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.
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* 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)
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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