Allan Nevins’s “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage” was published in 1932 (now often in two volumes) and is the 1933 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in biography. Nevins was a journalist, prolific author and professor of history at Columbia University. Nevins died in 1971 at the age of eighty.
With 766 pages of text, this biography quickly proves comprehensive, scholarly and extremely detailed. The breadth of the author’s knowledge of Cleveland and his era is breathtaking and I can hardly imagine a more thorough or thoughtful review of this former president.
Published twenty-four years after Cleveland’s death, this biography benefits from a chronological proximity to its subject but lacks the perspective which can only be derived from the passage of time. Some bias in favor of Cleveland is clear and in the end Nevins overestimates the durability of Cleveland’s legacy and lasting impression.
Despite the biography’s age and tendency toward a slightly dated writing style it provides more moments of sheer genius and wisdom than most of the presidential biographies I’ve read so far. The text is frequently punctuated with witty and piercingly insightful historical observations that make this a unique and worthwhile reading experience.
If Nevins offers a pervasive underlying theme it relates to Cleveland’s “courage” which manifested itself in a dedicated stubbornness and refusal to yield to opposing forces – irrespective of prevailing political winds. Unlike most politicians of any generation, Cleveland remained ardently committed to his fundamental beliefs and seemed to care little about his enduring popularity with voters.
The most frequent criticism of the biography (and just one of the reasons it is not more widely read) is that it is simply too long. For the average (non-academic) reader, the biography would be more enjoyable if stripped of 100-200 pages. This could have been accomplished by a ruthless editor without losing much of the book’s essence.
A more potent critique is that the text frequently dives too deeply into certain topics, leaving the non-historian occasionally dazed and disinterested. As committed as I was to learning about the Cleveland presidencies, I thought I might perish if forced to spend more time with the tariff or silver-purchase policy issues.
Nevins also spends relatively little time focused on Cleveland’s personal life. There would appear to have been plenty of interesting material to draw from: Cleveland was a bachelor when elected president and later married a far younger woman. He had five children, some of whom must have been interesting, and there are rumors he fathered an illegitimate child earlier in life. But the reader just gets to know the business-only politician.
Overall, Allan Nevins’s “Grover Cleveland” is an extremely valuable and detailed survey of Grover Cleveland’s life. At its best this biography is fantastic: uniquely insightful, surprisingly clever and very well-written. But in frequent stretches the narrative drags tediously as it investigates one policy issue or another. Fortunately, this biography’s excellent moments compensate for its shortcomings and Allan Nevins’s biography of Grover Cleveland is well worth the reader’s time.
Overall rating: 3½ stars