By Gail Collins Times. 153 pp. $23
If a forgettable U.S. president dies a month after taking office, do historians still have to write books about him?
“People sometimes ask me why I volunteered to write a biography of William Henry Harrison,” confesses Gail Collins, a columnist for the New York Times, in her slim tome about the aging former general who was propelled to the presidency in 1840only to die of pneumonia shortly after his inauguration. “Harrison’s one-month term in office was really nothing more than a list of nonachievements . . . and a cautionary tale about the importance of not making long speeches in the rain.”
This is false modesty. Like other authors of books in “The American Presidents” series, co-edited by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Collins does a fine job of revitalizing her subject — in this case a figure from the margins of high school history textbooks. Harrison’s term in the White House was shorter than the time it took HBO to air its miniseries “John Adams,” but that doesn’t mean his life lacked drama.
She plays close attention to Harrison’s military career, arguing that he “basically accomplished what the federal government thought at the time was its ultimate goal — pushing the Indian territory beyond the Mississippi River.” For better and worse, men such as Harrison turned pioneer murmurings about Manifest Destiny into modern America. Even in death, they’re worth more than a Trivial Pursuit question.
“Harrison’s body lay in state in the White House,” Collins writes, “in a coffin with a glass lid that allowed mourners to see the face of a president most of them had never actually gotten to know.” In fact, one of his lasting contributions was unwitting: helping a young nation figure out how to mourn a president who dies in office. “It was a blueprint for marking the untimely death of an American president that the country would continue to follow.”