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Take Five: Meet Walter Stahr, bestselling author and Newport Beach resident

By AMY SENK

Bestselling and award-winning author Walter Stahr’s latest book, to be released next week, is a biography of Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s rival for the Republican nomination in 1860 who was in the center of the fight for racial justice in the Civil War era. Stahr’s previous historical biographies also have examined the lives of important but lesser understood subjects, like William Henry Seward and John Jay and have received praise from historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin. He also lives in Newport Beach, has strong family ties to the community – especially our library, where he will speak about his new book on February 24. I caught up with him to learn more. 

Take Five Walter Stahr

Courtesy of https://walterstahr.com/media-room/

Walter Stahr

Q: How do you go about finding the subjects of your books, and then how to you go about researching? Can you describe your writing process?

A: In choosing subjects, I look for important Americans who need better biographies. Before I tackled John Jay, for example, the most recent biography of Jay was from 1935; it was out of print and had serious gaps. My research process involves lots and lots of reading, both primary and secondary sources. I use secondary sources to point me to primary sources that I might otherwise have missed. To some extent I can do research through the internet. The Salmon Chase papers at the Library of Congress, for example, are available on the library’s website. But to some extent, research involves travel. For the Seward book, for example, I spent time in small libraries in upstate New York to look at family letters and local newspapers. When I turn to writing chapters, I try to stick close to the person and to the primary sources. Too many biographies, in my view, are too ready to accept memoirs, written years later. I am much more interested in the letters and newspapers from the time of the events.

Q: If you could spend an evening hanging out with three historical figures, who would you pick and why?

A: I would love to spend a few hours with Lincoln, Seward and Chase. Many of those who knew Lincoln best, wrote that however hard one tried to capture him on paper, it was impossible. His stories on paper are pale reflections, I think, of what it would have been like to see and hear him tell one of his stories in person. Lincoln and Seward spent much time together, one on one, for Lincoln was a frequent visitor to Seward’s house, just across the street from the White House. Lincoln and Chase were not as close – Chase was not as gregarious or sociable. Yet the more time I spent with Chase, reading his diaries and letters, the more I liked him; and I realized that he and Lincoln did like and respect one another, although they sometimes disagreed.

Take Five Salmon P. Chase book cover

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of https://walterstahr.com/media-room/

“Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival” is Walter Stahr’s most recent historical biography

Q: Can you tell me more about your new book coming out in February?

A: My new book is a biography of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War and then Chief Justice of the United States. Although his work in those two positions was important, I argue that his MOST important contribution to American history was BEFORE the Civil War, for Chase was a key figure, perhaps THE key figure, in turning anti-slavery into a powerful political party. Abraham Lincoln could never have been elected president, in 1860, without the groundwork that Chase did in creating the Republican Party, and before that the Liberty and Free Soil parties.

Q: Your reviews are very impressive. Can you tell me about one that stands out or meant the most to you?

A: Perhaps the review that meant the most was right at the start. I talked with Ron Chernow after a book event for his Hamilton book, asked whether he would be willing to write something short for the cover of my forthcoming Jay book. At that time, I was utterly unknown as an author, and I was publishing with a small British firm, not a major American firm. He read the Jay book and wrote a beautiful short comment, saying that I had written a book in the spirit of Jay, fair and thorough.

Q: I’ve seen your letters to the editor in various publications. Do you read and write all the time?

A: I am active, right now, in opposing the proposed change to the Newport Beach charter, to create a more powerful mayor, so I will be writing and speaking against that. I am also writing a proposal for a new biography, subject to be revealed in due course. I have not been active in city politics before, but I strongly oppose the proposed charter change, to create a far more powerful mayor in Newport Beach. Our current system, with seven members of the city council, one of whom serves each year as the ceremonial mayor, works quite well. A mayor elected for four years, who could run again and serve eight years, with essentially complete control over the council’s agenda, would turn us into a mayor-dominated city. 

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Amy Senk is a long-time resident of Corona del Mar and a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

Editor’s Note: For information on the February 24 Library Live event, presented by the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation, visit www.nbplf.foundation/programs/library-live/.