American history, Benjamin Harrison, biographies, Charles Calhoun, Harry Sievers, Homer Socolofsky, presidential biographies, Presidents
Of the forty-three (and counting) presidents whose biographies I’m reading on this journey, none have caused me quite as much apprehension as Benjamin Harrison.
I expected to meet an extremely decent man with all the personality of a napkin holder whose presidency was unremarkable…but tedious to re-live. Oddly enough, that’s almost exactly what I got.
I might well have described Rutherford B. Hayes similarly (and approached him with equal anxiety) but where Hayes provided me with just two books and 700 pages, Ben Harrison came to the party with five biographies totaling almost 1,400 pages.
Fortunately, although Harrison’s presidency was no more interesting than I feared, his biographies provided a better reading experience than I had expected. And while nothing leads to a pleasant surprise like setting expectations low from the beginning, Harrison is fortunate to have attracted a small but worthy band of biographers.
* * *
* My first biography of Harrison was “Benjamin Harrison” by Charles Calhoun. As a member of the American Presidents Series, this comprehensive but brief biography of Harrison seemed a great place to start. And I was right; this biography is not flashy but does provide a fairly painless and occasionally interesting introduction to a president few people really know.
Calhoun’s main contention is that Harrison was an “activist” president who paved the way for the modern presidency. And while providing a reasonable introduction to Harrison as a young man and budding politician, this biography takes every opportunity during his presidency to validate that thesis. But Harrison comes off as a flat, two-dimensional character and I was left wishing the author had given me a richer perspective on Harrison’s legacy. (Full review here)
* Next I read Harry J. Sievers’s three-volume biography of Harrison, published between 1952 and 1968. This monumental effort represented the first major biography of Harrison and remains the most complete, penetrating look at this president.
The first volume was “Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior.” This volume covers Harrison’s life from his birth through his Civil War service. The first two-thirds of the book (covering his life before the war) is particularly interesting, humanizing Harrison and providing balance between his public and private lives. The last part of the book (dedicated to Harrison’s Civil War service) is largely a day-to-day account of his military life. It provides almost none of the “big picture” and proves far less interesting. (Full review here)
The second volume was “Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Statesman.” This volume covers the next two decades of Harrison’s life, ending with his election. This period includes much of his legal career, his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign and his term as U.S. Senator. This volume provides a nice equilibrium between his personal and public lives and maintains a high level of objectivity with respect to his politics. (Full review here).
The final volume was “Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President” covering the last dozen years of Harrison’s life: his presidency, his unsuccessful campaign for a second term, his retirement from politics and his death. The shortest of the three volumes in the series, this volume is also the least satisfying. While the description of Harrison’s presidency proves delightfully tolerable, it is far less analytical and offers less historical perspective than I would like. And rather than finishing on a high note, one can almost sense the author’s fevered rush to get to the finish line. (Full review here)
* I finished Benjamin Harrison’s biographies with “The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison” by Homer Socolofsky and Allan Spetter. Published in 1987, this member of the American Presidency Series (from the University Press of Kansas) is almost exclusively focused on Harrison’s presidency, but the authors do provide an excellent (if brief) review of Harrison’s early life.
Although the writing style is sober and serious, it is also straightforward and incredibly efficient. Contrary to my initial expectations, this is not an unapproachable college history text. And, overall, this review of Harrison’s presidency proves far more interesting and meritorious than one might expect. Surely I can’t be the only person to notice this would serve well as the third volume in the otherwise excellent series by Harry Sievers? (Full review here)
– – – – – – – – – – –
Best Biography of Benjamin Harrison: Harry Sievers’s three-volume series
Best Reading Plan for Benjamin Harrison: Vols 1/2 of Sievers’s series followed by “The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison” by Socolofsky and Spetter
Gerry Fedde said:
Just noted the sidebar tweet about Teddy Roosevelt being the first to ride in a car. My understanding is that it was actually William McKinley who first rode in a car when he was rushed to a hospital in Buffalo after he was shot.
Christopher C. Kempley said:
I’m trying to do a single volume on each president. I don’t mind the length so much as my interest being in something comprehensive. So, my question is whether to read the Calhoun book or the Socolofsky and Spetter volume. Any advice would be helpful. Thanks
I wouldn’t normally expect to have a hard time choosing between two such different biographical approaches (American Presidents Series being comprehensive but brief…but often well done and the American Presidency Series which usually just focused on White House tenure). But in this case the Calhoun bio was at least fair (and certainly comprehensive) and the Socolofsky/Spetter volume didn’t fail to look to B Harrison’s pre-presidency to create context.
