, August 17, 2012
(view all comments by rollyson2002)
Millard Fillmore (1800��"74), 13th president of the United States, a lawyer, and a Whig, lost a race for New York governor in 1844, ran as Zachary Taylor's vice president in 1848, and became president in 1850 after Taylor died. Ridiculed as a bumbling figure and denied re-nomination in 1852, he ran for president on the Know-Nothing Party ticket in 1856, carrying only the state of Maryland.
When George Pendle announced at the Biographer's Club in Washington, D.C., that he had decided to write about Fillmore, Carl Sandburg snorted, "You idiot, that pecker never did a damn thing in his life!" The normally well-behaved Arthur Schlesinger Jr. cut off Mr. Pendle's retreat to the club door, grabbing the top of his underpants and hoisting them halfway up the biographer's back.
Undeterred, Mr. Pendle discovered that his subject led an adventurous life; stowing away on a battleship bound for Japan; befriending a Native American tribe who in turn adopted him; discovering gold in California; daring to correct Queen Victoria's English; fighting at the Alamo; and shepherding slaves to freedom along the underground railroad.
"The Remarkable Millard Fillmore" is documented in Fillmore's journals (volumes 1��"53, another of Mr. Pendle's discoveries), in addition to a cache of unpublished letters ��" and perhaps most important of all, a collection of Fillmore's napkin doodles. With so much new primary material, no wonder, as Mr. Pendle's publisher notes, historians have been in an uproar, contesting this radically revisionist history.
Even where Fillmore seems most vulnerable ��" his maladroit stint in the White House��"Mr. Pendle offers an explanation: It was too late to do anything about the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily put off the conflict over slavery. Fillmore's address on the subject, "What I Did During My Summer Holidays," was not "well received." Indeed, his party was already looking for his replacement. What ensued, however, was hardly Fillmore's fault, since he spent the better part of his presidential term in Japan ��" the best solution, his biographer argues, for a politician who decided that as a "divisive figure" he was "best kept out of public view." Mr. Pendle belongs to the P.T. Barnum School of Biography. In his "Notes," he quotes his avatar's answer to a question put by a visitor to Barnum's American Museum of human oddities: "Is it real or it is humbug?" Barnum replied, "That's just the question: Persons who pay their money at the door have the right to form their own opinions after they have got upstairs."
Mr. Pendle, in other words, has written the funniest sendup of an American historical figure and politics since Herman Melville's "Israel Potter" (1855) ��" not to mention a full-scale debunking of biographers and historians. The recondite paraphernalia of scholarly biography is parodied in hilarious, pedantic footnotes (rendered in puny type):
There has been some conjecture, postulated by A. Davidson, Ph.D. (Phys. Ed.), in her book Lincoln's Diphthong, that the correct pronunciation of Millard is with an open front unrounded vowel sound, in order that it rhymes with retard. This author maintains that Millard should be pronounced with a mid-central unstressed and neutral resonance, so that it can be rhymed with dullard.
Presidential biography also gets its comeuppance with references to tomes such as Hubert Tavistock-Monroe's "Who's Your Daddy? Inherited Wealth and the Presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush."
The typeface of "The Remarkable Millard Fillmore" is an 18th-century affair, with chapter titles echoing the old-fashioned great man of history narratives: "Fillmore, Man of Law, "Fillmore the Explorer," "Fillmore Among the Natives," "Fillmore the Kingmaker," and my favorite, "Fillmore Goes West." But classical allusions abound also in "Fillmore Agonistes" and "Fillmore Unbound." Mr. Pendle, not one to shirk any parody, titles his first chapter, "I, Fillmore."
The illustrations accompanying the text are a comic tour de force. They picture figures like James Madison, president during the War of 1812, whom Mr. Pendle describes as "a man of small stature at a time when being small meant being very short indeed." Below the text is a portrait (about twice the size of a postage stamp) with the subtitle: "James Madison: actual size." And the War of 1812? What was that about? Its causes, Mr. Pendle reports, are "now lost in the mists of time." But a footnote adds, "Something to do with boats, probably."
The laughter this book occasions is therapeutic. Biography, like every genre, requires a thorough satirical scour now and then, as Mr. Pendle's ingenious novel proves in its inimitable fashion.