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Book Review: Buchanan Dying

Buchanan Dying is a three act play written by famous author and Pennsylvania native John Updike. The play begins as a bed-ridden former President James Buchanan approaches the end of his life. He is being tended to by a nurse and a servant and lapses in and out of consciousness. As Buchanan is in this state, he is visited (in his imagination and on stage) by those from his past and present, including his parents, siblings, his cabinet, his niece (and acting First Lady) Harriet Lane, and by Anne Coleman (the woman who he was once betrothed to, but who broke off the engagement and died mysteriously) as well as by her father and brother.


In a well researched work, Updike explores almost every controversial aspect of Buchanan's life, including his near expulsion from Dickinson College as a youth, his terminated engagement to Anne Coleman and her mysterious sudden death, his handling (or mishandling) of the controversial Kansas constitution issue, his inattention as southern cabinet members sent weapons and other resources to southern states on the eve of secession, and his passive and weak response when southern states finally seceded. The play also explores Buchanan's unsympathetic attitude towards slavery and his influences on the outcome of the famed Dred Scott decision.

The second act of the play is a series of reminiscences of Buchanan during his presidency, but with overlapping incidents from other periods of his life which insinuate themselves and merge together. For example, in a segment when Buchanan and his cabinet are considering how to deal with the defense of Fort Sumpter, he segues into a letter he received from Anne Coleman explaining the reason for their breakup. In the last act, Buchanan converses with a clergyman and in a series of interactions with other characters, he attempts to justify some of the more controversial aspects of his presidency.

In addition to the three acts of the play, Updike writes a very detailed summary of his research, demonstrating a thorough study of a great deal of biographies of Buchanan and his times. In doing so, he shows that most of his fiction has a foundation of fact. But he also attempts to come to Buchanan's defense and even makes the case for why Buchanan was not such a terrible president, but rather was confronted by times so difficult that they would have perplexed any president. Not all will agree with him, probably most would disagree, but to his credit, a considerable amount of study and research has gone into Updike's opinion.

Much of the dialogue in this play is quite pretentious, bordering on snobbish, but it is unclear whether that is the product of Updike or whether it is a true representation of his subject. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of Buchanan's possible homosexuality and his curious relationship with his "room-mate" Rufus King. Though the book is not entirely flattering of Buchanan, Updike's point of view as a Buchanan defender (and possibly apologist) presents an image of Buchanan that many would not agree with. Then again, this is a work of fiction, albeit a very well researched one. For the reader with an interest in the complex and perplexing nature of the 15th President, this is a worthwhile read.

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