JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956

JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956

By Fredrik Logevall
816 pages
September 2020

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS’ CHOICE • A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian takes us as close as we have ever been to the real John F. Kennedy in this revelatory biography of the iconic, yet still elusive, thirty-fifth president.

By the time of his assassination in 1963, John F. Kennedy stood at the helm of the greatest power the world had ever seen, a booming American nation that he had steered through some of the most perilous diplomatic standoffs of the Cold War. Born in 1917 to a striving Irish American family that had become among Boston’s wealthiest, Kennedy knew political ambition from an early age, and his meteoric rise to become the youngest elected president cemented his status as one of the most mythologized figures in American history. And while hagiographic portrayals of his dazzling charisma, reports of his extramarital affairs, and disagreements over his political legacy have come and gone in the decades since his untimely death, these accounts all fail to capture the full person.

Beckoned by this gap in our historical knowledge, Fredrik Logevall has spent much of the last decade searching for the “real” JFK. The result of this prodigious effort is a sweeping two-volume biography that properly contextualizes Kennedy amidst the roiling American Century. This volume spans the first thirty-nine years of JFK’s life—from birth through his decision to run for president—to reveal his early relationships, his formative experiences during World War II, his ideas, his writings, his political aspirations. In examining these pre–White House years, Logevall shows us a more serious, independently minded Kennedy than we’ve previously known, whose distinct international sensibility would prepare him to enter national politics at a critical moment in modern U.S. history.

Along the way, Logevall tells the parallel story of America’s midcentury rise. As Kennedy comes of age, we see the charged debate between isolationists and interventionists in the years before Pearl Harbor; the tumult of the Second World War, through which the United States emerged as a global colossus; the outbreak and spread of the Cold War; the domestic politics of anti-Communism and the attendant scourge of McCarthyism; the growth of television’s influence on politics; and more.

“Other authors . . . have ably chronicled this epic saga, but none has told the tale of the thirty-fifth president’s formative years better or more thoroughly than the Harvard history professor Fredrik Logevall. . . . From all the carefully marshaled evidence a picture emerges of an uncommonly curious, sometimes frivolous but increasingly earnest young man on his way to shaping an informed, cleareyed, unsentimental sense of the world and his nation’s place in it.”—David M. Kennedy, The New York Tim­­­es Book Review
“Masterful . . . based on years toiling in the archives but written with a delightfully light touch . . . At times it reads more like a novel than a biography, so vivid is the prose and so extraordinary the material. It is also perfectly timed, with America in the doldrums, its politics polarised, its global reputation shot to pieces and its political class, particularly on the Republican side, discredited. JFK reminds readers of what America once was—and could be again.”The Economist

“As Fredrik Logevall shows in his superb JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917–1956, Kennedy was a far deeper, worthier, more interesting character than the familiar revisionist cliche. . . . Logevall has a gifted historian’s grasp of the times as well as the life of JFK.”The Washington Post
“A superb book . . . [The] remarkable rivalries within the Kennedy family—propelled by valor, vanity and greed—form the backbone of volume one of Fredrik Logevall’s riveting life of JFK.”The Guardian