham Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 384 pp. $27.00
(cloth), ISBN 978-1-4422-2281-6.
Reviewed by Claude R. Marx (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-FedHist (October, 2019)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann
Marx on McFarland's _John Hay, Friend of Giants_
Few people have had lives as engaging, varied, and accomplished as
John Hay. Serving as a top aide to one iconic president, Abraham
Lincoln, and secretary of state to two other presidents, William
McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, Hay lived a life many could only
dream of. Had Dos Equis beer been doing an advertising campaign at
the time, Hay could certainly have been a candidate for most
interesting man in the word.
With all that to work with, one would think a biography of Hay would
be a delightful book and a joy to read. Sadly, that is not the case
with Phillip McFarland's_ John Hay, Friend of Giants: The Man and
Life Connecting Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Henry James, and
McFarland, like many people, finds Hay to be a larger-than-life
figure and it is easy to understand why he wanted to write about him.
Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for readers), John Taliaferro
beat him to the punch with his comprehensive and well-written
biography of Hay that came out in 2013, _All the Great Prizes: The
Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt_. So rather than attempt
another cradle-to-grave biography, McFarland takes a different
approach and writes about Hay through the prism of his relationships
with Lincoln, Twain, James, and Roosevelt. Sadly, that approach gives
McFarland too much material to work with, resulting in an unwieldy
book that at times lacks focus.
Hay grew up in modest circumstances in a small Illinois town on the
Mississippi River but went to the East Coast for college at Brown
University. Through his hard work and series of fortunate encounters,
he held a series of interesting jobs at a young age, the most
important of which was staff aide to Lincoln. He had both a strong
intellect and extraordinary networking skills. He was a living
embodiment of iconic baseball executive Branch Rickey's observation
that "luck is the residue of design." McFarland writes of Hay that
"mostly the sun shone down on this capable gentleman" (p. xiv).
Hay had several professional achievements during his career,
including his work as secretary of state forging major agreements
with China and Panama; the latter laid the groundwork for the
building of the Panama Canal. But for McFarland, the achievements are
a backdrop for a more personal look at his relations with the four
iconic figures. While including Lincoln and Roosevelt makes sense,
Hay's relationship with Twain and James was less close and McFarland
sometimes has to stretch to find adequate material. Too often he
winds up writing minibiographies of the others, which takes away from
our chance to better understand Hay. McFarland does include some
choice nuggets, however, such as Hay's wife, Clara, becoming upset at
Twain for laughing too hard while visiting their home on a Sunday.
Hay was not particularly devout (although he knew the Bible
intimately), but his wife was.
Twain has been the subject of so many biographies that perhaps
readers would have been better served had McFarland focused instead
on Hay's friend and intellectual compatriot, Henry Adams. Adams
appears in the book, but McFarland does not paint as thorough a
picture of him as his accomplishments merit.
The sections on Lincoln and Roosevelt are the most interesting. We
see Hay evolve from the admiring, at time worshipful, young aide to
an esteemed statesman and social equal of the president. While Hay
and Roosevelt had a mostly good relationship, there were strong
disagreements that McFarland only touches on. Those wanting a more
thorough account should read Taliaferro.
The book's major problem is that, rather than focus on his main
subject, McFarland goes off on tangents and then takes too long to
get back to the main point of the book. Dual biographies can work;
Gordon Wood's masterful book about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,
_Friends Divided _(2017), is a great example of that genre. But
McFarland's book shows the danger of trying to do too much.
Citation: Claude R. Marx. Review of McFarland, Philip James, _John
Hay, Friend of Giants: The Man and Life Connecting Abraham Lincoln,
Mark Twain, Henry James, and Theodore Roosevelt_. H-FedHist, H-Net
Reviews. October, 2019.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
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