H. W. Brands’s Book Bag: Misunderstood Lives

Aaron Burr biographer H.W. Brands picks four other accounts of misunderstood lives.

The Confessions of Nat TurnerBy William Styron

Nat Turner was a black slave who sparked a bloody uprising in Virginia in 1831 and left behind—after his capture and execution—a brief, cryptic account of what made him do it. Or maybe he didn’t leave the account, which was alleged by some to have been the work in part or whole of the lawyer, Thomas Gray, who proceeded to publish it. Novelist William Styron goes far beyond the Turner account to imagine what might have been going through his head, heart, and loins. Styron’s tale provoked great controversy, not least for imputing sexual motives to Turner’s act of rebellion, but the book nonetheless garnered the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1968.

The Life and Legend of Jay GouldBy Maury Klein

“The example he set is a dangerous one to follow,” declared the New York Herald on Jay Gould’s death. Joseph Pulitzer called Gould “one of the most sinister figures that ever flitted bat-like across the vision of the American people.” To be sure, Gould robbed and wrecked the Erie Railroad in making his way to the top rank of Wall Street speculators, and he brought the American financial system to its knees when he tried to corner the gold market in 1869. But he mellowed in maturity and, as Klein, a keen student of business history, makes clear, became a positive force in the development of the American economy.

The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren Harding in His TimesBy Francis Russell

What is there to say about a president who accomplished little during his two years in office and had even that little tarnished when, shortly after his death, the Teapot Dome scandal was uncovered? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Russell’s biography plants Harding squarely in the era when America was ascending to global power without meeting the responsibilities that came with such power. A biography often as charming as the lady-killing Harding himself.

The Memoirs of Richard Nixon

Don’t read it for the truth, which is elusive here as it was in much of what Nixon did. Read it for the indirect insight it yields into the mind and soul of one of the shrewdest, most devious, and most brilliant men ever to occupy the White House. Ask yourself why someone who didn’t like people, and whom people didn’t like, went into politics. He could easily have been a millionaire Wall Street lawyer, but he chose the much harder path, for him, of recurrently seeking the approval of utter strangers—that is, voters. Did his mother not love him well enough? He doesn’t answer directly, but there is much between the lines.