The Hidden Agony of Woodrow Wilson
Lynn, Kenneth S., The Wilson Quarterly
To the remarkable list of modern American presidents whose characters were molded by a struggle against illness--Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, to an extent only recently revealed, John F. Kennedy--scholars have added the name of Woodrow Wilson. The famous Wilsonian obstinacy and tendency to impatient judgment were symptoms of a cerebrovascular disease that he carefully concealed from public view for decades before the stroke that felled him during the epic battle over the League of Nations in 1919. As the late historian Kenneth S. Lynn shows in this excerpt from his unfinished book on presidential health cover-ups, Wilson's struggle with physical affliction may have been admirable, but its secret nature compromised Wilson's own values--and raises the question of how different history might have been had the American public been told the truth.
In a letter of 1911 to his special lady friend, Mary Peck, Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) confessed that in his childhood he had "lived a dream life (almost too exclusively, perhaps)." Both his father and his mother had helped to enrich that life by regularly reading aloud to him from the works of Charles Dickens and Walter Scott, the collected essays of Charles Lamb, and James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. The boy adored those books, yet he was unable to identify all the letters of the alphabet until he was nine years old, and he was 12 before he learned to read. Aside from buying him a pair of eyeglasses, which proved to be unnecessary, the senior Wilsons could think of no way to help their son--and no wonder. During the years of mounting concern about their son's laggard literacy, they lived in a quiet southern town far removed from the nation's centers of medical activity. They did not know that pioneer observers had recently discerned a surprising pattern: In certain cases of stroke, the victim was unable to read but retained the ability to talk.
The strokes of Wilson's later years compel us to ask whether his helplessness as a young reader stemmed from unrecorded occurrences of the same trauma. In any case, his struggle with the disability was agonizing, and when it ended happily, he immediately discovered that he had other problems. The pace at which he was able to read, and to write accurately as well, proved to be unsatisfactorily slow. The young Wilson sought to compensate for his slowness as a reader by focusing with such intensity on whatever text lay before him that he eventually developed an almost photographic memory. At 15, he attacked his writing problem by mastering an intricate system of shorthand. A decade later, he purchased a typewriter, on which he learned to type at a furious speed despite the primitiveness of the newfangled machine. His most extraordinary exercise of self-discipline was to teach himself, during his student days at the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then formally known), to compose entire essays in his mind before committing them to paper.
At Princeton, too, he kept a diary, in shorthand, in which every entry concluded with the prayerful exclamation, "Thank God for health and strength." But his health was troubled. During the year he spent at Davidson College in North Carolina before transferring to Princeton, he had come down with a bad cold that would not go away. "My darling Boy," his alarmed mother wrote him in the spring of 1874, "I am so anxious about that cold of yours.... Surely you have not laid aside your winter clothing? ... You seem depressed--but that is because you are not well." Severe headaches bothered him at Princeton, as did worries about their meaning. At the end of his junior year, the worries crept into a brilliant essay he wrote on the British politician William Pitt (1708-78), who was known as Pitt the Elder. Wilson at 21 had already decided to have a political career someday, and in Pitt he recognized a godlike model. Energized by self-referential dreams, the essayist's salute to the great statesman soared: "His devotion to his country's service was as intense as it was entire; and the intellect whose every power he brought to bear upon the direction of her affairs composed its duty' with a vigor commensurate with its colossal proportions.... [His] will was unswerving, his convictions were uncompromising, his imagination was powerful enough to invest all plans of national policy with a poetic charm." Unfortunately, the "enormous strain" of the Seven Years' War created circumstances that finally compelled Pitt to leave the cabinet, whereupon he was "restricken by [a] disease which ... sapped the strength of his imperial intellect," and "a noble statesman" collapsed into "a noble ruin."
In the powerfully felt final sentences of a richly symbolic portrayal, a headache-wracked Princeton student came eerily close to envisioning the denouement of his own career: "Under the deepening shadow of a gathering storm we obtain a last glimpse of [him], as he stands, himself a wreck, holding up before a blind Ministry a picture of the dark ruin which was awaiting them. With some of his old haughtiness the austere old man rises to answer one who had dared to reply to him, and falls, never to rise again."
Wilson entered law school at the University of Virginia in October 1879, and from the outset he was unhappy. His courses were terribly boring, and he was further discouraged by a persistent cold and recurrent digestive upsets. By the following spring, both his parents were urging him to quit the school and pursue his studies at home. Nine months later, he finally gave in to their entreaties, after having been warned by a Charlottesville doctor that if he did not receive systematic treatment for his stomach problems, he might become a chronic dyspeptic.
In the opening pages of Little Strokes (1960), Dr. Walter Alvarez explains why he, a gastroenterologist with 30 years' experience in the field, was moved to write a book about neurological matters. Most of the patients he saw during his career at the Mayo Clinic had been referred to him because of their complaints about digestive or abdominal trouble. But a good many of those patients turned out to be suffering from the effects of a little stroke. Close questioning of them led Alvarez to realize that "the patient with a little stroke that has produced 'a constant misery' in his abdomen rarely thinks to tell his physician about the sudden onset of his trouble, with perhaps a woozy spell or a fall to the floor.... Left to himself, he will talk only of his stomach-ache."
