Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor
The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge—the prose work perhaps most dear to me—does not have a memorable opening sentence. Coolidge commences his short account of his life with a bare description of the geographic situation of his hometown of Plymouth, Vermont. The words are direct, spare, unadorned; one might call them boring and lifeless, though I wouldn’t. To me the style is clear and chaste, the natural prose of a New England Yankee—of the genuine article, not the kitschy cardboard cutout.
Every sentence in the book is like those first few sentences.
I love Coolidge’s autobiography for its fine style, and for the things it has to say. The first chapter, for instance, called “Scenes From My Childhood,” is brimming with interesting descriptions—often conveyed through odd-seeming, throw-away lines—of his family, his early education, the village blacksmith, the operations of local government, the changing seasons and life on a farm. Coolidge’s concern is with the particulars of his native people and place, for both of which he felt the deepest affection.
Of course, it would be impossible not to love the scenery of Vermont, that green and pleasant land (“paradise,” a friend of mine calls it). Coolidge acknowledges its beauty a few times in his book, as in this charming passage, speaking of the tiny village within Plymouth, called Plymouth Notch, where he lived:
“This locality was known as The Notch, being situated at the head of a valley in an irregular bowl of hills. The scene was one of much natural beauty, of which I think the inhabitants had little realization, though they all loved it because it was their home and were always ready to contend that it surpassed all the surrounding communities and compared favorably with any other place on earth.”
Who were Coolidge’s neighbors?
“The neighborhood around The Notch was made up of people of exemplary habits. Their speech was clean and their lives were above reproach. …
“The break of day saw them stirring. Their industry continued until twilight. … [T]hey were without exception a people of faith and charity and of good works. They cherished the teachings of the Bible and sought to live in accordance with its precepts.”
Plymouth’s coupling of natural beauty and human virtue left an impression that never left Coolidge:
“It was all a fine atmosphere in which to raise a boy. As I look back on it I constantly think how clean it was. There was little about it that was artificial. It was all close to nature and in accordance with the ways of nature. The streams ran clear. The roads, the woods, the fields, the people—all were clean. Even when I try to divest it of the halo which I know always surrounds the past, I am unable to create any other impression than that it was fresh and clean.”
“Country life does not always have breadth,” Coolidge reflects a few pages later, “but it has depth. It is neither artificial nor superficial, but is kept close to the realities.”
Of the realities of life, none is more dependable than death, something with which Coolidge became acquainted at an early age, by the death of his mother. The brief passage describing her character and her death is the best example I can give of the startling emotional power of quiet, plain prose in the hands of a good man; surely Coolidge conveys in the words that follow more of filial love and affection than a maudlin writer would convey in volumes:
“It seems impossible that any man could adequately describe his mother. I can not describe mine….
“She was practically an invalid ever after I could remember her, but used what strength she had in lavish care upon me and my sister, who was three years younger. There was a touch of mysticism and poetry in her nature which made her love to gaze at the purple sunsets and watch the evening stars.
“Whatever was grand in form and color attracted her. It seemed as though the rich green tints of the foliage and the blossoms of the flowers came for her in the springtime, and in the autumn it was for her that the mountain sides were struck with crimson and with gold.
“When she knew that her end was near she called us children to her bedside, where we knelt down to receive her final parting blessing.
“In an hour she was gone. It was her thirty-ninth birthday. I was twelve years old. We laid her away in the blustering snows of March. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again.
“Five years and forty-one years later almost to the day my sister and my father followed her. It always seemed to me that boy I lost was her image. They all rest together on the sheltered hillside among five generations of the Coolidge family.”
In The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge we encounter a decent soul: a soul that grips with the deaths of mother, sister and son with sadness but also virtuous self-control, a soul that grasped truly the vocations of law and liberal learning, a soul that to its core esteemed family, neighbor, village, state and country.
“We draw our Presidents from the people,” Coolidge writes, in explaining why he chose not to run for re-election in 1928. “It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.”
Given the small and mediocre men who run our government today, it is, I think, a real comfort to meditate upon the life of a politician who had no artifice and no ill motives, a true public servant who could close his humble work of autobiography with an honest statement of devotion to his fellow citizens:
“It was therefore my privilege, after seeing my administration so strongly indorsed by the country, to retire voluntarily from the greatest experience that can come to mortal man. In that way, I believed I could best serve the people who have honored me and the country which I love.”
This July 4th, as you enjoy a burger on the grill, remember President Calvin Coolidge. He would have been 141 years old.