Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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

A forgotten U.S. President, a since-discredited physician, an insane assassin and a famous inventor whose work revolutionized the world all come together seamlessly in a tale of how unrelated people and events ultimately intersected and changed the course of American history.
Elected President of the United States in 1880, James A. Garfield was the most talented man to attain the office since Abraham Lincoln twenty years earlier, but his Presidency was sadly cut short when a deranged office seeker named Charles Guiteau shot him after having failed to secure a position in the government.  Garfield was born into poverty and worked his way up through getting himself a classical education and serving his country in the Civil War.  Between the war and his Presidency, he represented his congressional district in Ohio in the House of Representatives.  Highly intelligent and eminent qualified for the Presidency - a job he did not even want - Garfield accepted his election and sought to reform Washington.  When he was shot in July 1881, four months into his term, he survived the shooting but was infected by the unsanitary practices of his doctor, D. Willard Bliss.  Garfield died that September, two months short of his fiftieth birthday, leaving his promise unfulfilled.
Candice Millard brings that forgotten period of a American history to life and brilliantly shows how Garfield's assassination set the stage for making America a wiser and more united country in her 2011 book "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President."  She brings us back to 1881 and introduces us to the major political players of the time and their battles over civil service reform and to the controversies in the medical field over the new and revolutionary practice of antisepsis in Europe that Americans rejected as being unnecessary and based on unfounded germophobia.  (This peculiarly American distrust of science would manifest itself in other ways later on, as with evolution and climate change.)  Though Millard's retelling of the events of 1881, heroes and villains emerge on cue as in a good historical novel.  Charles Guiteau emerges as a charlatan driven to madness by his own self-importance, whom no one took seriously enough to commit, and Vice President Chester Arthur, a political hack of the lowest order, is a character who exhibits growth and redemption in the months leading up to his assumption of the Presidency and surprises skeptics with his personal honesty as President.  The greatest hero of "Destiny Of the Republic," apart from Garfield (who maintained his dignity and grace through the seventy-nine days of suffering between his shooting and his death), is Alexander Graham Bell - the same man who invented the telephone.  Bell was spurred by the national tragedy of Garfield's shooting to invent a machine that could detect the bullet in Garfield's back, and his relentless drive for innovation and his devotion to improving people's lives with medical inventions such as an iron lung and with his efforts to help the deaf.  As a man devoted to science and innovation,and as a Scottish immigrant, Bell stands out as someone who strove for the common good in the face of public and private adversity (he lost a newborn son in 1881).
I couldn't help develop some anger, though, as I read this book.  Garfield's doctor rendered him to a premature death that common sense and openness to medical advancement could have prevented, and he cuaed the President's death by spreading germs in to his body looking for a bullet that, ultimately, didn't need to be removed.  (Bliss would only let Bell search the right side of Garfield's body with his machine; it was in the left side.)  Millard's greatest gift, aside from placing the reader back in time, is making the reader feel the same outrage that Americans must have felt then - toward Bliss, toward Guiteau - and feel the same sympathy Americans in 1881 had for Garfield's family.  The parallels between the shooting of Garfield in 1881 and the shooting of President Reagan in 1981 - Presidents getting shot by deranged men divorced from reality - leapt out at me, and I contemplated how much medical knowledge had evolved in a century.  Garfield could never have survived the more serious wound Reagan received, yet Reagan could have survived the less serious wound Garfield received - ironically, not because of advances in medical science but because of a greater appreciation of them by American doctors as a result of Garfield's own death.      
Millard's book reclaims Garfield, a forgotten President, as one of the great figures of American history.  She shows us a great man who, if not for misfortune, could have been great leader, yet his formidable character, remembered by his peers in the aftermath of his assassination, reinforced American aspirations to greatness (not like the current White House occupant).  Garfield would be memorialized by those who survived him - a 184-acre park in Chicago and a suburban town in New Jersey are named for him, for example - but this book demonstrates how the greatest memorial to Garfield is his own story of how he lived and died.   

No comments: