Memoirs by First Ladies: Background information when reading Becoming

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by Michelle Obama

Becoming by Michelle Obama X
Becoming by Michelle Obama
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    Nov 2018, 400 pages

    Mar 2021, 464 pages


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Memoirs by First Ladies

This article relates to Becoming

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Covers of memoirs by First LadiesMichelle Obama's memoir Becoming has been a huge success by all standards, and she joins a long and illustrious list of former First Ladies who have written memoirs. The appeal is obvious: who wouldn't want to know more about the women who've stood beside the President of the United States, acting as confidant, support system, and unofficial advisor? And in many cases, as with Mrs. Obama, First Ladies have been tremendously popular, bright, and accomplished in their own right. Since Betty Ford, each First Lady has written at least one memoir following her time in the White House, but the tradition goes back quite a bit further in history.

With the help of her son Frederick, Julia Grant, wife of Ulysses S. Grant, began penning her memoir shortly after the death of her husband in 1885. Writing became therapeutic for Grant as she processed her loss. She called it "a panacea for loneliness, a tonic for old age." Her memoir spans her childhood, courtship with Ulysses, and their life together through the Civil War and his presidency. However, it was not published until 1975 because Mrs. Grant was unable to agree to monetary terms with any publisher before she died. One historian has suggested that the "great profits from her husband's book created an unrealistic view of the value of her own." Or perhaps the world was simply not yet ready to give the First Lady's words the value they deserved.

Both Helen Taft and Edith Wilson published memoirs, in 1914 and 1939 respectively, followed by Eleanor Roosevelt who published four from 1937-1961. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt is the most commonly read account of her life read today, as it is a compilation of material from the other three books, with additional content from Mrs. Roosevelt's later years. Ladybird Johnson's A White House Diary was published in 1970, shortly after her husband left office, and Betty Ford published two memoirs, the second of which, called Betty – A Glad Awakening concerned her struggle with alcohol and drug addiction.

Rosalynn Carter wrote a memoir, First Lady from the Plains, and co-wrote a self-help book with her husband called Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life. Nancy Reagan published two memoirs; the second, My Turn, released in 1989, is the most widely read. In it, Reagan discusses life with her husband, motherhood, and her interest in astrology (which, incidentally, has been shared by several other First Ladies). Barbara Bush also published two memoirs; the first is a typical account of her life both before and during her husband's time in office, while the second, called Reflections: Life After the White House, covers the eight years between her husband leaving office and the election of her son, George W. Bush. Mrs. Bush's daughter-in-law, Laura Bush, published her memoir, Spoken from the Heart, in 2010. This book was a bestseller, though reviews were mixed, with some critics finding Mrs. Bush's account of her life rather restrained.

Hillary Clinton has published three books: Living History (2003), Hard Choices (2014), and What Happened (2017). Living History sold 600,000 copies in its first week on sale, one million in its first month; in it Clinton narrates her experience of her husband's two terms in office, including the impeachment scandal. Hard Choices covers Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State under President Obama, and What Happened is a postmortem account of her failed 2016 presidential campaign. It sold 300,000 copies in its first week and debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

It remains to be seen if Michelle Obama will publish a second book, but with the success of Becoming (which sold 725,000 copies on the first day of publication), the demand is certainly there if she chooses to.

Filed under Reading Lists

This article relates to Becoming. It first ran in the December 4, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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