Monday, September 12, 2011

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

In her first book, The River of Doubt, former National Geographic editor Candice Millard took readers back to 1913 to join Teddy Roosevelt on a dangerous journey through Brazil's Amazon rainforest. The expedition disappeared for several long months and was late arriving at the mouth of the mysterious river. The American public feared that the former president and his son had died and would never be found. The fear was totally justified, and the story of how they survived brutal terrain, vicious diseases, and attacks by indigenous tribes is great reading. Could Millard's next book be compelling?

The time to judge Millard's second book is at hand. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President will be published September 20. USA Today has already listed it as one of the top books of the fall publishing season, but Baker and Taylor has not stocked many copies for sale to libraries. Perhaps the book distributor expects less interest in a story about James A. Garfield, an almost forgotten president, than one about the ever popular Teddy Roosevelt. While there is logic to Baker and Taylor's position, it will be unfortunate if the new book is overlooked. The assassination and slow death of President Garfield is a story that Millard tells very well.

At first glance, you might not see how similar Millard's new book is to its predecessor. Much of River of Doubt is set in an incredibly dangerous and remote jungle, while Destiny of the Republic is set mostly in the White House in Washington, D.C. The Amazonian expedition was out of the public eye, while Garfield's medical condition was reported daily. Still, infection was the ultimate enemy in both stories. Garfield was surrounded by doctors, but they had all rejected the antiseptic theories of Joseph Lister. In their street clothes, they all poked about the president's wound with unwashed fingers, laughing at the idea that invisible organisms could be introduced into a patient. As a result, Garfield filled with infection and swelling that his proud and inflexible primary physician called natural. It took him two and a half painful months to die.

As in her previous book, Millard has filled Destiny of the Republic with finely-portrayed characters, including the insane drifter Charles Guiteau who believed shooting the president would help him get an appointment to a federal job (from the grateful next administration), congressman Roscoe Conkling who strove to block Garfield's every political act, Garfield's devoted wife Lucretia, and Alexander Graham Bell who devoted two months to invent a device that would locate the bullets still in the president's body. Millard also introduces us to Vice President Chester Arthur, a man who was unprepared to be president. The focus, of course, is Garfield, an articulate speaker and champion of reform whose worst enemies are from his own party. He bore his suffering with great courage, according to Millard.

Destiny of the Republic joins The President is a Sick Man by Matthew Algeo in the growing literature about nineteenth century medicine in the White House. Both will appeal to history readers interested in American presidents.

Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. Doubleday, 2011. ISBN 9780385535007.

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