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‘JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century’ dives deep on the 35th president

David Wilson For the Boston Globe

Historian Fredrik Logevall had written about John F. Kennedy before, in his Pulitzer-winning “Embers of War,” about the Vietnam era. But it wasn’t until he undertook a two-volume biography of the former president that he really explored the man and his life. The first volume, “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956,” was published this month.

Kennedy’s life spanned an era in which the United States grew into a superpower, Logevall added. “I feel like I can tell these twin narratives, I can tell the story of Kennedy’s rise, and then map it onto the story of America’s rise.” As a professor of international affairs and history at Harvard, he added, it was the first time he had to plumb a subject’s psychology. “I had to go into the psychological dimensions much more; I try to be careful, because I’m not trained as a psychologist. But I hope we get pretty close to a fellow who’s often seen as kind of elusive.”


Logevall drew on the vast resources of the JFK Presidential Library, including some newly available letters, as well as other materials, such as those held in the archives at Choate, JFK’s prep school alma mater. Understanding Kennedy’s family and childhood were important, Logevall said. For one thing, JFK’s long history of illness was a key to the man he became. “It mattered a lot, no question,” Logevall said. “I think that one of the things it did was it made him a voracious reader. There wasn’t a lot that kids could do in those days if they were in bed, other than to read. I also think it instilled in JFK a certain empathy. I think it made it easier for him to put himself into somebody else’s shoes.”

So what does JFK have to teach us now, in a time of great political uncertainty? “He believed in politics and he believed in government,” Logevall said. “He believed in expertise; he believed in the vital importance of reasoning from evidence. I think those are important messages for today.”


Logevall reads at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, in a virtual event hosted by Brookline Booksmith. www.brooklinebooksmith.com

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.