Ronald Reagan’s Childhood Reading
”I’m a sucker for hero worship” (from the New York Times Book Review)
When politicians are asked which books influenced them, they often find one answer most expedient: the Bible. In fact, this was Ronald Reagan’s reply when The New York Times queried him about his favorite books shortly after he was elected President. But when asked the question in 1977, the then-retired Governor of California responded less predictably.
At that time Reagan was one of 100 notable people that O. Dallas Baillio (director of the Public Library of Mobile, Ala.) asked to name ”five books that influenced you as a young adult” in the hopes that their responses might inspire other young readers. Miss Lillian wrote that the young Jimmy Carter’s favorite book was ”War and Peace” (a choice also made by Geraldo Rivera); Barbara Walters mentioned ”The Little Prince”; ”Pilgrim’s Progress” was chosen by John Sparkman and Oral Roberts (who added ”The Call of the Wild” and ”White Fang”).
Reagan’s response seems to have been the most candid and detailed of the survey. ”I must confess your letter gave me some moments of mixed emotions,” Reagan wrote. ”There must be a little snob in each of us, because my first reaction was to try to think of examples of classic literature I could list as my favorites in my younger years. None were forthcoming so I decided to ‘come clean.’ ”
After observing that he has been ”an inveterate reader” all his life, Reagan lists his favorites as ”King Arthur,” ”Northern Trails,” ”Frank Merriwell at Yale” and Edgar Rice Burroughs – ”not only his Tarzan stories, but his science fiction, ‘John Carter Warlord of Mars‘ and all the other John Carter books.” Then there were ”phases” when he read Zane Grey, Horatio Alger, Sherlock Holmes, and Twain.
For the most part, he listed just the kind of books a typical 10-or 12-year-old boy growing up in Dixon, Ill., in the 1920’s might be expected to bring home from his twice-weekly visits to the library: historical romances, swashbuckling adventure stories, true-grit boys’ novels. But there is one notable exception. The book that ”made a lasting impression on me at about the age of 11 or 12, mainly because of the goodness of the principal character,” he wrote, is one ”I’m sure you never heard of” – ”That Printer of Udell’s.”
”That Printer of Udell’s”
Harold Bell Wright’s 1903 novel, subtitled ”A Story of the Middle West,” is the history of young Dick Falkner told in the Horatio Alger mode. The story begins with Dick’s mother speaking her last words (”O God, take ker o’ Dick”) and his father passing out on demon rum. Dick hits the road and eventually finds himself unemployed in Boyd City. He wants work but cannot find it because the town’s smug and Christian businessmen turn him away. Finally, George Udell hires him as a printer. Dick spends his free time improving himself at night school. Taking a larger role in the community, Dick organizes help for the less fortunate and through melodramatic complexities solves a murder and saves socialite Amy Goodrich from life in a brothel. By the conclusion, he has married Amy and is about ”to enter a field of wider usefulness at the National Capitol” as an elected Representative from Boyd City.
Throughout the book Dick faces one obstacle, and Wright scarcely misses an opportunity in his 468-page novel to identify it: ”The trouble is that people follow the church and not Christ; they become church members, but not Christians.” Under the lead of a progressive minister, Dick and other young people of Boyd City grapple with the issue of ”how to apply Christ’s teachings in our town” and find a solution in ”civic Christianity” and ”municipal virtue” – a kind of hybrid of boosterism and religion. It is their shared conviction that social welfare is a matter for the private sector, and they join in the novel’s frequent and wholehearted endorsements of the Salvation Army and the Y.M.C.A. By creating a Reading Room, their own Rescue Mission and an Institution for Helping the Unemployed (after devising ways to weed out the undeserving), they change Boyd City into a Midwest utopia.
Near the end of the novel, a traveling salesman looks out the train window and comments about the town’s change: ”I’m sure of one thing, they were struck by good, common-sense business Christianity,” and the proof of that is the way saloons have been replaced by business firms, thieves and prostitutes have found other work, cheap and vulgar burlesque shows have been supplanted by musicians and lecturers, churches have grown, attendance at the high school and business college has quadrupled, and streets and lawns are well kept.
”Frank Merriwell at Yale”
Another book Reagan singled out for special mention is ”Frank Merriwell at Yale,” which, he notes, ”convinced me that playing football was my goal.” What is surprising about that remark is that football is never mentioned in the novel. But football is only one of the book’s notable omissions; in its 383 pages the reader never sees a classroom and catches only one fleeting glimpse of a professor. Frank Merriwell’s Yale is a summer camp of raccoon coats and college songs, and the novel recounts how in his first year Frank wins friends and admirers among his classmates, becomes King of the Freshmen and leads them in the pranks they play on the sophomores, is reluctantly forced to use his considerable pugilistic skills to deal with envious rivals, creates a champion crew by teaching them Oxford rowing methods and does his best to beat Harvard as the youngest pitcher on the varsity baseball team.
In light of Reagan’s own career at Eureka College -where he was a member of the football and swimming teams, president of the student council, cheerleader for the basketball team, and active in the debate and drama clubs – it may be that the novel inspired him to play football once he had decided to become a Frank Merriwell.
If Frank served as Reagan’s model, it must have been in the same spirit in which he was put forward by his creator Gilbert Patten, who pointed out that his name was a compound of exemplary characteristics: ”frank for frankness, merry for a happy disposition, well for health and abounding vitality.” Frank was ”a shining light for every ambitious lad to follow” because he was a straight-shooter and was made of the right stuff. ”None of his friends was ever a sneak, cheapskate or sissy,” the vices of smoking and drinking were unknown to him, and he was a born leader who also realized that among the privileged boys of Yale the democratic spirit truly exists only on the playing field.
Another book Reagan cited is William J. Long’s ”Northern Trails’‘ (1905), an anecdotal account of animal life in Newfoundland and Labrador, which Reagan said ”planted deep within me a love of the outdoors, wildlife and nature that continues to this day.” The other books on Reagan’s list seem to offer what one critic finds in the works of Zane Grey: ”Thrilling but wholesome entertainment that endorsed many of the older values that the postwar world now disparages: individualism, a healthy self-reliance, chastity, woman as helpmeet of man, hardship as morale-builder.”
Such heroes as King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and the Count of Monte Cristo speak of a boyish enthusiasm that Reagan admits in his autobiography is still very much with him: ”I’m a sucker for hero worship to this day.” Reagan concludes his letter about these books: ”All in all, as I look back I realize that all my reading left an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil. There were heroes who lived by standards of morality and fair play.”
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (August 30, 1981), shortly after Reagan’s inauguration. Amy Wallace and I later did an essay “What Famous People Read”–about the favorite childhood reading of folks like Alan Alda, Joan Didion, Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra, Ray Bradbury, and Julia Child–for Parade Magazine (March 13, 1983).
Lou Cannon used my research when describing Reagan’s boyhood in his bestselling “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” (1991) and in subsequent biographies. From then on, my information on Reagan’s childhood reading, now Cannon’s, became a regular part of Reagan hagiography.