JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 by Fredrik Logevall

I’ve read almost every John F. Kennedy biography out there, the serious ones, that is. Not the conspiracy theory ones involving his assassination, but the ones about his life. It’s been a while since an historian has tried to piece together JFK’s life, and with a wealth of documents released in recent years, it was time to take another look at the life of the 35th president.

JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 is obviously part one of a two-part series. This volume covers the ancestry of JFK, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, and right up to that night in 1956 when Kennedy decided he was going for the White House in 1960.

From the publisher:

“By the time of his assassination in 1963, John F. Kennedy stood at the helm of the greatest power the world had ever seen, a booming American nation he had steered through some of the most perilous diplomatic standoffs of the Cold War era. Born in 1917 to a striving Irish American family that had ascended the ranks of Boston’s labyrinthine political machine, Kennedy was bred for government, and his meteoric rise to become the youngest elected president ever cemented his status as one of the most mythologized political figures in American history. And yet, in the decades since his untimely death, hagiographic portrayals of his dazzling charisma, reports of his extramarital affairs, and disagreements over his political legacy have made our 35th president more mysterious than ever–a problem further exacerbated by the fact that no genuinely comprehensive account of his life has yet been attempted.

Beckoned by this gap in our historical knowledge, Fredrik Logevall has spent seven years searching for the “real” JFK. The result of this prodigious effort is a sweeping two-volume biography that, for the first time, properly contextualizes Kennedy amidst the roiling American Century. Beginning with the three generations of Kennedy men and women who transformed the clan from working-class Irish immigrants to members of Boston’s political elite, Volume One spans the first thirty-nine years of JFK’s life, from sickly second son to restless Harvard undergraduate and World War II hero, through his ascendance on Capitol Hill and, finally, his decision to run for president.”

Like I said, I’ve read every new John Kennedy biography when it comes out, looking for new information. Logevall provides some new information in the form of correspondence between Jack and various people, friends and family alike. Attention is paid to some of his former girlfriends, including the notorious Inga Arvid, the suspected Nazi spy who was no such thing.

But this is a book about John F. Kennedy in the times in which he lived, and how those world events affected him and his actions. JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 has to have one of the most detailed descriptions of the PT-109 accident during World War II, which includes correspondence and reminiscences I hadn’t heard before.

So yes, this book does offer new information on the life of John F. Kennedy. There’s even a more detailed account of his time in Congress, something most historians gloss over because Kennedy did very little in his time in the House. I also like the fact that it shows Kennedy always had an interest in politics, it wasn’t just thrust upon him simply because his older brother, Joe, died. It was also made clear time and time again how he often differed in opinion from his isolationist father, Joe Sr.

I really think Logevall does a good job of letting us get to know Kennedy the man with his use of correspondence. He really nailed his relationship with his beloved sister, Kick, and how her death devastated him. And how, with his many ailments and injuries during his young life (including Addison’s disease, which has been known about for years, and his damage to his back because of it), Kennedy didn’t expect to live a long life, either.

I don’t know how long it will take to get the second volume of this duology, but I hope it’s not another seven years.

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