American history, American Presidency Series, American Presidents Series, biographies, book reviews, Charles Rappleye, David Burner, Eugene Lyons, Gary Best, George Nash, Glen Jeansonne, Herbert Hoover, Kendrick Clements, Martin Fausold, presidential biographies, Richard Norton Smith, William Leuchtenburg
[Updated Dec 2020]
The unfavorable but vaguely-formed image of Herbert Hoover I’ve retained for three decades (since my last American history class) left me wary about meeting him on my journey through the best presidential biographies.
But I grew increasingly optimistic about my encounter with this time-worn president as I began to observe his life through the biographies of two of his predecessors: Harding and Coolidge.
After all, how many presidents possess a boundless sense of adventure, a spirited “can do” attitude and an unshakable moral compass? If it was possible to fuse together some of the best and most often caricatured features of Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge the result might very well be…Herbert Hoover.
A man of rock-solid morality, profound concern for his fellow man and a practical, principled approach to problem-solving, Hoover demonstrated a natural talent for everything he pursued in life – except the presidency. And while I never found that one perfect biography of Hoover I hoped for, the four I read convinced me he was far more talented (and interesting) than I imagined.
* * *
* My first biography of Hoover was William E. Leuchtenburg’s “Herbert Hoover.” Published in 2009, this book is a member of The American Presidents Series and fills just 161 pages. As an introduction to Hoover it proves perfect: time- efficient, insightful and well balanced.
The most fascinating phase of Hoover’s life is the four-decade period prior to his service as Secretary of Commerce. Leuchtenburg covered these years so well that I wished the first three chapters had been far more detailed but no less engaging. Unfortunately, in the interest of brevity Hoover’s family was almost nowhere to be found in the book and several aspects of his political life had to be rushed past. But as an introduction to Hoover’s life that will leave the reader craving more, this book is a winner. (Full review here)
* Next I read David Burner’s “Herbert Hoover: A Public Life.” Published in 1979, this is often viewed as the most authoritative single-volume political biography of Hoover’s life. Obviously the result of painstaking research, it covers Hoover’s public life in a level of detail that seems unlikely to be surpassed by anything other than a multi-volume series.
Unfortunately Burner’s writing style is often dull and lifeless; reading about Hoover’s lackluster presidency, therefore, is not a captivating experience. And because there is so little of Hoover’s personal life in these pages (something to which Burner confesses early) the reader never gets a full appreciation for the man. Although it will appeal to an academic audience, most readers will find this biography of Hoover a lackluster experience. (Full review here)
* Eugene Lyons’s 1947 “Herbert Hoover: A Biography” was published nearly two decades before Hoover’s death, but it was updated and republished shortly after Hoover died in 1964. This is the longest of my four Hoover biographies (with 442 pages of text) and it proves lively, dramatic and quite sympathetic toward its subject. It also provides more extensive coverage of Hoover’s three-decade post-presidency than any other biography I read.
While David Burner wrote his biography from the perspective of a disappointed admirer, Eugene Lyons is far more forgiving. The author’s fondness for Hoover eventually overpowers the narrative, particularly during the discussion of his presidency. But overall, Lyons’s biography proves the most interesting study of Hoover’s life outside public office (before and after his presidency) and provides the best sense of his true inner-self. (Full review here)
* Last of my four Hoover biographies was Martin Fausold’s 1984 “The Presidency of Herbert C. Hoover.” This is an impartial, sober, scholarly review focused on Hoover’s presidency and provides the best insight into these four difficult years of any of the Hoover biographies I read.
Readers new to Hoover will be surprised to read of the Hoover administration’s early accomplishments and will find a thought-provoking (if not exciting) discussion of the Great Depression. But for all its merit in exploring Hoover’s presidency it falls deliberately short in examining him personally; if the best of Hoover is seen through his early life, readers of this book will miss much of that magic. (Full review here)
Follow-Up Reading: I often uncover worthy biographies I “should have read” and Herbert Hoover was no exception to this rule. There are several biographies I need to read once I’ve finished my first pass through each of the presidents:
* Charles Rappleye’s “Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency” – DONE! (See below)
* Richard Norton Smith’s “An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover”
Finally, there is no escaping the six-volume series penned by George H. Nash, Kendrick Clements, Glen Jeansonne and Gary Dean Best. Published between 1983 and 2013, only the cost and difficulty of obtaining this series (and my fear of Too Much Hoover) kept me from this initially:
* 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 G. 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 D. Best
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[Added March 2020]
* Charles Rappleye’s “Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency” was published in 2016 (after I had already finished my first tour through Hoover’s biographies). I had a chance to read it in early 2020.
