First published in 1947, Eugene Lyons’s “Herbert Hoover: A Biography” was updated and republished in 1964 shortly after Hoover’s death. Although Russian-born, Lyons was raised in the United States and became a staunch critic of communism. Lyons was the author of about a dozen books, including several biographies; he died in 1985 at the age of 86.
The lengthiest of my four Hoover biographies (with 442 pages) this book proves lively, dramatic and highly sympathetic toward its subject. The biography’s coverage is well-divided between the three broad phases of Hoover’s life: his upbringing and early career, his presidency and his three-decade retirement.
The author’s review of Hoover’s early life includes a very interesting discussion of the Quaker religion which serves as an excellent foundation for understanding Hoover’s actions as Secretary of Commerce and, eventually, president. Lyons also provides a dynamic (if not uniformly exciting) description of Hoover’s global travels and travails as a successful mining engineer and entrepreneur.
Although Lyons occasionally abandons chronology to discuss issues out of sequence (such as Hoover’s personality) the flow seldom seems unnatural or awkward. And unlike most biographies of Hoover, Lyons provides extensive coverage of the this former president’s lengthy retirement including his work for the Truman Administration (to revamp the federal bureaucracy) and the partial revitalization of his legacy.
While comprehensive and broad-ranging, this biography is sometimes more a flattering character study; at other times it evolves into a study of Hoover’s life-philosophy. But no matter what form the book takes in any given moment it is almost always interesting and fully engaging.
In the book’s earliest chapters (those covering his youth and his career as a mining engineer and entrepreneur) the author’s pro-Hoover bias is not often on display. But as the biography progresses the author’s fondness for his subject becomes far more apparent – and nowhere is this more evident than during Hoover’s presidency.
Unfortunately the discussion of Hoover’s four years in the White House is almost completely consumed by a rebuttal to the perception he was either responsible for the Great Depression or, at the very least, negligent in his efforts to combat it. Lyons’s rationale for relieving Hoover of much of this stain on his legacy is thought-provoking and compelling, but the tone is far too heavy-handed and defensive.
Lost among the glass half-full spirit is Hoover’s outwardly awkward personality. Where other biographers identify his uncommon inner strength, unshakable integrity and enormous compassion…they also fully recognize his astonishingly weak “people skills.” Lyons, on the other hand, recognizes Hoover’s impressive array of personal attributes but underemphasizes his politically ruinous interpersonal defects.
And in an apparent rush to begin defending President-elect Hoover against the reputational ravages of the Great Depression, Lyons almost entirely avoids issues such as Hoover’s selection of his cabinet. While usually a source of great insight into a new chief executive and his approach to the office, Lyons deals with this topic in just a single paragraph.
Overall, Eugene Lyons’s biography of Herbert Hoover is a comprehensive, energetic and colorful review of the life of a fascinating man (if not a compelling president). It is disappointing that the author’s affinity for Hoover eventually overpowers what is otherwise a lively and thoughtful narrative of the life of the thirty-first president.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars