American history, biographies, book reviews, Eugene Lyons, Herbert Hoover, presidential biographies, Presidents
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
Jim Kane said:
I remember reading this biography of Hoover as well Steve. Thanks for a helpful review. I have a galley copy of Charles Rappleye’s Herbert Hoover In the White House. It will be interesting to read his take on Hoover. Regards, Jim
I’m impressed – you are the first person I’ve known to have read this biography! Can’t wait to hear what you think about the new Rappleye biography. Hoover’s pre-presidency was incredibly fascinating so he certainly deserves a book that treats his presidency with sober analysis while animating him through a vibrant description of his earlier years.
Jim Kane said:
Thanks. I have Meacham’s new bio of HW Bush and Rove’s telling of McKinley and the 1896 Election ahead of him…
After completing Lyons book on Hoover, which I selected based on your review, I went back and reread your review. I think you missed the mark with this one…
At one point Lyons states he is not writing a biography on Hoover and he doesn’t. Although he briefly describes many interesting parts of Hoover’s life, Lyons’ focus is to redeem Hoover. And while I learned a lot, I would have felt better about my time and effort if I had read an actual biography. I think you may wish to reconsider your rating – No stars would probably be more accurate. Once I complete ‘my journey’ I will read a true Hoover biography, from what I picked up from Lyons’, Hoover was a great man that deserves another chance. So do I.
“And you knew where you were then.
Girls were girls and men were men.
Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again….”
So sang Archie and Edith Bunker.
Thanks for your thoughtful and thorough comment! On a couple of occasions I have convinced myself to assign a “Not Rated” but when the title implies that an author’s work is a biography I’m reluctant to wander from that. More difficult calls for me are books in the American Presidency Series by the University Press of Kansas which are studies of a person’s time in office and not really comprehensive coverage of a life. I’ve read a few of those and given them ratings, but as pure biographies they clearly can’t stack up.
In any event, I found Hoover – particularly his life before entering the White House – absolutely fascinating and compelling, and I wish he, like Martin Van Buren, could attract a devoted and talented biographer to tell his full story to a modern audience. Perhaps one of the biographies of Hoover published this year (on my follow-up list) will prove to be the winner? If you happen to read one of them, please let me know!
Kenneth L Gould said:
I have this book currently on my to-read pile (under my desk). I got it mostly because I started with Easton Press’s Library of the Presidents as a guide. Those books are about 1/2 price on eBay since they printed so many of them; they devalued them. I am now supplementing my reading based on your reviews, which are excellent by the way. You must have a lot of time dedicated to just voracious reading with no kids or distractions. Either that or you are a speed reader, which I am not. I digress.
I have this one and Burner’s A Public Life. Would that plus this one get me enough on Hoover? I am finding it maddening to get at the core of some presidents, requiring multiple authors or one of those 6 volume works (like Malone’s Jefferson, which I am halfway through.) I currently have read about 21 presidents and for some you don’t need a lot.
I don’t know that I have an oversupply of time for reading but I am a firm believer that “slow and steady wins the race”! I try to eek out 50-60 pgs a day (more like 100 or so pages every other day) and often early in the morning before everyone else’s day has started. But you may have noticed I’ve been at this for the better part of a decade…and you can get a lot of reading done in 7 or 8 years if you forgo fiction, bad tv, etc. 🙂
When I first undertook all this, I did it in response to my failure to identify the one great single-volume biography of each president that I should read. As it turns out there simply isn’t a single great bio of each. In some cases the best bio is a series (I’m thinking specifically of LBJ) and in several cases there are so many good biographies it’s hard to know where to start (Lincoln!)
If I understand your plan for Hoover I think it will suffice…depending on your objectives. Hoover is one of the presidents whose time in office was uninspiring for me…but whose pre-presidency should be the raw material for a movie. Or a musical! But I still have a fair amount of follow-up reading to do on Hoover (including the Nash series and Whyte’s recently published biography) so take my advice on HH as incomplete at this point!