Allan Nevins, Alyn Brodsky, American history, biographies, book reviews, Grover Cleveland, H Paul Jeffers, Horace Samuel Merrill, presidential biographies, Presidents, Richard Welch
[Updated Oct 2022]
When I first reached Grover Cleveland on this journey about three weeks ago I only had two biographies of this two-term president in my possession. I ended the month with five.
As I worked through the biographies of his predecessor, Chester Arthur, several of you were kind enough to suggest biographies I must read before moving past Cleveland. And although I was skeptical that Santa’s media mail elves could deliver three freshly-ordered biographies quickly enough, they arrived with time to spare.
And thank goodness! Because what better way could there be to spend the holiday season than curled up with a good Grover Cleveland biography?
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* I began with Allan Nevins’s “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage.” Published in 1932, this remains the definitive biography of Cleveland. It is occasionally criticized for placing Cleveland on a pedestal. But while it is certainly somewhat partisan it is not excessively deferential.
But there is too much emphasis on certain policy topics that become tedious and dull – but which committed historians may appreciate. And I wish there had been more focus on Cleveland’s personal life; while often stern and serious in public, he was allegedly gregarious and affable around his friends. That side of Grover is hard to find here.
At its best, this biography of Cleveland is incredibly insightful, surprisingly clever and very well written. Nevins offers more moments of wisdom and historical acumen than perhaps any of the presidential biographies I’ve read so far. If carefully compressed by 100-200 pages, this biography would be incredibly compelling. (See review here)
* The second biography I read was H. Paul Jeffers’s “An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland,” published in 2000. Jeffers was a professional (and prolific) author, not a dedicated historian, so this biography takes on a journalistic rather than academic feel.
It is well-balanced, comprehensive and fast-flowing. Though it breaks no new historical ground, someone seeking to understand Cleveland could do far worse than absorb this book. Jeffers clearly read each of the major biographies of Cleveland, took excellent notes and used his sense of drama and narration to create his own version of a Grover Cleveland biography. (See review here)
* Next I read Alyn Brodsky’s “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character” which was published just months after Jeffers’s biography. Brodsky is a former newspaper columnist and book critic and has written several biographies. Of the five Cleveland biographies I read, this was my favorite (though only by a small margin).
This biography is extremely clear, quite colorful and consistently engaging. Its author is an unabashed (but not breathless) fan of Cleveland, but it is easy to compensate for this affinity. What is more challenging to overcome is the author’s tone, which varies widely: from serious and scholarly to downright irreverent. But overall, Brodsky turns what could be a less-than-exciting topic into a lively and informative narrative. (See review here)
* My fourth Cleveland biography was “The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland” by Richard Welch, Jr. Published in 1988, this is the most intellectual of the biographies I read and, together with Nevins’s biography, provides the sharpest view of Cleveland’s presidential terms. Missing was any real focus on his family life…and some readers will find the narrative too academic (rather than dramatic or entertaining). As a second or third book on Cleveland this is a fantastic choice. (See review here)
* My final biography of this president was “Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party” by Horace Samuel Merrill. Published in 1957, this biography is known for its negative opinion of Cleveland. And while you might imagine an author with an “outlier” view would take the time to carefully and devastatingly dismantle his subject, Merrill’s book is relatively short and casual. Its primary value arises from forcing readers to question Cleveland’s spotless reputation. As a primary biography this is a poor choice; as a follow-up book it is far more compelling. (See review here)
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[Added Oct 2021]
* I just finished reading Troy Senik’s just-published “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland.”
This is a lively, insightful, witty and engaging book which is part biography and part character study. Senik’s thesis is that Cleveland was a great president (person) even if he did not enjoy a great presidency. And by injecting revealing anecdotes, stories and revelations in the 323-page narrative, he ensures the reader leaves with the same impression.
Readers seeking to read “just one” biography of Cleveland may find this is the perfect choice – it’s efficient, easy to read and written for a modern audience. But it leaves aside some details of Cleveland’s life – and historical context from his era – that detail-oriented readers will miss. And too often it feels like an apology to Cleveland for the obscurity he has endured in spite of his admirably principled character. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Grover Cleveland:
– “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character” by Alyn Brodsky –and-
– “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland” by Troy Senik
The Classic Biography of Cleveland: “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage” by Allan Nevins
S. Heinen said:
Thanks for posting all of this. Having embarked on a similar (but less comprehensive) journey and being only lightly behind you (starting “Gentleman Boss” any day now), I find this quite interesting and timely. I am already dreading the 3-volume biography of Benjamin Harrison by Harry Sievers!
