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Kingston library to host program on new JFK biography

Congressman John F. Kennedy (left) and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge before the start of their debate in Waltham. Kennedy ousted the incumbent Lodge to become senator.
Congressman John F. Kennedy (left) and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge before the start of their debate in Waltham. Kennedy ousted the incumbent Lodge to become senator.Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Many readers on the South Shore can’t get enough nonfiction, especially history, according to Kingston librarian Al Ealy.

Ealy, who puts together a regular “Author Talks” series for the Kingston Public Library, said programs on nonfiction tend to draw strong public interest. That’s one reason the library’s current season of talks has loaded up on historical topics: Boston architecture, Abraham Lincoln, and the Kennedy family.

“Nonfiction talks do better than fiction,” Ealy said. “When it comes to history in particular, they are well attended.”

The library will host a presentation by Pulitzer Prize winning author Fredrik Logevall on his biography “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956,” the first volume of a projected two-volume biography that includes new archival material from the Kennedy Presidential Library.

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The online program will take place on Thursday, April 22, at 7 p.m. Register at kingstonpubliclibrary.org.

Logevall said his biography of JFK is a fresh examination of America’s youngest and first Catholic president. “None of the previous books about JFK really does what I’m trying to do here, to put his life fully into the context of his time,” he said in an interview.

The Kingston Public Library will host a presentation by Pulitzer Prize winning author Fredrik Logevall on his biography “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956,” on Thursday, April 22, at 7 p.m.
The Kingston Public Library will host a presentation by Pulitzer Prize winning author Fredrik Logevall on his biography “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956,” on Thursday, April 22, at 7 p.m. Martha Stewart

That deeper dive into John F. Kennedy’s family and his life’s social context is possible because of the range and depth of the archival materials available at the nearby John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the author said. A Cambridge resident, Logevall has a dual faculty appointment at the Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard University history department.

“The archives are so fabulous,” he said. “And they are underutilized by scholars.” The archival material on JFK is so strong, he said, because Kennedy family members were “such good correspondents” — they wrote plenty of letters.

Just as readers and audiences for library talks are still drawn by the Kennedys, Logevall has discovered that his classes about Kennedy’s political era — the 1960s and the Vietnam War — attract college students.

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“They have a sense that the ’60s really matter,” Logevall said. “It brings students out.”

The author won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” published in 2013.

Logevall said the cultural and social issues influencing JFK’s political career are likely to interest readers in a region where many have a strong sense of Irish ancestry. Kennedy knew his religion would be an issue in his campaigns for Congress and the White House, the author said, at a time when remnants of anti-Catholic prejudice still existed within the predominant class.

“He didn’t suffer the kind of discrimination that his grandparents for example suffered,” Logevall said. “But there was still a sense of a Boston Brahmin kind of world when he was at Harvard. He was privileged, wealthy, but to some extent still an outsider … It remained one of the questions when he ran for President: Can a Catholic win the White House? He worried about that.”

Religion was a factor in his 1952 Senate race against Republican stalwart Henry Cabot Lodge as well. Kennedy’s campaign included appearances on the South Shore, Logevall said, and while the candidate was hunting for Catholic votes he chose not to criticize red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, a Catholic, was popular among many Catholic voters.

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The first book of his two-volume biography concludes in 1956, the author said, because that was when JFK and his influential father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., together decided, “we’re running for the big prize.”

“There’s no guarantee that he would get the nomination,” Logevall said. “Or that if he did get nominated he would prevail. It was an audacious move.”

In addition to Logevall’s new biography of a 20th-century American icon, the Kingston Public Library has scheduled an April 29 program by Ted Widmer on his book, “Lincoln on the Verge,” an account of the president-elect’s slow-paced rail journey to Washington for his 1860 inauguration. Pro-slavery extremists had threatened to prevent him from taking office.

Boston city archeologist Joseph Bagley will speak on May 13 on his book, “Boston’s Oldest Buildings and Where to Find Them.” Buildings covered in the book predate 1800 and illustrate the city’s earliest history.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.