Posts tagged with: Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes – Graphic Novelized!

In November of last year, we had the privilege of welcoming bestselling author Amity Shlaes for a visit here at the Acton Building while she was in Grand Rapids to speak about Calvin Coolidge at Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Aside from being a fine author of some very thought provoking books on history and economics, she’s a delightful lady, and it was a pleasure to have an opportunity to make her acquaintance personally. At the time, she was very excited about a project that she had been working on which was soon to be released to the public – a graphic novel adaptation of her best-selling book, The Forgotten Man. Her enthusiasm for the project was infectious, and I’ve been looking forward to its release ever since. (You can pre-order a copy of the book, which is set to be released on May 27.)

But how does one take a nearly 500 page hardcover book that revisits the economic history of the Great Depression and translate it into a visual presentation on the printed page? It wasn’t a simple process. Paul Rivoche is the artist who worked with Shlaes on the project; in this interview at Graphic Novel Reporter, he describes how the original book was reworked in order to create a compelling visual story:

The original book was nonfiction and of course not at all structured to be a graphic novel. It’s an economic history of the New Deal/Great Depression era, described from an alternative viewpoint. It has a huge cast of characters — all real people — and discusses many abstract ideas. To make it work as a graphic novel, we had to find a new structure for the same material; we couldn’t follow the exact arrangement in the print book. For example, there are many jumps in location in the real-life story we tell, and all these characters coming and going. In prose, it worked because you imagine it in your head, stitching it together, following the steady guidance of the author’s voice. In comics form, the same thing was disorienting. We learned that if the visuals change too fast, without enough explanation, the reader easily becomes confused when dealing with such complex events, all these different scenes and faces. To solve this, we decided to introduce a “framing story” using a narrator, Wendell Willkie. In telling the story, he guides us — at times directly, and in other scenes we hear his voiceover narration in captions. Also, we had to make the story as visual as possible, not all “talking heads,” which make for dull comics. Instead, we highlighted interesting locales: the Hoover Dam, the great flood of 1927, Willkie’s famous debate, and many others. In every scene we aimed to introduce as much movement, action, and characterization as possible.

The full interview has more detail on the project; After the jump, you can listen to an August 2012 Radio Free Acton interview with Amity Shlaes on her then-forthcoming biography on Calvin Coolidge.



coolidge bioCalvin Coolidge’s autobiography was published in 1929, shortly after Coolidge left the White House. He wrote the book in long hand completely by himself. Sales at the time were great but some commentators panned it as being too short and simplistic with little new information or juicy tidbits. In Amity Shlaes’s biography of Coolidge she notes, “Not every reader appreciated its sparse language, but the short book would stand up well to the self-centered narratives other statesmen produced, especially those who relied on dictation and, in their vanity, failed to revise.” Those who read it will find the writing style impressively clear and will easily comprehend the deep well of conservatism which shaped Coolidge’s thought.

Coolidge devoted a number of pages in his autobiography to the positive influence he received from some of his professors at Amherst College. Much of the praise was given to Charles Garman, Coolidge’s favorite professor. Garman, an alumnus of Amherst, was a professor of moral philosophy and metaphysics. Garman also studied theology at Yale and offered a high degree of religious instruction in his courses. He cultivated critical thinking and class discussion. A short overview on the Amherst College website of the Garman years, reads in part: “Garman’s teaching was considered subversive by some for he encouraged his students not to memorize or parrot what they had heard, but to think through the issues for themselves and come to their own conclusions.” In his autobiography, Coolidge said Garman “was one of the most remarkable men,” and he “truly drew men out.” Throughout his life, Coolidge leaves little doubt of the positive influence Garman had in shaping his thought and character. In this excerpt from Coolidge’s autobiography, he describes the spiritual learning that went on inside Garman’s class. It also serves as a pronounced contrast to the kind of instruction that occurs in most contemporary philosophy classes across colleges and universities in America today:


Calvin Sr. and Calvin Jr.

In reading Amity Shlaes’ marvelous biography of Calvin Coolidge, I was struck by a brief poem written by Coolidge’s son, Calvin Jr., during his father’s stint as vice president to Warren Harding.

Coolidge was having a hard time adapting to life in Washington, ridiculed for a variety of things, and struggling to remain supportive of an administration which, as Shlaes puts it, boasted “a temperament wilder than his own.” As one glimpse into these matters, Coolidge’s close friend, Frank Stearns, had sent him a letter expressing his sympathies. “It makes me a little sick at heart that you should not get more comfort out of your success,” Stearns wrote. A sample of Coolidge’s reply: “I do not think you have any comprehension of what people do to me.”