Thanks! Are you going in order (which would put you about half done)? Any stand-out favorites so far?
Brady Cook said:
I’m so glad I found this site; I thought I was the only weirdo wanting to reading a biography on every american president! After finding “Washington: A Life” on audible and already being a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt, I found my self wanting to know more about the other major players in our country’s history. I had no idea a list like this was already put together and that there seemed to be so many others interested in it too. Looking forward to the rest of your list!
There seem to be many of “us” out there 🙂
I’m really looking forward to Theodore Roosevelt – he’s coming up in just about a month! Let me know as you find biographies (whether on my list or not) that you love. I’m always interested to hear which bios gets other people jazzed-
While not a complete biography, anyone interested in a fairly quick read on Grover Cleveland, I would recommend the book The President is a Sick Man by Matthew Algeo. He builds a short biographical sketch of Cleveland before diving into the subject of when he developed cancer in his mouth and had a secret operation to remove it. He gives information about how cancer was viewed in this time period, especially for a President to have it, and talks some about President Grant’s death from cancer and its effect on the population. Very interesting read
This is a great site! I’ve only read a couple bios so far but as I look for more, this site has become a tremendous resource.
I wondered if you might share how much, if any, space the above books devote to Cleveland’s time as Sheriff of Erie County, Mayor of Buffalo, and Governor of New York. These are of particular interest to me.
Three of the five bios spent at least reasonable time with Cleveland during that period. Nevins probably went the deepest (about 140 pages followed Cleveland from birth to his presidential nomination) while I seem to recall Jeffers and Brodsky spending a little more than half that on the same part of his life.
Having read all of them, I feel like I got a very full picture of Cleveland as Sheriff, Mayor and Governor but if I had to choose just one for his pre-presidency I’d probably go with Nevins-
Thanks very much!
Hi, did you have a reason for not reading the John Pafford book? Not a sufficiently scholarly work?
I simply wasn’t familiar with Pafford’s book. But it looks interesting – I’ll have to add it to my follow-up list, thanks!
Gary Amundson said:
The volume by Henry Graff in the American Presidents series is quite good and despite the space limitations imposed by the series format does a balanced job of covering the main points of Cleveland’s terms. Not a scintillating writing style, but certainly very readable.
Thanks – I suspect there are quite a few folks reading “one per president” who will appreciate a good, but short, biography of Grover Cleveland(!)
Fernand Ela said:
Hi, may i ask which between Brodsky and Nevin has a better coverage of Foreign policy and monetary debate? I saw your review that Brodsky has a clearer explanation but i am willing to put up with Nevin even if it ibe less clear but more complete on discussion). Hoping to hear your recommendation on this matter 🙂
My apologies but I took several days to answer your question hoping that when I got home I could go through my notes in order to best answer your question. Unfortunately it is not clear based on the notes I took which author provided better coverage of foreign policy and monetary policy (and it has been nearly 3 years since I read these biographies). If anyone else has a view please chime in!
Chris Kempley said:
I haven’t read Nevin and am just now finishing Brodsky. While I have had some concerns with his approach, I will say that he does a really nice job in discussing both Cleveland’s foreign affairs experience and his monetary views. The structure of the book lets him expound on issues in a clearly defined way and his writing is clean and coherent. As Steve said in the review on this book, he tends to use really obscure vocabulary. I assume that it is intended to be very precise. But, in general, it’s a very well done book. Perhaps someone else can respond with regard to Nevin.
Chris Kempley said:
Well, I’m about a fourth of the way through Brodsky’s biography of Cleveland, and every one of the points made in the full review of this book have been encountered. It is an entertaining read, but so far I think you understated the author’s love for his subject. The vocabulary lessons have been kind of fun, although I rely on context as opposed to a dictionary. Neither am I put off too much by the inconsistency between erudite discussion and plainspoken language.
There are a couple things that do annoy me, though. I think the biggest is the offhanded way he dismisses the presidents he dislikes. The references to recent presidents seems out of place in a book about a nineteenth century figure. But, more to the point, to dismiss every other president between Lincoln and T.R. with less than a full sentence each is troubling. Perhaps most importantly, it seems to be building in me a knee jerk reaction against Cleveland.
Finally, while I’m no authority on the subject, I suspect that the issue of fathering an illegitimate child was likely a bigger problem in the nineteenth century than Brodsky is willing to concede.
