'The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy': A New Book About How Americans Remember JFK

May 24, 2017

Like many Americans who were alive on Nov. 22, 1963, noted historian Michael J. Hogan remembers vividly the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“Even though I was too young to vote for Kennedy at the time, I was not too young to remember the personal impact of the assassination and the incredible drama of the funeral, which captured American attention minute by minute for the better part of four days,” Hogan said in a recent phone interview.

Emeritus professor of history and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the Ohio State University, Hogan is now a distinguished professor of history at the University of Illinois Springfield. When he began researching what he thought would become a book about Kennedy’s funeral, he discovered what he called Kennedy’s “astonishingly high” three-year average popularity rating, based on Gallup Poll data.

“It just got me thinking about Kennedy’s memory over time, because even now he’s often rated in public opinion polls, one after the other, as the most popular and the most highly regarded president in the whole of the 20th century and certainly since the end of the Second World War. So here he is, gone 50 years and yet still very, very highly regarded. And I wanted to know why that was – after 50 years his memory seems to be so strongly sustained in the popular imagination,” Hogan said.

Credit Cambridge University Press

Pursuing that question led Hogan to write his most recent book, The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2017), a look at how JFK, Jackie and others in their camp constructed what Hogan calls the Kennedy “brand” during the years of the administration, in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination and, Hogan argues, even today. The book also explores how and why that image continues to hold firmly in the American mindset – even among Americans who weren’t alive during the Kennedy years.

"This is not just another book about JFK, his life or his legislative triumphs or his foreign policies, or about his assassination," Hogan said. "This is really a book about Kennedy after his life, how we perceive Kennedy in his afterlife in American memory."

May 29, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of Kennedy's birth. Classical 101's The American Sound is commemorating the milestone this weekend with a review of Kennedy's contributions to American politics and culture and his indelible place in our nation's collective memory.

Tune in to Classical 101 at 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday for a special Kennedy anniversary edition, featuring music performed at some key events in Kennedy's time as president and in the dark days after his assassination, as well as selections from a new work inspired by Jack and Jackie's life together—David T. Little's opera JFK, premiered in spring 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. 

Below are highlights from my recent interview with Hogan:

Hogan explores the construction of what he calls the Kennedy “brand,” how Kennedy’s assassination burned a “flashbulb memory” into American minds and the important role Jackie Kennedy played in “recreat(ing) his presidency as she wanted it to be remembered.”

Hogan talks about the Kennedys as “actors on the White House stage," the role of Kennedy's support of the arts, the entertainment – including some classical music – at the Kennedy White House and Kennedy’s state funeral in forming Kennedy’s afterlife in the American memory.

Hogan explains "memory wars" — the shaping of the Kennedy legacy by those who “own” the former president’s historical identity, some of Kennedy’s political successes and crises and where Hogan’s book fits in how Kennedy’s legacy is recorded for history.

Hogan discusses what he perceives to be the reasons why Americans “hang on to those memories” of Kennedy as a popular hero.

If you find that you "can't let go" of the optimism Kennedy projected during his time as president, here are some famous Kennedy speeches that capture the experience.

Watch Kennedy's inaugural address (Jan. 20, 1961):

And his "We choose to go to the moon" speech (Sept. 12, 1962): 

Join me for a special Kennedy anniversary edition of The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.