I found it to be articulate, insightful and extremely enlightening. Unfortunately, its primary focus is on the least interesting (and least successful) years of Hoover’s life. Readers who wish to understand Hoover “the man” will have to look elsewhere, but those who are interested in exploring his service as president will find this an excellent choice. (Full review here)
[Added Dec 2020]
* Kenneth Whyte’s “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” was published in 2017 – I read it in late 2020.
Much to my delight, I found Whyte’s comprehensive biography of Hoover to be wonderful. It provides the most thorough comprehensive review of all the Hoover bios I’ve read and while the author is sympathetic to his subject, he does not shy away from Hoover’s numerous flaws and failures. Although I wish it had been written with more vibrancy and provided more focus on Hoover’s presidency, this is clearly the “go to” single-volume Hoover biography in my view. (Full review here)
– – –
Best Overall Bio of Herbert Hoover: “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” by Kenneth Whyte
Best Bio of Hoover’s Presidency: “Herbert Hoover in the White House” by Charles Rappleye
http://onlyagame.wbur.org/2016/03/05/hoover-ball-crossfit-president-politics I guess Hoover was an early Michelle Obama 🙂
Thank you for bringing the Rappleye book to my attention! I have about 100 pages left, but it’s been a great read – very balanced and accessible. I only wish it had a broader scope; although the expressed focus is the presidency, Hoover had such an atypical road to the White House that I would have loved hearing more about that period (I’m generally only reading one bio per president in my own journey 😊).
I’m glad you like the Rappleye bio! You are the third or fourth person to tell me how much they are enjoying it so I can’t wait to read it as part of my follow-up list. In terms of scope…I found Hoover’s pre-presidency to be by far the most fascinating part of his life, so if it was under-weighted relative to his presidency it means there is still room for someone to write the definitive, compelling and readable bio of the 31st POTUS!
Agreed! I also feel like McKinley is due for a definitive, compelling and readable bio. I read the Morgan bio but would appreciate a 21st century perspective on McKinley’s presidency. I guess living in TR’s shadow makes him less appealing to contemporary historians – it’s a shame! But I digress 😊.
You should probably add Glen Jeansonne’s “Herbert Hoover: A Life” to your list as well. I bought the entire 6-volume set on Hoover, but I’m not sure I want to devote that much time to him. I may select either the Jeansonne or Rappleye book as a substitute. I also have the Burner bio.
Thanks – I’ve definitely got that on my follow-up list (well, on my master list even if not originally mentioned in this post). Regarding the 6-vol set, if it lives up to its potential it could be phenomenal (Hoover really was *that* interesting). But if it’s just a tedious, detailed and lengthy biography it will be quite a slog…
Paul C. said:
Jeansonne’s 2016 single volume biography is a gem! Brilliantly told and really brings to light all the interesting aspects of Hoover’s multi-faceted pre-Presidential accomplishments, including his Quaker upbringing, humanitarian efforts in two world wars, and support for infrastructure projects. The book makes some unconvincing points about FDR, but other than that, great read.
Great to hear! Jeansonne’s bio is one of the first on my “follow-up” list I plan to read once I’ve gotten through all the presidents the first time through. Hoover’s pre-presidency is absolutely fascinating and I’ve been hoping someone would fully capture that in a single volume. My fingers are crossed this book does the trick!
Roger L said:
I also “got into” Hoover after reading Rappleye, which explained his WH years. I can’t let this opportunity pass to mention the new “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” recently from Kenneth Whyte. It’s probably what you were looking for, a one-stop, sympathetic and complete view of the man and his politics, quite well written. It covers everything Rappleye does without getting too lost in the wonky weeds.
It’s ironic, but just yesterday I was reviewing my follow-up list and checking it against my notes and realized I hadn’t yet added Whyte’s bio to my formal follow-up list. That has been corrected…and based on the feedback I’ve received so far it’s likely to be my favorite of the bunch!
Al C said:
I’ll add my plug for Whyte’s book, too. I think it’s excellent, and I’ve read enough of Steve’s reviews to believe he would agree. Stylistically, I think it’s similar to Berg’s Wilson biography. I actually think it’s a little better (and I loved Berg’s book) because (a) it includes more background about, e.g., economics of the times, (b) it’s slightly less hagiographic–Hoover was not always likeable–and (c) Hoover’s life outside his years as president is just more interesting. Some presidents I felt like I just sort of wanted to “get through” quickly, perhaps reading the American Presidents series volume about them. Avoid that temptation for Hoover. He’s unique.
James Salerno said:
I’ll throw in my hat for Whyte’s book as well! I’m over 200 pages in and the book is still in WWI. The coverage of Hoover’s pre-presidential life is very comprehensive and you get a good picture of “the man” that seems to be lacking in others. I’m not too familiar with Kenneth Whyte but I find his writing to be lively, fair and devoid of overt bias. I’m eager to check out his William Randolph Hearst bio after I finish the presidents.
