Saturday, April 22, 2017

Q&A with Philip McFarland

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of John Hay, and to focus it not just on him but around four other men with whom he interacted—Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Theodore Roosevelt?

A: Years ago I became fascinated by the fact that one man served as an important figure in two presidential administrations as widely separated as (to my young mind) were Lincoln’s and Theodore Roosevelt’s. Many years later I wrote a book about the prickly relationship between Mark Twain and Roosevelt.

What I learned doing that gave me a head-start on this present book, which begins and ends with the two presidencies—Lincoln’s in the 1860s and Roosevelt’s in the 1900s—and considers between them two of America’s greatest cultural figures, Mark Twain and Henry James, seminal influences on literature in our own times.

Two politicians, two authors: all four writers of distinction, all friends of John Hay, a man with an enormous number of friends in any case.

But these four allowed me to consider Lincoln in the 1860s, Mark Twain in the 1870s, James in the 1880s, and Roosevelt in the 1890s, the narrative progressing through four exciting decades in our history, while given added coherence by means of the intertwined, fascinating life of John Hay.

Q: This book has a large cast of characters. How did you conduct your research, and was there anything that especially surprised you?

A: I wasn’t writing five formal biographies—or even a single biography of John Hay. Rather, I was composing a meditation on four crucial decades in our history, each humanized (as I saw it) by a significant American political or cultural figure.

Separately, all four have been extensively studied by others, and their works, journals, and letters published. So my research was more reading and absorbing than burrowing in archives.

For the reading, the remarkable resources of the Boston Athenaeum served me handsomely, supplemented by that institution’s superior interlibrary-loan services.

Q: How would you characterize Hay’s relationships with each of the four other men?

A: Hay was an extraordinarily interesting and able figure, beloved by just about everyone who knew and worked with him.

He got along beautifully with all four of these figures, no mean feat when we consider the contrasts between Twain and James, for instance, or Hay’s age when he knew and was trusted and loved by Lincoln (between 22 and 26) and when (in his early 60s, at the end of his life) he served as the young Roosevelt’s very effective secretary of state.

Q: What is Hay’s legacy today?

A: At his death Hay was among the most famous men in the world, as a poet, historian, editor, diplomat, and author of the Open Door policy that spared the Chinese Empire from being carved up by European powers who had in years not long before carved up Africa among themselves.

But it was an era of industrial expansion and colonialism, the presumptions of which two world wars in the twentieth century did much to repudiate.

Thus, Hay’s solutions to world problems seem no longer relevant in our own anti-colonial times, leaving us to read of this remarkable man less for his legacy than for his life’s achievements on its own terms, in Hay’s own colorful and informative era.

And a quite astonishing life it was, one of variety, range, and ingratiating appeal throughout.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m taking it easy at the moment, reading and catching up on emails. We’ll see what comes of that.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: John Hay’s life and friendships provide a view of America that casts a bright light on what we’ve become and how we got here, at the same time that they let us spend time with earlier countrymen and women far removed from our world of tweets and texts, men and women whose accomplishments may serve to astonish and inspire us.

Such people as Roosevelt, Lincoln, James, and Mark Twain may seem true giants when the dimensions of what they achieved are compared with the more circumspect accomplishments of some of the political and cultural figures among us today.

Contrasts and relevances of the earlier age to our own are among insights I hope the reader will grow more clearly aware of in spending time with these singularly impressive figures of our past. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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