A graduate of the University of Virginia (B.A.) and The Johns Hopkins University (M.A., Ph.D.), Hendrik Booraem V has made the study of the early lives of American presidents a lifelong specialty. He has published books and articles about six of them: Coolidge, Garfield, William Henry Harrison, Jackson, Cleveland, and Hoover. His books, based on original research in primary source documents, have been praised by critics for their careful depiction of the social and material environment in which each of his subjects grew up.
From an interview with Dr. Booraem:
Q. Why have you written about obscure presidents like Harrison and Coolidge rather than the better known ones?
B. Presidents like Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy have had dozens of good biographers. (See my bibliography for the best ones.) From the standpoint of finding new facts and putting together a more accurate history of a man's early life, there's much more to be gained by studying the ones other biographers have ignored.
Q. Is it really important to spend pages and pages describing the city or county where your subject grew up, what people ate and wore and so on?
B. I think so. The story I try to tell in each book is how the total culture and society of a particular place affected a young man as he grew up and made him what he became. Everything in a person's life, down to food and clothing, has some influence on his development. Besides, as someone said, "the past is a foreign country," more different than most readers are aware. It's important to go into detail to make readers realize how different the American past was, and to do it in vivid detail so that they can share the subject's experience.
Q. Why the presidents at all?
B. For focusing on the American past, they're great figures. Everyone knows their names more or less, from calendars on the classroom wall and bits of local history here and there. They came from many parts of the country, many social levels. Some were extraordinarily gifted in one way or another, but most were just average men. In this period of their lives, moreover, their histories are success stories, often about overcoming personal or family handicaps to go on to a successful adult career. People enjoy reading success stories, and I enjoy writing them.
Q. What president are you planning to write on next?
B. I'm at the end of my career and may not have time to bring out another book, but if I do it will be on Grover Cleveland. He spent his early manhood in a busy, prosperous Victorian city -- Buffalo, New York; didn't marry until later in life, so his youth is part of the urban bachelor subculture of that era. But my main effort now is a book that compares all forty-three presidents as young men, indicating some social and educational factors that helped to shape their success.