Great biographies are ones in which the subject gets so deeply under the writer’s skin that the book compels itself to be written. Such is the case with W. Barksdale Maynard’s recent volume, Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency (Yale University Press, 2008).
It’s a fascinating exploration into the 28th president’s complex, confounding personality and its consequences as viewed through the lens of his years as a student, faculty member, and administrator at Princeton.
Equally intriguing is how Wilmington resident Maynard—a busy professor, lecturer, and writer better known as an architectural historian than a political scientist—crafted such a gripping volume.
“I didn’t set out to write a biography of Woodrow Wilson,” says Maynard. “He drew me subconsciously. We both grew up in the South. We both attended Princeton and taught at Johns Hopkins. We seemed to have some similar experiences.”
As a boy in Birmingham, Ala., Maynard’s interests included the outdoors, antebellum architecture, and the Civil War. “My parents were people for whom the past was very much alive,” he says. “They told me stories about the Civil War they had heard growing up in the Mississippi Delta.”
It’s not surprising that Maynard became an historian. His preferred reading consists almost exclusively of works written before 1960. “I love the 19th century, when literary style was informed by classical reading,” he says (not coincidentally sharing those sentiments with Woodrow Wilson, who enjoyed reading Wordsworth to his wife). “As rotten as life was, literature was so optimistic. Cynicism is an indulgence.”
The biographer is conscious of walking the tightrope between “traditional” and “old fogey.” Although he is not a technophobe, Maynard does bemoan the shift away from physical books to virtual ones. He keeps an old-fashioned journal and has written in it daily for years. “If you’re honest with your journal, it is the most damning document,” he says, “revealing your warts and neuroses. But it is also a way to practice a literary style. I try to develop my writing as much as possible in 15 minutes.”
How about blogging? “I would no more blog than I would swim the Bering Strait!”
Maynard, 43, earned his undergraduate degree in art history from Princeton. While there, he was struck by the relative dearth of interest in the school’s history, and in its one-time president, Woodrow Wilson. “Other than the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, Wilson’s legacy was kept alive mostly in the form of sound bites.” That deficiency stuck in Maynard’s mind even as his academic career flourished. He went on to obtain his PhD in art history from the University of Delaware, and to publish Walden Pond: A History. His Wilson biography appeared just months after Buildings of Delaware, his encyclopedic survey of the architecture of the state. He taught at Delaware College of Art and Design, the University of Delaware (where he won a distinguished teaching award), Johns Hopkins, and Princeton on topics including art history, environmental studies, American and British architecture, and American art. In 2002, Maynard received the Founders” Award from the Society of Architectural Historians.
But the contradictions of Woodrow Wilson stayed with him. “Here is one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers, who also committed political blunders of global proportions,” Maynard says. “He inspired incredible loyalty in those who were looking for moral certitude—his classmates became lifelong friends and he never would have been elected without them—but some of those who knew him best despised him.”
Maynard took a pragmatic approach toward writing Wilson’s life history. “Arthur Link had published all of Wilson’s papers in 69 hefty volumes. There were already excellent biographies out there, including Ray Baker’s authorized biography, and more are in the works today. With so much information available, how do you write a one-volume life about someone as complex as Wilson? I didn’t want it to be massive.
“I saw the extraordinary symmetry between four fat years and four lean years at Princeton, and the same in the White House,” Maynard says, “and in the way his confrontation with graduate school dean Andrew West was repeated later with Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.” These and other parallels convinced Maynard to concentrate on Wilson’s Princeton years, and how they foreshadowed his future.
“Meticulous” does not begin to describe the biographer’s research. For starters, he made his way through Link’s 69 volumes, looking for references to Princeton.
He also combed through Baker’s voluminous interview notes at the Library of Congress, comparing subjects” comments. “People lie like crazy! That’s why I quote so many of Wilson’s contemporaries,” Maynard explains. “If multiple stories line up, they are more likely to be true.”
