The President and His Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker

By Shepherd, Samuel C. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The President and His Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker


Shepherd, Samuel C., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The President and His Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker * Merrill D. Peterson * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007 * ix, 264 pp. * $29.95

In this distinctive volume, award-winning historian and distinguished biographer Merrill D. Peterson recounts the largely forgotten process behind the writing of the first major biography of President Woodrow Wilson. Muckraking journalist Ray Stanndard Baker supported Wilson politically and served his administration in several capacities. After acting as the press officer at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Baker wrote a defense of What Wihon Did at Paris. Wilson later provided Baker with access to a massive set of documents about the peace conference, the basis for Baker's three-volume Woodrow Wilson and the World Settlement in 1 922. Already at work as a coeditor of the six-volume The Public Papers of Woodrow Wikon, Baker offered to write a biography of Wilson. Baker had earned the president's trust, and after Wilsons death, Mrs. Wilson placed another enormous collection of his papers in Baker's hands. Somewhat overwhelmed with the scope of the project, Baker devoted much of the rest of his life to producing the eight-volume The Life and Letters of Woodrow Wilson.

Peterson begins this book by reviewing Baker's career and concludes by assessing his work as a biographer. In between, Peterson depicts Wilson's life mostly from Baker's perspective but incorporates observations from other major contemporaries involved in the Wilson administration. Approximately two-thirds of the book is devoted to the final decade of the president's life, the period when Baker knew him best and the period most heavily emphasized by other historians. A familiar narrative emerges of the academician turned politician and activist-yet-pragmatic president who became the embattled champion of the League of Nations. A supremely rational, eloquent, and principled leader, Wilson nonetheless remained limited by such flaws as episodic rudeness and stubbornness as well as a disinclination to delegate responsibilities. Like Baker, Peterson portrays Wilson sympathetically but more critically and ultimately views the president as a tragic figure. …

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