Doug Brinkley, our inaugural guest curator, in addition to serving as Professor of history at Rice University, is a bestselling author, Grammy-award winning producer and presidential historian for CNN. Eight of his books have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and each of his most-recent publications have been New York Times bestsellers. Brinkley’s most recent book, JFK: A Vision for America—which he edited together with the president’s nephew, Stephen Kennedy Smith—features JFK’s greatest speeches, iconic photography, and reflections by leading statesmen, writers, historians, and public figures. The book is the basis for New York Historical Society’s upcoming exhibition honoring the 100th anniversary of President Kennedy’s birth: American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Time, opening June 23. Brinkley has been described as “America’s new past master” and has received numerous honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout the nation for his work as an Americanist. Read his full bio.
An Exhibit Curated by Douglas Brinkley: The Roosevelts, Washington, JFK, and Lincoln
An introduction and notes by Douglas Brinkley
Every time I look up items for sale on the Raab Collection website I’m knocked for a loop. As a professional American historian I travel from archive to archive looking for primary source material to use for my book-in-progress. Sometimes I’m in front of the line when a public collection opens just for bragging rights of a new find. My very first book was a biography of Dean Acheson timed exactly to coincide with the Sterling Library at Yale University opening their collection of the former secretary of state’s personal letters to the esteemed likes of Harry Truman, Felix Frankfurter, and George Marshall. I learned then that, if you cut to the chase, historians read other people’s mail for a living.
But institutional collections, like the Acheson Papers, usually come with well-rendered indexes. Essentially, I know the parameters of what to expect upon arrival at a depository. Not so with the Raab Collection. Every couple of weeks I peek into this website and am taken aback by a document for sale that I want and need and must have. I collect letters signed by U.S. presidents and writers I admire like John Steinbeck, and Walt Whitman. It can be an expensive habit. All of my acquisitions are quickly integrated with the slip-stream of my daily life, prominently displayed in my home office, regularly shared with my family and friends.
Nathan Raab and I have become friends over the years. On two occasions he gave me a heads-up on a cache of rare Ronald Reagan letters and John F. Kennedy tapes he owned, thereby allowing me to pontificate on their importance to CNN before anybody else. And now the firm has given me the opportunity to curate my own collection: choose and write about documents that speak to me. This is a difficult task. For by focusing so keenly on my choices I’ve begun to feel proprietary about them.
If I could change occupations, take a break from teaching at Rice University, and serving as CNN Presidential Historian, I’d choose to curate the Raab Collection on a regular basis. Browsing this site is so much fun. And there is something so exhilarating about owning a part of our nation’s past. It’s like deep sea fishing off of Captiva Island, Florida — you never know what you are going to catch once you cast.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the New Deal, Civil Rights, and Labor Unions
While I usually don’t buy documents pertaining to First Ladies, the Eleanor Roosevelt letter to Lawrence Cramer (July 13, 1942) seized my attention. I have a passion for music. My interest in Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie has roots in my deep appreciation for American blues and folk music. To see Mrs. Roosevelt, in the middle of World War II, talk about the legendary John Hammond, Jr., the talent scout for Columbia Records and musicology extraordinaire, trying to help black musicians get a better financial shake, is wild. This Eleanor Roosevelt letter combines the New Deal, civil rights, and labor union concerns all in one hat-trick. View this piece.
Abraham Lincoln and an Investigation
Now seems the appropriate time to divulge a confession. Here I am bragging about my U.S. Presidential History Collection and I have zero Abraham Lincoln. But, boy, the letter being offered of Lincoln investigating agents of the Democratic Party (February 27, 1865) is very tempting. With Donald Trump being investigated by a special counsel for possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 election it’s fascinating to read how Lincoln geared up to go after the Democratic Party for voter fraud as the Civil War was winding down. This is a truly rare find. It excoriates Lincoln’s Civil War nemesis George B. McClellan for forging Union soldier ballots. Just incredible. View this piece.
Kennedy and his Cabinet
Another document which caught my eye was the oversize photograph of President John F. Kennedy with his cabinet. I own four JFK letters all pertaining to conservation, but have no valuable image of him. I’m currently writing American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race for Harper Collins. All the New Frontier cabinet secretaries in this 16 by 20 inch black-and-white silver gelatin print photograph — especially Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy — are dealt with in my space book. View this piece.
Last year I wrote Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America about our 32nd president’s founding of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) and saving such pristine landscapes as Great Smokies, the Everglades, Joshua Tree, the Olympics, and Big Bend. Much has been written about FDR’s collection of postage stamps and nautical prints. Less known is the fine Americana Library he amassed about New York State topography (the Hudson River in particular). William H. Colyer’s Sketches of the North River, signed by the Squire of Hyde Park himself, part of his personal library, would fit nicely into my collection on U.S. presidents and conservation. View this piece.
Finally, I’m utterly stunned by the General George Washington plea of April 17, 1776, trying to rally colonial citizens to the cause of American liberty. It’s amazing to me that this document, seemingly priceless, is available for purchase. That Washington was acting as a kind of pamphleteer for the “Great American Cause”, a Thomas Paine town-crier, is a true revelation to me. This should really be bought and donated to the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. View this piece.