All that said, it is an entertaining and education read. The farther I get into this project, the more inclined I am to believe that one book per president won’t leave me fulfilled. You have supplemental reading to do after the large numbers you have read. I fear that I’ll be returning for more, although as of now my post-presidential starting point is likely to be Shelby Foote on the Civil War.
Thanks for your work.
Todd Michael Carlsen said:
The brief Grover Cleveland book in the American Presidencies series is also a good brief introduction.
The Gilded Age (and following Progressive Era) is underrated, I feel, being far overshadowed by the Civil War, Revolution and new nation, and the New Deal/WWII. The Gilded Age was an era of incredible economic development that is unsurpassed in the influence of the world. I think the Gilded Age and Progressive Era were fascinating times with exceptional characters.
Cleveland was a good president.
Sam Hood said:
Hello. I am a published nonfiction author currently researching a book on former Confederates who became prominent in post-Civil War American society. Of the eleven US presidents who appointed former Confederates to high federal government positions (US Supreme Court, Sec. of the Navy, Attorneys General, Solicitor General, Asst. Secretary of State, and numerous ambassadors and consuls) none appointed more than Grover Cleveland. I am seeking suggestions for the best Grover Cleveland biography for my purposes. Many thanks. Stephen M. (“Sam”) Hood.
Thanks for the note and apologies for the tardy response (it has been a hectic last two weeks). I’m not sure I can answer your question well given the length of time that has passed since I read these (just over four years) and your narrow objective. Having said that, I think Nevins’ biography is a good place to start since it is the “classic” biography of Cleveland and is also the most detailed of any I read. After that I imagine either the Brodsky or Jeffers bios would be most useful.
Stephen M. Hood said:
Thanks Steve. This thread was so old I really didn’t expect a reply. I will start with Nevins’ biography, as you suggest. Thanks again.
Scott R Ettl said:
Hi there – I am reading the presidents in order as well. QQ about the Cleveland books. Does A Study in Character explore his early years or just the presidency? I am looking for a book which covers his whole live not just the time in office. Thanks!
Although it has been over four years since I read this one, I remember it vividly as a comprehensive and interesting biography. I believe it moves “efficiently” through Cleveland’s pre-presidency but it didn’t feel needlessly rushed. I think you’ll enjoy this one…!
I just ordered the Nevins two volume work. I was going to get the Brodsky but since I prefer hardcover the Brodsky is selling at over $100.
Have you (or anyone out there) stopped reading (whatever book they choose) on Cleveland to read a book on Harrison then return to the Cleveland book? I am about to start on Cleveland and am debating whether or not to do this.
I think I’m going to read 2 Cleveland bios, a main one (Brodsky or Nevins) first and a shorter supplemental one (Welch, Merrill, or Graff) after Harrison. I’m finishing up Peskin’s Garfield this weekend, so it’s about decision time.
J. Jensen said:
I came to leave a comment about Troy Senik’s book just released today, and was happy to see it’s in your queue to be read next! I haven’t read it completely yet, but I at least wanted to that it will check off at least one of the boxes you consistently look for, and that’s a final chapter essentially summing up a president’s legacy and why it is that way. In this case, Senik does a nice job evaluating Cleveland’s lack of a legacy, at least one known to most Americans. It’s not too long or short, and packed a nice punch for its 8 page length.
This biography showed up on my doorstep last night and once I’m finished with the biography I’m currently reading (David Maraniss’s new release on Jim Thorpe) I’ll be switching over to Grover Cleveland! After spending a fair amount of time on follow-up biographies of Jefferson, Madison, FDR and Lincoln this year I’m remarkably excited to read about one of the “lesser-knowns”.
I remember Cleveland well from my original trip through his life & presidency and I’m interested to see what Senik has to say. But since it clocks in at just over 300 pages, I assume it’s heavy on a defense of Cleveland’s legacy and somewhat lighter on the background of his life. In any event, I shall soon see…!
I’m so glad you are reading Senik’s new book on Cleveland. Your timing is perfect since I am just about to finish Reeves’ biography on Arthur. I had already picked up Jeffers’ book on Cleveland and have it ready to go, but I have been holding out hope that Senik’s might be better? I have been limiting myself so far to just one biography on each president so I’m eager to see your thoughts. Though one may argue that two non-consecutive terms may warrant a second biography once I finish Harrison, I’m not sure I want to do that! After all, Cleveland’s appeal seems to be his lack of experience and inclination to maintain the status quo, which I’m not sure makes for the most exciting material to expend my efforts on two books.