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April 10, 2017

Book Notes - William Walsh "Forty-four American Boys"

Forty-four American Boys

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Forty-four American Boys is a collection of short narratives on the childhood of every American President, from Washington to Trump. Their stories are told collage style via texts appropriated from over 300 sources (children's books, pop history books, and scholarly biographies).

Of Forty-four American Boys, Adam Braver wrote about the book:

"In Forty-four American Boys, William Walsh limns a complete series of cabinet portraits that show how tales, memories, and artifacts create the story of a life. But, of course, these are not just any lives. These are about forty-four of the most ambitious men in American history. By witnessing their childhood, Walsh shows when the commonality of boyhood mixes with the seeds of idealism and determination—the early sparks for the eventual combustion that will create something larger than life. Forty-four American Boys is a meticulously crafted collage of myth, legend, and fact that tells us as much about these boys as it tells us about ourselves as individuals and as a culture."

And Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

"It is said that at the heart of every cliché lies a grain of truth. Each line of this book flickers between cliché and truth, at turns inspiring and insipid, a device that propels a searing political critique. William Walsh demonstrates that, when done well, the selection and arrangement of previously existing texts can result in fabulously original literature."

In his own words, here is William Walsh's Book Notes music playlist for his book Forty-four American Boys:

This is a one-song playlist: Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” from his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.

It’s an appropriate song for a book of appropriated texts on the childhood of the forty-four American Presidents because Simon appropriated the melody from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (1727), which Bach had appropriated from a secular German song called "Mein G'müt ist mir verwirret," written a hundred years earlier by Hans Leo Hassler.

The melody is simple but stirring. It rises quietly and falls just as quietly. Though Simon wrote the lyrics as a meditation on the times—the war in Vietnam, Watergate—it seems to speak to current events in America and to how I feel today (“…forsaken…misused…weary to my bones”). The tone of the lyrics is that of resignation, loss (“When I think of the road we're traveling on / I wonder what's gone wrong”), and, finally, surrender (“You can’t be forever blessed / Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day / And I’m trying to get some rest”).

This book, Forty-four American Boys, is not political. My intention was to look at how the childhood of each of our Presidents was portrayed over the years, to see what it was about these boys that landed them in the White House. Some of these boys came from wealthy families (both Roosevelts, Kennedy, the Bushes) and others were raised in poverty (Andrew Jackson, James Garfield, Ronald Reagan). Some were great readers (Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, Warren Harding) and others struggled as young learners (Andrew Johnson, Donald Trump). Some Presidents were never even elected (William Henry Harrison, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, Gerald Ford).

What I discovered, in some books, were boyhood narratives fashioned to fit the office. The authors found in their subjects qualities that best represented a President of the United States.

What makes their boyhood stories interesting on the whole is the way they reflect our history. Not the history that some of these Presidents went on to make, but the history they lived through as children.

We are all living through some history right now, tremendously bad history. But America will likely live through another forty-four Presidents over the next two hundred plus years. Some of those Presidents will be great and make us all feel great about our country. And a few of them will suck disastrously.

Getting back to Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” I’d like to hear something other than surrender. The opposite of surrender. Maybe if I play it again and listen harder, I’ll hear it.

William Walsh and Forty-four American Boys links:

excerpt from the book

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Questionstruck
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Without Wax: A Documentary Novel
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Unknown Arts
Necessary Fiction essay by the author about the book
Necessary Fiction essay by the author
Pleaides post by the author

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