From Jack’s Pen
John F. Kennedy was many things – a president, a senator, a congressman, a war hero, a sailor, a touch football All-American, and a voracious reader. But the category where our 35th president is perhaps most underrated, or at least under-appreciated, is his skill as a writer. As a way of shedding light on J.F.K.’s prowess with the pen, this post is meant to highlight three of his works (Why England Slept, Profiles in Courage, and The Letters of John F. Kennedy) and breakdown why Jack’s writing deserves more attention by the modern-day reader.
For the sake of order, let’s start with Jack’s debut book, Why England Slept, which initially began as his thesis at Harvard. The book’s first line may also serve as the best summary of its plot, “Why was England so poorly prepared for the war?” The future leader of the free world asks prior to taking the reader into his internal analysis as to why England sat on its heels as “Hitler’s mechanized juggernaut churn into Holland and Belgium…” What follows this stage-setting introduction are pages upon pages breaking down England’s decisions around armaments and its lack of preparation for the large-scale conflict that was looming. Decisions made during the decade leading up to the war, the author argues, are what ultimately led to England’s delayed response to bear arms at the onset of World War II. Jack credits his hero Churchill for leading the way and sounding the alarms but also admits that even Churchill should have flagged his concerns earlier.
What we learn from Jack’s first published work is that he uses his writing to challenge himself and his ideas. He balances philosophy with prose—providing the reader with both an educational and enjoyable reading experience.
In the time between the debut of Why England Slept, and the publication of Profiles in Courage, Jack tallied up more personal achievements than most people accomplish in a lifetime. He was a senator now, but he had more “downtime” to read and write due to failing health. The big question surrounding this book has always been how much of Profiles did J.F.K. produce himself? The rumors at the time and that still linger today are that Kennedy adviser Ted Sorensen was the ghostwriter of the book. But J.F.K. himself once told incoming defense secretary Robert McNamara that he was indeed the author. For some reason, this was an important question McNamara wanted answered before deciding to leave his job as chief executive of The Ford Motor Company to join the Kennedy cabinet. Jack does at least acknowledge Sorensen as playing a significant role in the book’s completion and success. Stating at the beginning of the book that “the greatest debt is owed to my research associate, Theodore C. Sorensen, for his invaluable assistance in the assembly and preparation of the material upon which this book is based.”
For purposes of this post—let’s assume what Kennedy told McNamara was true, and Profiles did indeed come from Jack’s pen.
Profiles in Courage looks at eight different senators of varying political beliefs and parties and gives examples of times the senators stood up for what they believed was right instead of what was most convenient. John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, George Norris, and Robert A. Taft round out the subjects of the would-be Pulitzer Prize-winning book. What may be most striking about the book itself is the time and setting in which it was written (regardless of who the actual author was). The thought of our future commander-in-chief lying in a hospital bed, political future uncertain, and outlook on life’s longevity bleak, yet spending all of his energy reading, writing, and studying. Well, that should be enough to give anyone chills, especially knowing how the story of Jack’s mortal life ends and the tale of Camelot begins.
Although Profiles was his most acclaimed literary work by far, it was actually Jack’s personal letters that may be his most genuine. It’s in these letters that he truly puts both his pen and his heart on the page.
The Letters of John F. Kennedy, edited by Martin W. Sandler, includes Jack’s letters from his early “A Plea for a Raise” letter to his father, alerting him that his 0.40 cent allowance quickly left him with empty pockets. To later letters to poet and friend Robert Frost, and everything in between. What the reader will find when perusing this book is the vast correspondence Jack kept with people from all walks of life, from school children to world leaders. He seemed to have just the right words to make all those on the receiving end of his letters feel important, and as though each person played a crucial role in not only his success but the country’s.
These private handwritten letters, an art often lost in society today, are Jack Kennedy at his literary pinnacle. It’s this work where Jack the man shines through the myth.
Kennedy, John F. Why England Slept. Wilfred Funk, 1940.
Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. Harper & Brothers, 1956.
Kennedy, John F. & Sandler, Martin W. The Letters of John F. Kennedy. Bloomsbury Press, 2013.
David Lowe Cozad is a Boston-based writer and John F. Kennedy admirer. His short stories, book reviews, and other works can be found at www.libraryeightyeight.com or on Instagram @library_eightyeight