“The price of their status, having it or lacking it, was becoming clear to all the Coolidges,” Shlaes explains. (more…)

william-taft-speechIn a wide-ranging discussion of the Progressive Era in her new biography of Calvin Coolidge, Amity Shlaes quotes a striking excerpt from a little-known speech by President William Howard Taft.

Given in the middle of the 1912 election, in which Taft competed (poorly) against Woodrow Wilson and former President Teddy Roosevelt, the speech focuses on the predominant themes and schemes of his opponents, handily highlighting their limits.

In a particularly snappy swipe at Roosevelt, who had just recently split from the Republican Party, Taft notes that despite various efforts to form new parties, any rumbling therein is largely driven by the “promise of a panacea,” a top-down fantasy “in which the rich are to be made reasonably poor and the poor reasonably rich, by law.” Instead, Taft argues, we should seek solutions that “bring on complete equality of opportunity,” unleashing individuals and communities to work, create, and collaborate. The bones of civilization are not built, first and foremost, by the bidding of the policymaker’s baton. (more…)

In the latest episode of Uncommon Knowledge, Peter Robinson interviews Amity Shlaes, author of the new biography, Coolidge. Read Ray Nothstine’s review here.

In the book, Shlaes makes an explicit connection between Coolidge’s rough-and-humble upbringing in Plymouth Notch, VA, and his bootstraps optimism about commerce and markets. The Coolidges believed that responsibility, hard work, and a virtuous life were bound to pay off, in large part because they experienced it in their own lives.

On this, Robinson offers a wonderful follow-up (around the 31-minute mark), observing that some have connected Lyndon B. Johnson’s similar “hardscrabble upbringing” with an entirely different perspective, namely his “championing of the federal government as an instrument for lifting the poor of the nation.” Why, Robinson asks, did the early struggles of each of these men lead them to entirely different conclusions about economic empowerment and poverty alleviation? (more…)

Coolidge cover copyToday, career politicians are out of fashion. In light of Washington’s dysfunction and a hyper partisan culture, the words of politicians offer little reassurances. Their deeds even less. One career public servant is finding his popularity on an upswing exactly eighty years after his death. I asked my grandfather, who turns 97 in July, to rank America’s great presidents? He immediately answered Ronald Reagan, almost reflexively. And then paused for a few moments and declared, “That Calvin Coolidge fellow was good too.”

To remember Coolidge is to remember an altogether different America. One that was rapidly modernizing but still deeply connected to rural life and its foundations. But even for his era, John Calvin Coolidge was a throw back, a man who emerged deep from within Vermont’s rugged hills. The symbols of his humble origins were magnified after the unexpected death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. Coolidge, awakened in Vermont, was immediately sworn in to the greatest office in the world by kerosene lamp by his father, a public notary.

Oft forgotten or lampooned as a “simpleton,” there are no grand monuments for America’s 30th president. He certainly wouldn’t have sought such recognition. But in Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, she offers a kind of monument not just to Coolidge’s economic heroism, but his character.

Coolidge governed and taught from the deep well of America’s Founding and eschewed the material for the spiritual, declaring, “The things of the Spirit come first.” He was leery of progressive schemes saying, “Men do not make laws. They do but discover them.” He added, “If we wish to erect new structures, we must have a definite knowledge of the old foundations.”

Coolidge and pitching great Walter Johnson.

Coolidge and pitching great Walter Johnson.

Calvin Coolidge is ripe for national recognition and his wisdom is being sought out perhaps now more than ever. If you’re a voracious reader of commentary and columns you’ve noticed his common sense adages are being unearthed at a rapid pace. Most of the credit and recognition for the Coolidge revival goes to Amity Shlaes. Her newly released and splendid biography Coolidge can’t be recommended enough. (Full review on the PowerBlog forthcoming)

Coolidge was the last president to oversee federal budget surpluses for every year in office. He cut taxes and government while preaching the wisdom of the American Founders. He was dismissed by many intellectual contemporaries and most historians ignored him or discounted him as some sort of throwback that came to power by luck. A mere placeholder in between the more important Progressive and New Deal eras. But as our spending and debt crisis continues to spiral out of control, America is starving for economic heroes. There is so little courage in Washington to make the tough choices and address the crisis directly. The spending binge has become a mockery of America’s foundations and ideals.

However, This fiscal insanity, debt, and rapid centralization of power is magnifying Coolidge’s heroics. His words and deeds are really timeless though, and deeply rooted in America’s Founding. The principles and lessons only need to be put into practice. Below is a great excerpt from the introduction of Shlaes’s biography:

Our great presidential heroes have often been war leaders, generals, and commanders. That seems natural to us. The big personalities of some presidents have drawn attention, hostile or friendly: Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt. There are plenty of personal events in Coolidge’s life, many of them sad, but he was principally a man of work. Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism, harder to appreciate.