American history, American Presidency Series, American Presidents Series, biographies, book reviews, David Burner, Eugene Lyons, Herbert Hoover, Martin Fausold, presidential biographies, Presidents, William Leuchtenburg
Prior to my journey through the best presidential biographies, Herbert Hoover and I had never met.
I don’t mean in person, of course… But I hardly recall his name ever coming up in any context during my 16 year encounter with a variety of public and private schools.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that my image of the 31st president was one shaped by popular but uninformed caricatures. I vaguely recall him as a failed president, a bumbling fool and the person quite possibly responsible for the Great Depression.
Fortunately, the eleven biographies I read which covered two of his White House predecessors (Harding and Coolidge) provided me enough insight into Hoover to appreciate that he was far more gifted – and multifaceted – than I had suspected.
When he was mentioned in those biographies it was usually to point out his enormously successful service as head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium during World War I. (In other words, he was the northern European “Food Relief Czar” responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives).
It’s unfortunate that his life has not catalyzed a deeper list of biographies, but I have four biographies of Hoover in my library and hope that at least one of them will satisfy the basic requirements of a great presidential biography: to inform, to engage, and to entertain. We’ll see!
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I’m starting with the shortest of the four biographies: William Leuchtenburg’s 2009 “Herbert Hoover.” This American Presidents Series biography contains 161 pages of text, a three-page chronology of Hoover’s life and a lengthy bibliography. Books in this series tend to be straightforward and no-nonsense so I don’t expect to encounter any time-wasting tangents…but neither do I expect to see much of the vibrancy and multi-dimensional analysis that accompanies the very best biographies.
My next Hoover biography will be “Herbert Hoover: A Public Life” by David Burner. Published in 1979, this biography has the reputation of being thorough but also a bit dull. How much of that can be blamed on Hoover remains to be seen, but given how little I know of the 31st president I’m happily to latch onto something considered “thorough.”
The third biography of Hoover I’m reading is Eugene Lyons’s “Herbert Hoover: A Biography.” First published in 1947 – fourteen years after the Hoover presidency, but seventeen years before his death – this biography has the reputation of radiating a strong pro-Hoover bias. My edition of this biography was published in 1964 (just after Hoover’s death at the age of 90) and seems to include new material covering the last decades of Hoover’s life.
The last Hoover biography I’m reading is “The Presidency of Herbert Hoover” by Martin Fausold. Published in 1984, this book is a member of the University Press of Kansas’ American Presidency Series and, as such, is focused almost exclusively on his presidency. This book also has the reputation of containing a pro-Hoover bias and, frankly, for being a bit dull. I’ll be prepared…
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I have been encouraged by several long-time followers of this site to read the six-volume series penned by George H. Nash, Kendrick Clements, Glen Jeansonne and Gary Dean Best which covers Hoover’s life in extraordinary detail.
The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer 1874-1914 by George Nash
The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Humanitarian, 1914-1917 by George Nash
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918 by George Nash
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Imperfect Visionary, 1918-1928 by K. Clements
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933 by Glen Jeansonne
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Keeper of the Torch, 1933-1964 by Gary Dean Best
You might think that reading this series is a no-brainer, but in this case wisdom comes at a high price – the cost of purchasing the series can approach (or exceed) $200. I need to see how much I enjoy Hoover before committing to buying a series that expensive which few in my audience will ever read.
Out of curiosity, if nothing else, I’ve started collecting the early (and, ironically, less costly) volumes and expect this series will end up on my follow-up list…