Max Placke said:
I give two thumbs up to Whyte’s book as well. It was my first biography of Hoover. I knew he was very accomplished from what I’d read of Coolidge, but Hoover’s story takes you so many places, from Europe to Australia, and across the US. Whyte covers all of this very well, and it didn’t feel dry to dull. You should enjoy it, and I look forward to your review.
J.L. Jensen said:
I just discovered a rather unique biography on Hoover that I hadn’t even heard of before last week. “Hoover, Conservation, and Consumerism: Engineering the Good Life.” I have read the intro and conclusion and the first chapter, and so far it is most intriguing. Who would have thought there would be a biography about a Republican president (albeit a semi-conservative one) that made the case for them being a champion of the conservation movement. So far, it’s been rather convincing, especially when focusing on Hoover’s adolescence and youth in Oregon and other areas that showcased the beauties of nature. The author, Kendrick Clements, has so far done an outstanding job at weaving a convincing, unique narrative through Hoover’s life. I haven’t finished yet, but the book appears to go through his presidency, though not much after that. It focuses on Hoover’s developmental years (when he developed conservation principles) and through his presidency, years where he had a strong hand in guiding those policies to fruition on multiple levels of government. Anyways, you already have an extensive follow-up list, so I don’t know if you’d necessarily need to add this one, but thought I’d share because this really is one of the more unique bios I’ve come across in quite a while. Worth noting, Kendrick Clements went on to write the 4th volume of the 6 volume Hoover series (the one that focuses in 1918-1928).
I’m always interested to see what I’ve missed & what has slipped through the cracks during my efforts to find relevant books on each president. This one certainly escaped my attention (made all the more embarrassing since I was aware of Clements’s other coverage of Hoover). I’ll have to check this one out in more detail at some point.
Great find and thank you for sharing as it escaped my attention as well. I have Dr. Clements’s other Hoover book and his two Wilson books. His first book was a biography of William Jennings Bryan.
As for a Republican cheering the conservation movement: Theodore Roosevelt.
J.L. Jensen said:
Hoover and TR have always felt like different brands of Republicans to me, with Teddy being much more progressive. I think that’s why this Hoover bio felt more surprising. Of course, much of the difference between the two is in their polar opposite personalities.
TR has always been a good face of conservation, and one well known. Not many other Republicans are generally considered staunch conservationists (although Grant started the National Parks system with Yellowstone, and Lincoln even designated a tract of land comparable to a National Monument today). Even Nixon had a good record on conservation with his creation of the EPA, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, and others.
If you do check out this bio, I hope you enjoy it. I am only 15% through, but have enjoyed it so far and it looks to be pretty good throughout. I don’t own Dr. Clements’ Wilson books. Looks one is a cradle to grave bio and the other focuses on just the presidency. Would you recommend these? The Woodrow Wilson section of my library is fairly light right now, only 3 titles (and one is just a collection of his writings).
I read Clements’s “Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman” which was only fair as a comprehensive biography (for those seeking a detailed and vibrant understanding of the man’s entire life and times). But it was quite short and punchy, so for anyone looking to maximize efficiency it provided a good balance between detail and length. In the end I preferred a couple of other titles but this would be far better than nothing if that was the alternative.
The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson is the typical scholarly publication of the UP Kansas series. It is not bedtime reading by any means. I enjoyed Cooper’s BREAKING THE HEART OF THE WORLD: WW AND THE FIGHT FOR THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS.
Steve – Not that you need more Wilson on your list, but I just noticed H.W. Brands’s Wilson is not on your follow-up list. You have generally provided positive reviews of his other bios.
Re: H.W. Brand’s bio of Wilson – – you had me extremely worried that I had missed a 500+ page bio that would demand reading! I was relieved to realize it is an American Presidents Series bio…I now remember getting to the point where I had a target date for completion and was trying to stick to a certain maximum # of first-round books. So to add something I had to take something else away, and all things equal I found it easier to pass on an abbreviated bio (even by Brands) than something traditional and lengthy – even if a bit stale.
J.L. Jensen said:
Indeed, I missed that review! Not sure how, as I read your reviews of Heckscher’s and Cooper’s works. I already owned the latter, but added the former based on your recommendation. I guess the cat’s out of the bag that I haven’t yet read every review on your site! I did, however, think I perused the overall list pretty good. I have scanned it several times over the years. Honestly, Wilson is not a president I’m a huge fan of so I bet once I got your #1 recommendation I probably called it good and didn’t look over the rest. I don’t want to invest too much time on Wilson, though I will likely add both of Clements’ works to my library, and end with 4 bios on him, a collection of his writings, and a work that focuses specifically on Wilson and the rise of the progressive movement. Six books on Wilson will be plenty.
