- - Sunday, September 8, 2013

WILSON
By A. Scott Berg
Putnam, $40,818 pages, illustrated

This is in every way a big book and not just because it weighs in at more than 800 pages. Published in the centenary year of President Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration, it is a sweeping and intensive portrait of a man at the center of 20th-century history. Scott Berg has written three previous biographies, and his subjects form a kind of ascending scale, each subject more significant in the larger world than its predecessor. So pioneering publisher’s editor Maxwell Perkins was followed by movie studio tycoon Samuel Goldwyn, then by aviation icon Charles Lindbergh — and now Woodrow Wilson. Clearly, this is a biographer who chooses his canvases carefully, and this deliberate and studied method is evident throughout.

Mr. Berg says that his interest in Wilson began when he was in the 11th grade in 1965 and his mother gave him a copy of Gene Smith’s “When the Cheering Stopped”:

“I have been reading about Wilson ever since, but I kept feeling that I had never read a book that captured the essence of his character. From such feelings spring new biographies.”

Clearly, this latest biography is the distillation of a lifetime’s interest in Wilson and many years’ thought about the man and his character. Coincidentally, I also read Smith’s book in 1965, and it has never left me, so strong was its emotional take on Wilson’s tragic denouement. I happened at the time to be living only a few blocks up Connecticut Avenue from Wilson’s last residence on S Street (I liked to visit there and feel his presence) and was an 11th grader at the District’s high school named for him. Our school library boasted a copy of Edith Wilson’s memoir inscribed in the large, oddly formed handwriting that indicated her lack of schooling, and seeing it gave me a special insight into her lack of preparation for the part she played in helping to govern. Wilson got under my skin then all those years ago and, if I have only occasionally written the odd piece about him, I think it is fair to say that I too have been thinking and reading about him for nearly half a century.

Mr. Berg's “Wilson” succeeds magnificently in elucidating Woodrow Wilson the man. Quietly, methodically, intuitively, the author examines almost every aspect of his subject’s life, from the religious to the sexual and almost everything in between. His account of both of Wilson’s marriages and his wives is nuanced and revealing. He also examines the celebrated dalliance in Bermuda with Mary Peck that periodically came back to haunt and embarrass the president. His tone throughout is measured and always appropriate, with never a hint of prurience or other inappropriateness. The text of the book validates its jacket’s claim that “this is the most personal and penetrating biography ever written about the twenty-eighth president” — or perhaps, more exactly, it might more aptly have read, of the man who became the 28th president.

I make this qualification because the biography really is so much stronger on the personal than the geopolitical front. Wilson was an unusually complex and fascinating individual and even if he had never risen higher in the world than the presidency of Princeton University, he would still have merited a full-scale biographical examination such as the one Mr. Berg has labored to give us here. It is no mean biographical achievement to have revealed Wilson the man with such delicacy and empathy, without descending to being an apologist.

But as I read on, I felt increasingly that the further Mr. Berg moved from Wilson himself into the wider world, the less satisfying his portrait. Excellent about Princeton (as befits a proud Princetonian), he is reasonably sound on domestic U.S. politics — both in Trenton, N.J., where Wilson served as governor, and in Washington — but far less so in international affairs and its players. The fact is that Wilson was probably the most consequential figure in shaping the 20th-century world, and even beyond. Perhaps we have been spoiled by so many detailed studies of the Versailles Conference and the disastrous consequences of the treaty it produced, but I was disappointed by Mr. Berg’s account of what has to be the heart of any Wilson biography. I kept looking for any real new insight or explanation of his role at Versailles and in the losing fight for its treaty and the League of Nations. The fact is that, for all Mr. Berg’s diligent research and revelations about Wilson the man, the biography falls between two stools: too detailed to be introductory, yet not really definitive where it counts most.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.