Alonzo Hamby, American history, biographies, book reviews, David McCullough, Harry Truman, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, Robert Dallek, Robert Ferrell
Harry Truman has a reputation for being a bit boring. It’s a sentiment I find hard to refute…and yet I found several aspects of his life fascinating.
He possessed no business acumen and almost every venture he attempted failed; he had a reputation for being impeccably honest but was sponsored by a disreputable political boss; and he seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time – on the battlefield and in politics.
You can call me crazy, but in many ways Harry Truman reminds me of a mid-western Calvin Coolidge. The similarities in their lives and personalities are incredibly striking. (But, alas, only Truman was faced with the decision about whether to drop an atomic bomb…)
At the end of his presidency, Truman’s reputation was the poorest of any modern-day president. And yet during the last several decades his legacy has been completely reassessed and Truman is now widely ranked among the top ten presidents in our nation’s history! (I’m sympathetic with the re-evaluation but not sure I would go that far.)
During the past seven weeks I read four biographies of Truman totaling a little more than two thousand pages.
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* “Truman” by David McCullough – This 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic is easily the best-read Truman biography and was reportedly a major catalyst for the 33rd president’s enhanced reputation. As one would expect from McCullough, the narrative is gripping and Truman’s personality comes alive brilliantly. And as the the longest of the Truman biographies (at nearly 1,000 pages) there is little about Truman which does not find a home here. But even ardent fans of this book will admit that McCullough is occasionally too fond of his subject and there could be more hard-hitting analysis. (Full review here)
* “Harry S. Truman: A Life” by Robert Ferrell – this book was published two years after McCullough’s iconic biography and in many ways the two couldn’t be more different. Where McCullough’s is colorful and unfailingly friendly toward its subject, Ferrell’s is carefully dispassionate and analytical. McCullough’s book is enormously engaging while Ferrell’s is wonderfully educational. And while Robert Ferrell’s writing style is not as dynamic as that of history’s greatest storytellers, it is thoughtful, penetrating and deeply enlightening. (Full review here)
* “Harry S. Truman” by Robert Dallek – this 2008 member of the American Presidents Series is by far the shortest of the four Truman biographies I read (with just 153 pages). Biographies in this series are often excellent at what they cover, but are usually forced to leave a great deal of material on the cutting-room floor. This book is no exception. Dallek provides a wonderful synopsis of Truman’s life and a time-starved reader will walk away notably enlightened. But anyone who wants to walk in Truman’s shoes and see the world from his perspective will have to look elsewhere. (Full review here)
* “Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman” by Alonzo Hamby – this 1995 classic was the last of four Truman biographies I read. Written by a noted Truman expert, this biography was scholarly and detached, but extremely analytical and insightful. In many ways it reminded me of Robert Ferrell’s biography…but with even more detail and heft. And Hamby provided what was the best review of Truman’s legacy – something I always appreciate in a presidential biography! (Full review here)
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[Added May 2021]
* I recently read A.J. Baime’s 2017 “The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World.” As its sub-title suggests, this is not a comprehensive biography of Truman. But neither is it exclusively focused on the first four months of his presidency. And although it begins with a bang (a claim that Truman’s first four months were the most challenging and active of any four-month period in American history) the thesis goes inexplicably untested and unproven. Readers new to Truman may find it intriguing, but for most everyone else this will seem a book without a purpose. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Truman: “Truman” by David McCullough
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Several readers have requested I share my thoughts on which supporting characters are interesting enough to warrant a biographical detour. In Truman’s case there are several people who seem particularly compelling:
– George Marshall (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, 5-Star General)
– Douglas MacArthur (5-Star General)
– Dean Acheson (Secretary of State)
– Joseph McCarthy (U.S. Senator, ardent anti-Communist)
Amy C. Nickless said:
I know you often plan to go back and ready other books and I have a suggestion. While not a biography of Truman nor academic in nature, if you would like a fun read about Harry and Bess Truman try “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip.” Here’s a link to the book’s Goodreads page so you can take a look at the summary: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6304778-harry-truman-s-excellent-adventure.
Thanks for the suggestion! Someone mentioned this to me once and I have to admit that it looks absolutely fascinating. Definitely going on my “for fun” follow-up list. And although not a perfect comparison, it reminds me a little of “The River of Doubt” about one of Teddy Roosevelt’s post-presidential adventures.
I have enjoyed perusing your website. I have only read a few presidential biographies but wish to read more, and your site is fantastic for that purpose. Thanks for providing this service! I have a question for you, which perhaps you have answered in a blog post I am not aware of. Having read so many presidential biographies, who is your favorite president? This of course is a different question than what your favorite biography is.