Just for those who may not realize they exist, the various volumes of Hoover’s autobiographical writings should be listed, as “Years of Adventure” is definitely a colorful journey.
Richard M Dasheiff said:
I read all the book reviews and posts on Hoover, as I had with the previous Presidents, in an attempt to pick “one” bio. It sounded like my best bet was “Herbert Hoover: A Biography” by Eugene Lyons, 1947,1964. But in the posts, Kenneth Whyte’s “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (2017) kept coming up in bits and pieces.
Steve posted 1/11/18 “I hadn’t yet added Whyte’s bio to my formal follow-up list. That has been corrected…and based on the feedback I’ve received so far it’s likely to be my favorite of the bunch!”
As of my post today 9/23/19 I don’t see it on
I like to be the fourth person to recommend it. I give it 5 stars.
Although I don’t have the advantage of reading the others for comparison, all us in Steve’s Best Biography fan club have a sense of his tastes and grading scale. This bio of Hoover’s pre-President years really gives us a measure of the man, insight into his family, and how he thinks – important attributes for a good biography. I even enjoyed and read in full the acknowledgement section (a tribute to Whyte’s good writing style).
Another point I’d mention is that Steve should get two kudo’s. First is for this list of books and rankings. Second is that the website concentrates the attention and opinions of so many other people with a similar interest, which then produces useful posts (as the ones which led me to Whyte’s book). It is a synergy, and all because of Steve’s efforts. Kudos 🙂
Andy G. said:
Thanks to all of the earlier posters who recommended Kenneth Whyte’s book on Hoover. It was an amazing read! The author covered each of the time periods of Hoover’s life with tremendous detail, good context with the times, and a fair analysis of his impacts.
I began the book really excited to learn more about a president that I did not know much about with such an interesting background and diverse set of public experiences. It is unfortunate most people only associate Hoover with an inability to curb the Great Depression. His ineffectiveness certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying (counter to the popular belief). Much of the negative perception seems to have stemmed from the campaigning of the FDR administration. This book gave me a new perspective on some of the negative aspects of FDR and impacts of the New Deal counter to popular history.
Hoover’s humanitarian work throughout his career was by far the most interesting aspect of his life that I discovered from the book. Whyte’s comment about the huge disparity between histories and data on the warfare of WWI and the destruction of human life versus that of the humanitarian efforts during the Great War was spot on and quite telling. Hoover’s prominence in history could only have grown with only the slightest change in retrospectives.
Hoover was extremely active in his post-presidency. He obviously felt his vision for the country went unfulfilled after four years of battling the Depression from the White House. According to Whyte, Hoover has come to be remembered both as a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism and as the father of modern conservatism. I thought that was such an interesting dynamic that speaks to such an amazing political figure.
I finished the book looking forward to hopefully getting the chance someday to travel to West Branch, Iowa, to visit Hoover’s presidential library and museum in his hometown. This book was a great read that I would definitely recommend.
I’m delighted to hear you’re enjoying this book! I’m scheduled to read Charles Rappleye’s 2016 biography of Hoover (it was published a few months after I finished my initial tour through the then-available bios of Hoover) and I still need to read Whyte’s as well.
Although time and distance blurs memories, I distinctly remember being surprised at Hoover’s fascinating pre-presidency and wondering why he has not received better biographical coverage. In part that seems to have been solved with the 3 biographies published since I wrote the original post above.
Andy G. said:
Rappleye appeared on the “Presidential” podcast episode on Hoover. He was very informative in walking through the details of his life. He seemed to have a lot of the same opinions and takeaways about Hoover as Whyte. I’m sure it’ll be a great book.
Bell Julian Clement said:
Just a quick note of appreciation – I find your postings unfailingly useful. I seek them out every time I’m searching for a quick orientation on presidential scholarship. You make a valuable contribution – thank you !
Thanks – I really enjoy hearing from people who have thoughts / comments / suggestions and my favorites are notes like yours! Made my Monday morning 🙂
David Mussetter said:
Lyons portrayal of Hoover was interesting but almost unreadable at points due to his fascination and apologist nature with Hoover. Way over the top with his love.
B T Poremski said:
Just located your web page. Great forum to read and enhance one’s library. On your suggestion, I just completed the biography on James Baker III. Historically illuminating and a very fluid writing style.
AJ Kinnaman said:
David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: America in Depression and War, provides an excellent sumamry of Hoover’s strengths, weaknesses, and temperament. In brief, he was in the progressive tradition (no hidebound conservative, he). He was energetic and willing to act. His failures were political (lack of the common touch). Kennedy’s book is one of the gems of the Oxford History of the US.