In addition, Maynard had the opportunity to listen to scratchy recordings made for the 1912 presidential election. “Wilson was such a good speaker,” Maynard says of his subject. “In pictures, he always looks so stiff, but he didn’t sound stiff. He had a colloquial way of speaking. And his accent was more British than southern.”
The biography introduces us to Woodrow Wilson’s life during his undergraduate years at Princeton, 1875-79. “Tommy” develops close friendships, reads history and political philosophy in depth, and hones his debating and oratorical skills in Whig Hall, as well as in an organization he founds called the Liberal Debating Club. He strolls around campus, enjoys football games, and becomes managing editor of The Princetonian. The young man’s idealism, passion for learning, and delight at coming into his own among peers are palpable.
Yet we also see Wilson’s troubling tendency toward absolutism. When he drew the pro-universal-suffrage position in a debate, for example, the Southern Democrat refused to argue that side for his team.
Maynard takes us quickly through Wilson’s graduate work in history and political science at Johns Hopkins, his marriage to a young Georgian named Ellen Axson, and his unfulfilling teaching stints at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University. Wilson returned to Princeton in 1890 as a professor of jurisprudence and political economy. In his oration at Princeton’s 1896 sesquicentennial celebration, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” the rising star of political theory called on institutions of higher learning to instill a sense of duty in their students.
After becoming Princeton president in 1902, Wilson promptly began to revolutionize undergraduate education by introducing an Oxford-style “preceptorial” system, eschewing large lectures in favor of small-group interaction between students and teachers.
Maybe this early success went to Wilson’s head. He assumed that his next “big idea,” to abolish upperclass eating clubs and move students into four-year-residential colleges known as “quadrangles”—he planned to build Collegiate Gothic housing like Oxford”s—would be heartily endorsed. Instead, alumni were livid; dean Andrew West felt personally betrayed (Wilson had promised him that building a graduate college was his top priority, and West had turned down an offer from MIT to remain at Princeton); and powerful trustees including Grover Cleveland opposed the plan. Lines were drawn in the second “Battle of Princeton.” Ultimately, Wilson’s refusal to compromise resulted in the quad proposal’s defeat at the hands of a counter-resolution seconded by Wilson’s one-time close friend, Jack Hibben.
“It’s maddening!” says Maynard. “This could have been one of the great educational ideas of the 20th century. Why does Wilson antagonize everybody?” Maynard points to the possibility that Wilson experienced a small stroke in 1906. “He wakes up [one day] blind in one eye. His wife says he is so irritable. Did an undiagnosed cerebral event make him intolerant, or was it simply ambition? It’s a problem because you can’t psychoanalyze a dead person.”
This crushing defeat was followed by Wilson’s failure to gain support for creating the graduate school in the center of campus. He remained president of Princeton until 1910, but clearly his power was at a low ebb. The end of his tenure was marked by scandal, fueled by rumors about an affair with socialite Mary Peck. “Baker was as curious as I was about this,” says Maynard; neither biographer is definitive on what happened, beyond an unadvisable friendship.
The rest of Maynard’s book follows Wilson through his 1911-13 Governorship of New Jersey and his two terms as President. “There are such parallels with his Princeton years. Wilson helped draft the Treaty of Versailles, but then his refusal to compromise with Republicans in Congress destroyed the chance that the United States would join the League of Nations,” says Maynard.
As we sit amid antiques in the living room of the Wilmington home Maynard shares with his wife and two young sons (Susan Maynard works at Hagley Museum), the biographer muses on the posthumous success of Wilson’s ideas. “One hundred years and one day after the quad plan was defeated, Whitman College was dedicated at Princeton. Undergraduates, along with some grad students and faculty, live and eat under one roof in a Collegiate Gothic complex, just as Wilson had wanted. The League of Nations failed, but the next generation established the United Nations.” Ironically, Wilson’s zealotry may have been what stood in the way of acceptance for those plans during his lifetime.