I don’t think you would make a mistake in this case just flipping a coin, but I seem to recall enjoying the Socolofsky bio slightly more so I’d go that direction recognizing it isn’t going to be one of your all-time favorites…
CHRISTOPHER KEMPLEY said:
Steve, thanks so much for your thoughts. It’s a tough call. I may breaknow down and do the 3 volumes. I understand they only total around 1000 pages. Washington was around 700 and the Madison bio was a tough read, due to the dense writing. Having read a full length bio of his grandfather, Benjamin probably deserves a complete review.
Thanks for the great reviews as usual, Steve. I went with Calhoun’s short bio so I could squeeze it in between Nevins’ two volumes on Cleveland, but really feel I have done Harrison an injustice and will revisit him later. On a side note, I have to share with you the coincidence that happened during my own journey–I had been referring to Harrison as “the man in the middle” because of Grover Cleveland’s two terms, but I later realized that there were 22 presidents before Harrison and, as of right now, exactly 22 after him. When someone succeeds Trump, Harrison will never be “the man in the middle” in both ways again! 🙂
As a scientist (by education, anyway) I really appreciate symmetry in nature – so I can’t believe I failed to realize that BH was – and literally now is – the man in the middle! 🙂
Cliff Scrutchin said:
Like you although not as in-depth I have been reading biographies on our presidents from one through right now 23. I have truly enjoyed your reviews of these books and when I’m ready to start a new one always go to your website to see which ones you recommend and I’ve not been disappointed yet thank you for your faithfulness in reading and thank you for your faithfulness in giving accurate reviews
Cliff, thanks for your comment – feedback like this is what keeps me going! And since I see you are up to Harrison it seems you have survived the difficult middle “chunk” of presidents and are almost up to some really interesting ones. Teddy Roosevelt, in particular, really fascinated me and it seems you’re going to be reading him in the very near future?!?
Having read at least one of your selections for every president through Harrison at present, I am reminded of two observations. “History is a subject you start in the middle: Will Durant “There is no history, only biography” Ralph Waldo Emerson. I would add, “and all biography is interpretation”.
Chris Kempley said:
I’ve been reading one biography per president. I’m up to Kennedy. I agree with this observation, but have one additional comment.. By reading in sequence the overlap gives you additional perspectives in many cases. This allows you to synthesize your own views and come to your own interpretations in lots of cases. It’s been a fascinating and delightful journey and I want to thank Steve for acting as my tour guide.
I’m glad you added that point and I have thought the same thing. Just recently, for one example, a biographer of Cleveland wrote that Hayes did not run for re-election because he could not likely muster enough votes. Yet, in reading Hayes, that writer made it very clear that he couldn’t wait to vacate the oval office after one term, with no consideration for a second one in the slightest. You not only get overlapping interpretations, which are very beneficial to an in-depth understanding of issues, personalities and the times, but you sometimes get different “facts”. All in all, it’s great, the sloppy stew of humanity, and I too feel very grateful to Steve for the entire business.
I am reading one bio of each president and am on Teddy Roosevelt, reading the Edmund Morris series. We visited Sagamore Hill in October just as I was starting on TR and I believe that has helped me picture the man as I read his bio. I find the TR and Taft relationship fascinating. So much so that I plan on reading The Bully Pulpit too. In looking ahead to Taft books last evening, I realized that I have skipped Benjamin Harrison so will have to go back to catch up with him. He doesn’t seem too exciting but as usual you have given me some great guidance on the Harrison bios that you read. Thank you!
Curious to know if anyone has read Ray Boomhower’s “Mr President: A Life of Benjamin Harrison” which appears to have recently been published (after Steve’s pass at Harrison). I see that at 224 pages it could be another option for those seeking a full-life bio, with a president for whom finding one that is both thorough and single-volume seems a challenge.
Amazon reviewers seem to paint Boomhower’s bio as geared towards a high-school or college-aged reader. Which isn’t a bad thing, but maybe not what I’m looking for on the quest to read something thorough on each prez. Unless a glowing review comes along for Boomhower, I’ll probably read Calhoun. Possibly break from my single-book track and read Socolofsky/Spetter also in order to get a fairly full account and get to the 400-500 pages I average for most of the presidents.
Hi. When I choose a bio I try to get at least a 400 pager. With Harrison coming up on the horizon one is either all in or taking the short cut. I’ll most likely go all in with the three volumes unless of course a new one comes out soon. 🙂