Books History

Review of “Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream,” by John Derbyshire

Mr. Derbyshire admits to sharing many of his narrator’s thoughts. The author, too, becomes obsessed with “dead thinkers” from time to time. His latest is Bellini, the 19th-century composer of opera, which is one of Mr. Derbyshire’s passions and the subject of his next novel.
The New York Times

Try to kill it all away,
but I remember everything.
What have I become,
my sweetest friend?
– Johnny Cash, “Hurt

I’ve read through all the reviews of Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream I could find. I think my impressions of it are different from theirs. Because I read it an order different from theirs.

John Derbyshire’s “Bellini” novel, teased in the New York Times review of Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, is Fire from the Sun. Calling it a “Bellini” novel is like mentioning that Ayn Rand’s follow-up to Night of January 16th, The Fountainhead, was going to be about architecture.

The difference between Rand and Derbyshire, though is that Rand is an idealistic and ideologue who presents a pathway to an ideal society. Derbyshire’s view of life is less romantic:

I can remember being profoundly shocked, around age 25, reading James Boswell’s London Diaries, the bit where Bozzy encounters a very old aristocrat and asks him whether, looking back on life, he can discern any pattern or purpose to it. No, says the old boy, it has all been “a chaos of nothing.” I’m not quite ready to agree with that, but it doesn’t shock me any more, not at all. Perhaps the old nobleman was right.

Fire from the Sun is about two Chinese immigrants, Weilan and Yuezhu, who experience that chaos of nothing. Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream seems to revolve around the same two characters, with only minor changes in their back-stories, lead less chaotic (and less meaningful?) lives. But instead of the sweep of history — instead of a book I described as “Heartbreaking. Inspiring. Moving. One-thousand pages.” — in this earlier iteration the characters star in a quite clever domestic comedy.

Think of the characters of Schindler’s List. In the UK version of The Office.

(For the curious, most American sitcoms can be classified as “domestic comedies.” All feature the adventures of a male lead who desires to get up to mischief and a more intelligent female lead who appears to be walked all over, but in fact, controls the unfolding of events. The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy, and The Simpsons, are examples of domestic comedies. It was fascinating to read this set-up in book form though, especially this well done.)

I also learned a lot about Calvin Coolidge — or at least more than I did before! — from this short novel.

I read Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream in hardback. I bought my copy from Barnes & Noble, but it is also available from

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