Today, May 29th, is John F. Kennedy’s birthday. To celebrate this figure (who inspired me as a teenager in 2002/03 as powerfully as he inspired teenagers in 1962/63), I haven’t quite thrown him a Madison Square Garden gala, but I have examined ways in which U.S. intellectual historians might, in scholarship and teaching, make better use of his life, his thought, and his writing. President Kennedy has become something of a hackneyed trope in American history; his role in U.S. survey course syllabi is diminishing, and his appearance in historical scholarship is limited to political and diplomatic history. But John F. Kennedy was a thinker and a writer no less than any of U.S. intellectual historians’ favorite figures from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. His life experiences and political thought touch on some of the most important issues in American history, such as immigration, elite higher education, the meaning of religious freedom, the idea of an American “mission,” the meaning of America in an atomic age, the importance of art in public life, and the importance of public life in the American nation. If his has become cliche in American history, his name still means “America” from Senegal to Singapore; there are memorials to him all over the world. John Kennedy’s life, thought, global reception, and reception in America make him a fascinating figure for U.S. intellectual historians to examine, completely aside from the fact that happened, for 1,000 days of his life, to occupy the office of President of the United States. Furthermore, his always poetic public speeches are a delight to pour over, and should be a useful tool for introducing students to rigorous historical analysis of texts.
Do you often assign political speeches in undergraduate courses? Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural are almost ubiquitous in surveys, and I’ve found that Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” is also common, as is Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Strenuous Life.” But I am interested to know if anyone has structured an undergraduate course around public speeches.
For intellectual historians, the speeches on record in the Congressional Globe provide some of the most thrilling rhetoric and wide range of ideas expressed in the antebellum debate over slavery. In the 20th century, speeches from cross-country political and religious circuits, speeches printed and reprinted in newspapers, speeches delivered on street corners before sweatshop workers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, speeches broadcast on the radio, impromptu speeches from the tops of cop-cars on University campuses– all represented a public, powerful way of coming to terms with or trying to direct American experience through language. The “online speech bank” at americanrhetoric.com is an excellent resources for scholars and teachers, containing hundreds of American speeches from the late 19th and 20th centuries with audio and visual media when possible.
I recommend taking a second (or third, or fourth) look at John Kennedy’s inaugural address, his speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, his speech to the Massachusetts General Assembly, and his speech to the Houston Ministerial Association on the subject of his Catholicism (a speech Barack Obama aimed to copy in his address on race during the 2008 presidential campaign). Or just spend some time at americanrhetoric.com perusing their compilation of the 100 best speeches in 20th century America. The speeches listed there, from Richard Nixon’s to Ursula K. Le Guin’s, will start to sound as if they are speaking to each other, building a sense of an ‘American Rhetoric’ as a part of American thought, culture, and intellectual expression. I would like to see U.S. Intellectual historians examine rhetoric and speech-making to a greater degree.
In 2004, Thurston Clarke attempted a ‘Lincoln at Gettysburg‘ with Kennedy’s inaugural address, but his book, Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America lacks the complexity of Gary Will’s. There is more work to be done examining Kennedy as a writer and artist (alongside his friend and partner-in-writing Ted Sorenson) and the reception of his speeches. Using some of these speeches– or speeches in general, Kennedy’s and others– as tool to get students excited about asking historical questions of texts will be a fun and rewarding place to start.
In addition to John Kennedy the writer, there is John Kennedy the reader. This man read American history, political philosophy, Greek and Roman classics, and as much poetry as he could get his hands on. He read Barbara Tuchman and Sun Tzu, Tennyson and Shakespeare. The former informed his political decisions, the later his private thought. His speeches abound in Biblical and classical allusion. Despite the hundreds of carefully manufactured images of touch football and sailing, Kennedy was serious ill during much of his life, and spent a lot more time in bed or in a rocking chair (the best relief for his back) reading. How this American, who experienced war, held political responsibility, asked questions about racial justice and about the role of religion in American political life, who cared about literature and art as part of national character, read and how reading– particularly fiction and poetry– framed his experiences and worldview is a question worthy of historical investigation.
John Kennedy was many things. Cultural and intellectual historians often neglect to address him in their work on the 1930s, 40s, 50s, or 60s perhaps because they fear being accused of hagiography (which seems to happen whenever someone discusses JFK without attempting to slay the God), perhaps because they are not politically compelled by this Cold Warrior and moderate liberal, and perhaps because they believe their focus should be on intellectuals, writers, artists, consumers, soldiers, or “the average American,” not Presidents. But John Kennedy was an intellectual who experienced America in the mid-20th century and eloquently worked through his experiences, beliefs, and longings in writing. It is time U.S. intellectual historians reexamine him as thinker and writer.