Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents
by Alex Forman
Les Figues Press, 2012
131 pages / $15 Buy from Les Figues Press
James Monroe was the third president to die on the fourth of July. Franklin Pierce was arrested for running a woman over with his horse. James Buchanan carried his head cocked to the side like a poll parrot (whatever that is). These and other trivial-pursuit answers are drawn from Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents, Alex Forman’s compelling and often very funny book of short presidential biographies. With text appropriated from dozens of sources, Forman presents us with a surprisingly dishy view of our first thirty-seven leaders that, through her light touch, still manages to bring up some highly relevant questions about our expectations of history and our chaotic construction of public figures.
In his introduction to the text, Ben Ehrenreich characterized Forman’s effort as one to humanize the presidents, and the portraits are, indeed, deeply human, with a heavy emphasis on personal foibles and physical oddities. The Presidential body is essential to these portraits. Of course we might claim that the presidential body is essential to a great deal of political discourse—from Obama’s smoking and Cheney’s beat-less heart to that final dictatorial accessory, the glass coffin—but what Forman gives us is something different, not the body as symbol or the body as tool of power, but the body as body. Grant “had unusually small hands and feet,” Coolidge was “deficient in red corpuscles,” and while Washington’s famed wooden teeth don’t make an appearance, his pockmarks and bouts of dysentery do. The bodies depicted here are intimate bodies, embarrassingly physical, and not fit for public perusal—which makes it especially striking that this book is, in large part, a compilation of public perusals. Drawn from a few centuries worth of news, diaries, histories, speculations, Wikipedia articles, and gossip, Tall, Slim, & Erect is a distillation of the public gaze.
April 27th, 2012 / 12:00 pm