American history, biographies, book reviews, David McCullough, Harry Truman, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize
“Truman” is David McCullough’s 1992 biography of the 33rd president. It was the first comprehensive biography of Truman and earned the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in the Biography category. McCullough is a highly-acclaimed author and historian who is probably best known for his 2001 biography of John Adams. He is currently working on a book about the early settlers of the Northwest Territory tentatively titled “The Pioneers.”
True to its reputation, this biography is remarkably lively and engaging for a hefty 992-page tome. McCullough once again demonstrates himself to be an expert storyteller, crafting a fascinating and articulate narrative that generally reads more like fiction than actual history.
A decade in the making, this well-researched biography began to cement Truman’s reputation as something more than a simple man of inferior talent who survived politics only by riding coattails and affiliating himself with powerful political bosses. McCullough works assiduously, but not obtusely, to demonstrate Truman’s optimism, diligence, perseverance and unshakable moral compass…as well as his intrinsic talent for politics.
There are too many praiseworthy moments in this book to mention, but among the best are the discussion of Truman’s military service during WWI, chapters reviewing Truman’s time in the U.S. Senate, description of the covert maneuvering which resulted in Truman’s selection as FDR’s fourth-term VP and the review of Truman’s 1948 Whistle Stop tour. McCullough also adroitly compares and contrasts FDR’s personality with Truman’s (their differences far outweighing their similarities, of course).
Beginning with Truman’s ancestry and moving deliberately (though not speedily) to his death, this is more a “popular” biography than a rigorous academic or analytical examination of his politics and personality. And although McCullough is occasionally critical of Truman’s actions, this is very likely a biography that Truman would have appreciated and enthusiastically endorsed.
Ironically, my least favorite sections of the book were its beginning and its end. While Truman’s humble roots are hardly unimportant to McCullough’s thesis, I found the narrative involving his lineage and early years slow to ramp up. And the eighty or so pages describing his post-presidency seemed relatively uneven and unexciting…but this later period of his life lacks large moments and critical decisions, so it is unsurprising the final chapter suffers by comparison.
Overall, however, David McCullough’s “Truman” proves one of the best presidential biographies of the 164 I’ve read thus far. It is wonderfully animated, thoughtfully revealing, consistently engaging and surprisingly lively. If the hallmark of a great presidential biography is providing a comprehensive (and fascinating) understanding of its subject – and bringing to life the broader history of the era – then David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman could hardly be more successful.
Overall rating: 4½ stars
Thank you for the update on McCullough’s next project. It is amazing to think he will be 86 when it is published. Each time I see him on tour I am truly amazed with his storytelling abilities. He brings his subjects to life. The Johnstown Flood was a great beginning.
I’ve only read three of his dozen or so books, although “1776” has been sitting on my shelf begging to be read for quite awhile. I sincerely hope he and Robert Caro make it well into their 100s(!) It’s really exciting when someone is able to bring history to life for so many people…
Evan Axelbank Fox13 (@EvanAxelbank) said:
David McCullough is nothing short of an American treasure. I have read all of his books, except the one about the Panama Canal. I am sure I will get to that one someday.
Paul Nowicki said:
mccullough book on the canal is excellent , highly readable and highly recommended
I’ve been looking forward to this review by you. I’ve read a lot of McCullough, but somehow had not gotten to this one yet. I look forward to reading it. I wondered if it might get 5 stars, but looks like it fell a little short. Thanks for the review.
If it had been ~100 pages shorter, with a punchier start and finish, I think it would have been perfect. And it’s definitely one of my favorite 5 or 10 biographies so far.
Read this four years ago when I moved to the NW for grad school. One of my favorites. Thanks for the review!
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Renee Becka said:
Growing up in Kansas City, Harry and Bess were in our news often. David Mc Cullough’s biography was the first book about Truman I read, then I read four more including his autobiography. Next thing you know, I decided to read up on FDR and now I’m working my way through American history through the lives of the Presidents. It’s even fun and the details are just amazing.
I couldn’t agree more that American history is much more fun when absorbed through biographies of the presidents vs. reading a traditional American history textbook – but of course some presidential biographies do a much better job of providing historical context than others. Separately, I’m planning a trip to Independence, MO to get a more close-up view of Truman…I hope I can get the logistics to work out!
Just finished this one. I tend to agree with you that the early years and post-presidency chapters are the weakest; I honestly felt a little disappointed in how fast we got to Truman as president. Part of me kept thinking I was missing out on something during the Senate years. The post-presidency period is a decent enough coda, but the reality is it’s a portrait of a man who has lost his political relevancy but not his vitality and doesn’t entirely know what the hell to do with himself.
I didn’t get the same sense regarding McCullough’s affection for his subject. Compared to his Adams bio or say, Chernow’s Hamilton bio this one felt more even-handed. Part of this may be that to all apparent understanding, Truman had fewer of the personal flaws than so many other people in positions of preeminence have often exhibited?
Despite the length it reads so well that it’s simply not the slog that many biographies end up being. And now I kinda want to read a bio of Dean Acheson.
Feels like it has been a long time since I read this one but I think you really captured part of the essence with the last sentence of your first paragraph! And although I never imagined I would say so, I really feel compelled to read an Acheson bio as well! If you accomplish that in the next year or so, let me know what you read…and how it turns out!
Andy G. said:
Thanks for another great recommendation! I read McCullough’s bio earlier this spring and came away impressed by both the president and the author.
Being a bit biased as I lived in the Kansas City for a few years, I actually loved the early part of the book that traced Truman’s early family journey west. The “Border War” between Kansas and Missouri is well known in the area and still has influence there today.
Overall, I finished the book with great admiration for Truman. He lived such an interesting life with varying pursuits and experiences. Compared to some of the other presidents who were born into wealth and power, his rise from humble roots with no college education (+ his WWI service) seems extraordinary.
McCullough, to me, seemed to present Truman pretty evenhandedly. The decisions he faced while in office were incredibly tough with far reaching importance. Following FDR while at war seemed like it’d be an impossible situation for anyone to be put in. McCullough did note his missteps (Korea and his “opening the door” for McCarthyism) along with his many admirable policies and attributes. Truman was a great statesman who cared about the office and I think grew while in it.
Andy G. said:
After reading bios on both Truman & Eisenhower, I would love to see a great author like McCullough do an in-depth comparison of the two. Both have generally been considered successful presidents and both come from Midwestern roots. But I think their differences in their early years, professional careers, personalities, and ultimately their perspectives while president would make for a fascinating book. I’m curious if there is a book out there along those lines.
Carl Zaisser said:
Does it cover the conflict, at all honestly, that Truman and his Zionist supporting White House staffers had with the likes of Secretary of Defense James Forestall and Secretary of State Marshall…who were opposed to Truman’s enabling the passage of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181…the partition of Palestine?
Although I won’t to attempt to calibrate your phrase “at all honestly” with McCullough’s handling of the issue, he does provide significant attention (more than a dozen pages) to the issue of partitioning Palestine.
Matt Gordon said:
I’m a longtime reader of this site, and first time commenter, but I did want to say that the McCullough family announced today that David passed away yesterday, August 7, 2022. May he Rest In Peace; he was truly a national treasure.
Thanks for noting the sad news and highlighting his contribution to the genre of presidential biography and American culture more broadly. His biographies of TR and Harry Truman are wonderful but his biography of John Adams is the treasure that lured me into this literary niche in the first place. For that alone, I owe him enormously. He will certainly be missed!