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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

Profiles in Courage, which won John F. Kennedy the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, is a series of brief sketches describing important decisions in the lives of eight United States senators. Although the work is not intended to be an extensive historical work or a complete biography of its subjects, Kennedy does begin each set of profiles with a section entitled “The Time and the Place.” These introductory essays provide the reader with essential information about the period in which each senator lived and summarize the major political issues of that day. In the profiles themselves, Kennedy avoids general biographical details and prefers to focus upon his central topic: the courageous decisions that proved to be turning points in the lives and careers of these eight individuals.

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Kennedy hoped to demonstrate in Profiles in Courage that no single era, region of the United States, or political party held a monopoly on courage. The individuals profiled in the book were thus carefully selected to include early figures such as John Quincy Adams and more recent figures such as Robert A. Taft, Westerners such as Sam Houston and Easterners such as Daniel Webster, Democrats such as Thomas Hart Benton and Republicans such as George Norris. Indeed, Kennedy made a singular effort in Profiles in Courage to be both bipartisan and broadly national. Although himself a Democrat from Massachusetts, Kennedy devoted the entire second half of his book to praising Republican senators from Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Ohio. Moreover, he selected his subjects from among both the famous and the obscure, those whom history had vindicated and those whom history had condemned. A number of his subjects, including Adams, Webster, and Houston, are among the most notable of Americans; others are important only for the single act of courage that Kennedy describes in his book. For example, the author himself describes Edmund G. Ross as “a United States Senator whose name no one recalls” but whose refusal to convict President Andrew Johnson had an unalterable effect upon the rest of American history.

Since its first appearance, Profiles in Courage has attracted a heated debate concerning the extent of Kennedy’s own contributions to the work. Until his death, Kennedy maintained, at times angrily, that the book was entirely his own creation and had been written during a period of convalescence for back surgery in late 1954. More skeptical critics, such as the biographer Herbert S. Parmet, in Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980), and the historian Thomas C. Reeves, in A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991), have argued that the book was largely researched and written by Jules Davids and Theodore Sorensen. In the preface to Profiles in Courage, Kennedy did note that his “research associate, Theodore C. Sorensen” provided “invaluable assistance in the assembly and preparation upon which this book is based” and that “Professor Jules Davids of Georgetown University assisted materially in the preparation of several chapters.” More than this, however, Kennedy was unwilling to admit.

No one has ever disputed Kennedy’s important contribution to this book in terms of its original idea, central focus, and general plan. Thus, while it remains unclear whether Davids and Sorensen should be regarded as Kennedy’s collaborators or merely as his assistants, it is appropriate to admire Kennedy for providing Profiles in Courage with its inspiration, design, and many of its most memorable passages.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728

Cold War
After the United States ended World War II by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, the frightening reality of atomic weaponry was undeniable....

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