Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Boy Biographer

I found a fun article in Prologue about Herbert Hoover's boy biographer. William Marsh, Jr., a 11 year old boy from Connecticut, decided to start his own printing business and wrote a short biography of Herbert Hoover. Billy Marsh found an old printing press his father had bought for 50 cents and managed to get it running. Already quite the businessman, Billy decided to write a book on the President! He wasn't thinking small, that was for sure! His Our President, Herbert Hoover can be summed up as:
Billy condensed the President's life into 44 pages of fifth-grade language and injected sermons about clean living and moral advice. He tended to digress but always returned to Hoover. Billy found Hoover fascinating and did not blame him for the Great Depression. To him the President was the greatest man in the world, belonging in the company of his favorites Washington, Lincoln, and Coolidge.

Marsh wrote the biography in six months, making rapid progress during a four-week period when he had time off from school. His research included newspapers, Hoover's radio addresses, and information from his parents. The book was illustrated with old woodcuts scrounged from the local print shop, most of them demonstrating a moral lesson.

The chronology of Marsh's book is loose. He rambles, writes colloquially, and skips over many aspects of Hoover's career. Considering the diatribes being written about Hoover by adult journalists in 1930, however, the boy's intellectual honesty is refreshing.

Billy Marsh, unlike most Americans at the time, liked Herbert Hoover and that caused interesting issues when the book became public:
The chief executive was pleased to learn about the 11-year-old's flattering biography from a front-page article in the New York Herald Tribune. He told the Tribune he was eager to obtain a copy. Once the Tribune hit the newsstands, the jaded literary community in New York and Washington sizzled. The biography seemed to strike a chord because it differed dramatically from the debunking of Hoover that dominated the press.

The author of this article writes that, "If the youth did not have a future in biography, he certainly had one in advertising. " Billy Marsh mailed out his book and arranged meetings and offered to do publicity for the book. The book hit the publishing world as something new and something they definitely wanted:
Learning of the book, the manager of the Doubleday, Doran Company tracked the head of the editorial department to his golf club and planned to beat the competition by signing a contract. At this point the manager had not even read the book, only newspaper excerpts. He stopped at the Herald Tribune office to borrow a copy, which he scanned as he sped toward New Milford. When he reached New Milford it was late, and Billy had gone to bed. His parents awakened him, and he signed the contract while still in his pajamas. The publisher's version was an exact facsimile, with the addition of a title page and a postscript to the original preface. Four other publishers arrived too late. Later it was learned Marsh himself had tipped off Doubleday. This opportunistic boy did not need a literary agent. Doubleday revved up its presses and rushed out a mass edition on July 11, 1930, the same day the Marsh boys met the President.

What did Billy think of the President?
Asked his impressions of the President, Billy replied, "He is just as nice as I said he was in my book."

The boys described Lou Henry Hoover in glowing terms. "She is very pretty and she wears the new style dresses, quite long," Billy said.

Billy Marsh went on to publish a second book in 1932, urging voters to reelect Hoover. This book didn't get the same attention as the first, though.

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