Judging a Book By Its Title: Forgetting The Forgotten Founder

In my experience, choosing a book title is an agonizing process.  The title must perform several functions at once:

  • It must give the reader some idea what is inside the covers, and do so (as my spiritual adviser Paul Dickson insists) at a distance of ten feet from the bookstore shelf.
  • These days, it must also do so from a computer screen, since purchasers may never remove their fannies from their ergonomically-correct desk chairs.
  • It must be catchy; that is, it must stick in the reader’s mind.
  • It must not be readily confused with a zillion other books, or even one or two others.  There is no copyright in a title, but confusion is a bad thing.  On this last point, another spiritual adviser, Bob Lescher, likes to say that you can name your book Moby Dick, but it better be good.

My own titles have all involved difficult births.  My first one, The Summer of 1787, The Men Who Invented America, was entirely the product of my senior spiritual adviser and editor at Simon & Schuster, Alice Mayhew.  Actually, she never had any doubt what the title should be.  But I flopped around on the decision for weeks, e-mailing her dozens of titles she rejected without a moment’s hesitation.

My second title, Impeached, was produced through a collaborative process with Alice.  We batted some titles back and forth for a while, and then fastened on Impeached, The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s LegacyIt conveyed a bit of drama and action while keeping the name “Andrew Johnson” out of the main title.  Only after the book was released did I stumble upon the existence of an out-of-print book by G. Allen Foster titled Impeached: the President Who Almost Lost His Job, a 1974 publication that presumably also was about Andrew Johnson, though I have never seen the book.

The title for my forthcoming book, American Emperor, Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, has the most dubious provenance of all.  I came up with most of it.  (Alice insisted on the Jefferson part.)  This makes me very nervous.  There is no one to blame but me. Actually, I preferred The Emperor of the Americas, but, you know, it was pretty long, and who are those other “Americas” anyway?  A bunch of imposters, that’s who they are.

All of which is a very long-winded way of expressing my dismay that Joshua Kendall’s excellent new biography of Noah Webster (full disclosure:  I blurbed it), is titled, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture.

From the very first, this title struck me as a mistake.  Having worked a good bit with the available books on The Early Republic, I knew of some other books with similar titles.  Among the books that trumpet the forgetting of one of America’s founders are volumes about

What?  You had forgotten them?  All of them?  That’s actually the point.  We have forgotten most of the Founders.  There were so many.  If they weren’t Washington, Franklin, or Jefferson, they’re pretty much out of our memory banks.  Adams may come to mind because he married a smart woman.  Hamilton because of The Duel.  Madison for marrying a hot babe and for being short.  Burr for killing Hamilton.

That’s about it.  So why did the good people at Putnam title the book The Forgotten Founding Father?  That could describe, oh, several dozen human beings, all of them happily forgotten.  And a biography of Noah Webster could have so many outstanding titles:  A Man of Many Words, or Dictionary Man (you could adapt the Neil Diamond song for the soundtrack on the book trailer!), or No, No, Noah, or The Other Webster, . . . and I’m not even warmed up.

It’s still a very good book about a truly odd man.  Read it.  Don’t judge it by its title.

And, yes, there are a few books out there with permutations of “American Emperor” in their titles.  There’s one about Louis Napoleon of France (re-issued from a 1923 edition), and a couple about Norton the First, a crazy guy in San Francisco in the 19th century who proclaimed himself to be an emperor (and who was the model for Twain’s king in Huck Finn). 

Yeah, and one about Dom Pedro of Brazil

Like I said, picking a title is a nightmare.


  1. Foxessa on May 9, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    In the future, the delvers into post-modern U.S.A. history, will have thousands of ” — —- —–: Forgotten Czar of America’s War on — —- —–, to choose from.
    Love, C.

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