With a like single-mindedness, Woodrow Wilson spoke about his digestive distresses, but never about the circumstances in which they had begun.
After enrolling in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1880s, Wilson again complained about gastric discomfort, headaches, and colds, as well as feelings of depression and "a haunting dread" of appendicitis. His fiancee, Ellen Axson, sympathetically remarked in a letter she wrote him two months before their wedding in June 1885 that "my poor darling's health is not poor exactly," but is definitely "not very strong." Yet if he never failed to describe his latest woe to Ellen, he insisted that the larger truth about his health was that it was excellent: "You mustn't take it so much to heart when I am sick, my little sweetheart. I've never been seriously ill in my life.... Whenever I write to you that I am unwell, I am inclined to reproach myself afterwards for having told you anything about it; and yet I tell you such things on principle."
Behind all Wilson's protestations of good health lay an unquestioning acceptance of the faith of his Presbyterian forebears, who had regarded themselves as members of a chosen people. Though God had bestowed this status upon them without reservation, the elect were required to justify it again and again, through the ceaseless performance of good works. It was a moral imperative to shrug off illnesses, first by proclaiming that they were not really serious, and then by resolutely buckling down to the task at hand. "My life would not be worth living," Wilson told a friend in 1915, "if it was not for the driving power of religion."
In earlier years, that power had driven him to work prodigiously hard to stock his mind and hone its edge, and the results were awesome. As a first-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins, for instance, he dominated the discussions in J. Franklin Jameson's course in English constitutional history by dint of, as Jameson wrote in his diary, "the greatest logical skill and ability." During the midyear exam period, moreover, Wilson astounded his fellow first-year students by beginning work on a book about the current distribution of power in the federal establishment. Nine months later, the completed manuscript of Congressional Government (1885) reached the desk of an editor at Houghton Mifflin.
Wilson was a popular figure from the time he arrived on the Princeton campus in the fall of 1890 as the new occupant of the chair of jurisprudence and political economy, and year after year he finished first in undergraduate rankings of favorite professors. But those ballotings left something unsaid. As a former Wilson student emphasized, "We felt we had been in the presence of a great man." The guest lectures Wilson gave at Johns Hopkins every year likewise attracted unusually large and enthusiastic audiences, and in talks to Princeton alumni and commencement addresses at various colleges, he added even more luster to his reputation as a riveting speaker.
Between early October 1895 and mid-January 1896, Wilson's outside obligations were exceptionally heavy. Toward the end of October, a punishing attack of grippe put him in bed for days. Three months later, at Hopkins, stomach pains and fever forced the postponement of a couple of his lectures. An old friend and teacher, Theodore Whitefield Hunt, became concerned about him. "Can we not persuade you to lessen your work?" Hunt asked in a letter. "It is clear, Professor, that you are unduly taxing your strength." The next troubling sign was the development of a nervous tic in his left upper facial muscles. "I am afraid Woodrow is going to die," his father exclaimed.
On or about May 27, 1896, Wilson felt pain in his right arm and numbness in the fingers of his right hand. These were the symptoms of a cerebrovascular accident, which apparently had been caused by an occlusion of a central branch of the left middle cerebral artery. He was 39 years old. Although the pain was acute, Wilson made only minimizing references to it. He also acquired with amazing quickness a facility in writing left-handed, and then went off, alone, on a therapeutic bicycle trip around England and Scotland, during which he averaged 33 miles a day. From Glasgow, he reported to his wife that "my arm suffers scarcely a twinge, and is a most promising patient." But this was a stretch beyond the facts. An entire year passed before he was able to write normally (and in 1904 he would again experience sensations of weakness in his right arm).
On returning home from Britain, he was a prominent participant in the three-day celebration, in blazing October weather, of the 150th birthday of the College of New Jersey. An ovation greeted Wilson's eloquent opening-day speech, "Princeton in the Nation's Service," which contained hidden expressions of his optimism about himself. In the most audacious of them, Presbyterian spirit served as a cover for his defance of the disabling power of strokes: "Your thorough Presbyterian is not subject to the ordinary laws of life, is of too stubborn a fiber, too unrelaxing a purpose, to suffer mere inconvenience to bring defeat." On the final day of the celebration, it was announced that the college was to become a university, and that Princeton would be its official name.
Wilson assumed the presidency of Princeton in 1902 and enjoyed notable success for the next four years. In moves that would be widely copied, he overhauled the curriculum and organized the departments of the faculty into new disciplinary divisions. Other departures included plans for several new professional schools, steps to strengthen the science departments, the appointment of a Jew to the faculty, and the recruitment of 40 bright young "preceptors," as Wilson called them, to guide student reading in each department. Recognizing that most of his innovations needed financial backing from the sons of Old Nassau, he assiduously sought their generosity,, in addresses to groups as far away as the Dakota frontier. The all-around brilliance of his performance attracted the attention of Colonel George Harvey of Harper's Weekly, who served as a spokesman for the moneyed interests in the Democratic Party. At a dinner in Wilson's honor at the Lotos Club in …
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Publication information: Article title: The Hidden Agony of Woodrow Wilson. Contributors: Lynn, Kenneth S. - Author. Magazine title: The Wilson Quarterly. Volume: 28. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2004. Page number: 59+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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