Friends, I read a lot of contemporary newspapers and publications from Emmett Wilson’s time, mostly to get a feel about what people thought and felt about everyday life; issues shaping society, and so forth.
I also like to read other biographies on historic figures, to see how they position their main characters, to understand how they tracked down information, and to get a feel about how they deal with ‘research holes’, for instance.
I spent the last two and a half days reading James David Robenalt’s book on Warren G. Harding, “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War.” I was a bit intrigued, as this study of Harding is taken from a set of love letters he wrote to Carrie Phillips — all Harding letters, with a few side notes and one or two draft response letters by Phillips in the document set. Robenalt’s a lucky guy in that he actually HAS Harding’s words and feelings expressed eloquently in hand. That’s something I don’t (yet) have about Emmett, although I’m still looking.
One thing: Harding doesn’t pull any punches. You know exactly how he feels about Phillips from the get-go. Harding’s letters make their point — sometimes too well — in some of his reminiscences about their trysts. He always struck me as rather conservative, you know? Not so conservative, though, if you read some of the the things he wrote to Phillips!
As I read the book, I had to wonder: How in the world was Harding able to keep this out of the national press? The affair was common knowledge in Marion, Ohio. Certainly, Harding had political enemies who would have loved to keep him out of the Senate (and the White House); this information would have been damaging for his career.
However, press treatment of elected officials in the 1910s was different than it is today. I also think Harding’s experience and contacts (as a professional journalist) may have helped him keep some of the more salacious information out of the national press. Still, the affair between him and Phillips went on for about 15 years. It seems a bit odd, to me, anyway, that it wasn’t more of a problem for his campaign.
Robenalt’s research focused on the letters themselves as the centerpiece of his book. He doesn’t speculate very often; but when he does, he provides specific examples and supporting data (not from the letters, but from ancillary sources) to make his point. This is not a broad, sweeping story of Harding’s life; there are other biographies serving that larger purpose. Robenalt lets Harding say what he feels; he doesn’t get Harding’s way, although he does put the correspondence in historical context.
The book is well edited and organized. The letters are Harding’s, though, and so we see mostly through the lens of Harding, and not Phillips. Her letters likely were destroyed by Harding; he does allude to that in his correspondence to Phillips.
Robenalt’s a lucky guy. He had access to incredibly personal, intimate primary source material — something I am dying to find to use in telling Emmett Wilson’s story. I envy the fact Robenalt had this information at his disposal, but I’m also happy for his success, too. I can appreciate the effort that he put into the search, the organization of information, and the construction of the book.
The search for Emmett’s primary source material continues! It’s out there — somewhere.