The Road to Respectability

Bucknell University Press, 1989 ($40.00)

Starting from poverty, hardship, and manual labor, a boy experiences a religious conversion that sets him on the path to fame. James A. Garfield struggles with religion, ambition, and sex, in a book based mainly on his own diaries. Letters, memoirs, and novels paint a vivid picture, from schoolteaching to spiritualism, of what it was like to be young and poor in Ohio in the canal era.

Critics say:

Justus D. Doenecke, University of South Florida: "Booraem makes matchless use of Garfield's own diary, surviving letters of family and friends, newspaper accounts, and surprisingly revealing campaign biographies. Moreover, Booraem possesses a readable style, and hence captures well the physical and cultural milieu of the Ohio frontier."

Allan Peskin, Cleveland State University: "This is not merely biography: it is descriptive social history at its best, recreating the gritty texture of the world in which young Garfield moved and lived."


"It was the week before Christmas. The weather remained frigid. James, boarding with the Hubbells, caught a bad cold and by Wednesday the twenty-fourth was too sick to keep teaching; he closed the school early and went back to the Hubbells', where he stripped, lay in some unheated back room, and got Solyman or Newton to wrap a cold, wet sheet around him.This was the standard treatment for fevers, the idea being to counteract the fever with a stronger chill. James lay there for over two hours without feeling better, so he put his shirt back on and got into bed while the family sent for Dr. Morrill, who took a look the sufferer and diagnosed 'lung fever, caused by a very bad cold' -- in other words, pneumonia. Morrill prescribed cold cloths on the chest and (he was evidently a homeopath) 'infinitesimal doses' of medicine.

Christmas Day found James in bed, coughing, feverish, and unable to get up. Mr. and Mrs. Hubbell had been planning to visit Mr. Hubbell's father that day for a family gathering, and decided to go ahead, taking their younger daughter, Augusta. They left Mary at home to tend the sick, apparently figuring that there was no risk in leaving their daughter in the house with a young man who was bedridden and who was, in any case, practically a member of the family. So all that day Garfield had an attractive, attentive, bright-spirited angel of mercy by his bed, talking when he felt like talking, watching silently, cheerfully doing all the menial things one has to do for the sick. It was a moving experience. Probably no one but his mother had ever done as much for him. Imperceptibly, wonder and gratitude blended into an emotion very much like love." (from Chapter 19, "Mary")

Selected Works

Gerald R. Ford and His World, 1913-1935
William Henry Harrison and his world, 1773-1798
Calvin Coolidge and his world, 1885-1895
James A. Garfield and his world, 1844-1852
Andrew Jackson and his world, 1767-1788
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