One of the revelations about John F. Kennedy in Fredrik Logevall’s new biography, “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917‒1956,” is that the man was an excellent letter-writer and diarist. The Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of history makes effective use of the collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, part of which has become available only recently.
“He always had a knack for the English language, even if he was an indifferent student in prep school and in his first years at Harvard,” Logevall says. “His teachers, frustrated by his lack of application overall, were always impressed by his way with words. It is an interesting contrast with his older brother, Joe Jr., the family’s supposed golden child, whose writings had a more dutiful, less imaginative quality.”
The first of a two-volume set, “JFK” aims to give the clearest picture yet available of the 35th president set against the historical, political, and cultural context of a pivotal age. The book begins with great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy’s arrival in Boston during the Irish potato famine and runs through Jack’s childhood, studies at Harvard, and military duty, and finally his rise in politics in 1956, when he almost became the Democrats’ vice presidential pick. Logevall spoke with the Gazette recently about the man and the book.
GAZETTE: There have certainly been many books written about JFK. What were you able to find that hadn’t been found before?
LOGEVALL: You’re quite right. There are a lot of excellent books out there on various aspects of his life and career, and especially the presidency — one thinks, for example, about the many studies of the Cuban missile crisis, Civil Rights, the Bay of Pigs disaster, the marriage with Jackie, and the assassination in Dallas. But we don’t have many true biographies, even one that is a full-scale examination of the entire life and that looks closely at his early life, in particular his teens and 20s, which I believe were key years for him (as they are for most of us). Mine is a “life and times” biography that places Kennedy in his own context, that of a rising American power in world affairs. I guess the conceit of the book is that I can tell two stories together: the story of John F. Kennedy’s rise and the story of America’s rise. I believe we can better understand the first half of the so-called American Century through the lens of Kennedy’s life.