That’s a question I get often, and the answer really depends on what exactly you mean by favorite. I think the most *interesting* have been Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson and possibly John Quincy Adams. The most consequential for me seem to be Washington, Lincoln and FDR. Those who I enjoyed far more than I expected (so get the “beat expectations by the most” award) probably includes James Garfield, James Polk and Martin Van Buren (though his bios don’t live up to his story). And, yes, my favorite biographies in some cases cover different presidents entirely (i.e. two of my favorites are on John Adams, one on Ulysses S. Grant, etc.)
Steve, thanks for that clarification. I would guess that your readers would enjoy a post that details what you just told me with perhaps a link to it on the page called “The Best Presidential Biographies.” I just read “Destiny of the Republic” and suddenly found myself with a new favorite president in James Garfield.
Hi Steve – Suggestion for your follow-up tour when you swing back around to Truman: Merle Miller’s “Plain Speaking”. Truman is older when he is interviewed, and thus you must take some of the things that he said with that in mind (especially concerning his poor relationship with Eisenhower), but I still found it valuable as far as understanding his thinking.
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Trump=TR? My god man TR would roll over in his grave!
The future biographers will have a hard time with Trump, as his pres will be one of the most secretive as regards to primarary source material. And good luck sorting out the conflicting statements.
The best term I can come up with with respect to our president-elect is one I learned as a chemistry long ago: “free radical.” But it would be more fair to say that he defies conventional description, and comparison to any past POTUS will be imperfect and imprecise. It should be an interesting/unusual few years if nothing else.
“But even ardent fans of this book will admit that McCullough is occasionally too fond of his subject and there could be more hard-hitting analysis.” I found that a flaw of his biography of Adams as well. He seems to fall in love with his subjects, which I admit, is probably just human nature. Still loved the book, though.
I haven’t come across too many presidential bios where the authored felt just the opposite (Paul Finkelman’s bio of Fillmore is the first I can clearly recall where I was surprised the author even bothered to write the book since he held his subject in such low esteem) but I generally don’t mind when the author seems a bit too enamored with his/her subject – as long as I feel like I’m still seeing the complete portrait of the person. McCullough does have a tendency to seem a bit partial to many of his subjects but I really enjoy his writing style.
James Grooms said:
See Robert Donovan’s two-volumes on the Truman presidency. At nearly 1000 pages there is a lot more detail and less hagiography than in McCullough, and I say this as a huge HST fan. A good example is on Vietnam. DM has three index entries, whereas Donovan has a chapter on the circumstances leading to the initial U.S. involvement.
A question. What was the worst transition between administrations in your study? Truman to Eisenhower was terrible. Has there been long running public acrimony comparable with Obama and Trump?
I’d vote for Hoover into FDR. (Eric Rauchway’s WINTER WAR covers it very nicely.)
Roger Chambers said:
I have been following your site over a year, and now semi-retired finally have more time to catch up on some good biographies. I just completed Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. Though largely self educated, especially in history, well versed with Greek and Latin thinkers, and Plutach’s Lives, he was quite forthright, outspoken but honest, a breath of fresh air compared to today’s environment.
I presume that another book I have and will likely read next, Conflict and Crisis by Robert J. Donovan, 1977, is on his years in office 1945-1948, and I presume more of a history of the administration rather than a true biography, perhaps similar to the many books by Bob Woodward on presidents from Nixon to Trump. Instead of reading just one book on a President, I prefer to read two or three in closer sequence getting a more complete view.
Truman’s various comments on the “weak presidents” from Harrison to Buchanan was quite interesting, as were his many comments on Grant, Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and he apparently had tremendous common sense insight of the realities and possibilities of a president who was willing to ACT vs many who were not actively in charge. This will lead to reading more on some of those less familiar Presidents.
Adam M Forbes said:
Accidental President by AJ Baime was a great read on Truman. It is actually the book that got me started on my journey through the presidents. I found his life and rise to be fascinating and at a manageable 450 pages, easily consumed.
Thanks, and you’re far from the only person who has let me know how much they enjoyed this book! The only thing giving me pause (other than an already long list of follow-up biographies to get to) is the fact it is primarily focused on a relatively small portion of his life. Having said that, I’ve got to find time to read this one…
Adam M Forbes said:
True, it was relatively narrow in scope but really well written. You do get a sense of his personal life and it is a decent “skim” through Truman’s life.