If U.S. Presidents were Novels

by Phil Lemos


In my ongoing efforts to understand the world in literary terms, I find myself wondering which novel each U.S. president would be.  Some of them (James Garfield, Martin van Buren) would be obscure novels of little importance.  Others would be more interesting.

Here are some of the results I’ve settled on:

GEORGE WASHINGTON: Charlotte Temple, by Susanna Rowson. A young woman is seduced by an English soldier and brought to America, where he subsequently mistreats and abandons her.  The first best-selling novel in the new nation was in many ways a metaphor for the Thirteen Colonies’ struggle for independence.  Just as Charlotte Temple established themes and trends in American literature, such as tales of seduction and the virtues of resistance, Washington established precedents for the nation’s head of state (e.g. accepting a salary for being president even though it was against his personal wishes, retiring after two terms).

THOMAS JEFFERSON: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.  Jefferson is a celebrated—Founding Father, served two terms of peace and economic prosperity—and controversial—constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, dropping Vice-President Aaron Burr from the ticket after his first term—president with a complex and sometimes unflattering—slave owner—legacy.  He’s paralleled by a critically celebrated and controversial novel about an ugly topic: sexual desire for underage girls.  Unresolved? Whether Jefferson would engage in cross-country travel with a 12-year-old girl, or send Lolita away with Lewis and Clark during their voyage to Oregon Country.

WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders. At 130 pages, TBAFROP barely qualifies as a novel – it’s generally referred to as a novella.  And with a 31-day tenure as chief executive before dying of pneumonia, William Henry Harrison barely qualifies as a president.  Because his presidency was a mere blip in American history, we don’t know if WHH’s policy initiatives would’ve advocated genocide, as President Phil did by forcibly disassembling his neighborly Inner Hornerites following a border dispute with Outer Horner.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.  I’m resisting the temptation to go with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, despite Lincoln’s prowess at conquering the undead.  His courage and leadership in tackling issues of race during the American Civil War were emulated in a more literary form a century later in the form of Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout, who live in a South still reeling from the effects of the war.  Also, like Atticus, Lincoln spent time as a practicing lawyer.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.  Just as FDR eschewed tradition by running for and winning a third – and later a fourth – term as president, Kurt Vonnegut subverted the rules of fiction by inserting hand-drawn pictures into the narrative, telling the story in a non-chronological fashion, and by means of a narrator who breaks the fourth wall and introduces himself.  It also makes sense for FDR to be represented by a novel that takes place partially during World War II, in which the firebombing of Dresden plays a key role.

RONALD REAGAN: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It was “Morning in America” during Reagan’s presidency.  Americans were generally happy with the direction of the country and propelled Reagan to two landslide victories.  Meanwhile, it’s the late-night side of morning in Gatsby, as the swingers of 1920s Long Island pursue the Jazz Age version of the American Dream.  Alas, nobody got what they ultimately wanted in Gatsby, and while the 1980s were generally an era of prosperity and the end of the Cold War, they also foreshadowed huge budget deficits and the coming War on Terror. 

BILL CLINTON:  Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James.  Just because.

DONALD TRUMP: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville.  An enraged leader out for revenge against an object of dubious hazard, rallying people formerly on the fringes of society to lash out in support of his cause, ignoring foreshadowing and historical analogies along the way.  “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous opening lines of a novel ever written, while “covfefe” is one of the most famous accidental tweets ever written. The novel doesn’t end well; everyone but the narrator dies in the end, while Moby Dick swims away, unvanquished.  The fate of the nation?  To be determined.