Book Review: Truman | David McCullough

in #books6 years ago (edited)

After ten years of work, in 1992 David McCullough finished writing - and Simon & Schuster published - this 1117-page long biography of former President Harry S. Truman, FDR's successor, who went on to be elected in his own right in the most stunning upset of American political history until 2016.

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1117 pages a tiny spot of click-baitery, I'm afraid. In fact only 992 pages are biography - the rest are Acknowledgements, Source Notes, Index, and Photograph Credits. My copy is a hardcover missing dust jacket I picked up from a Goodwill some months ago and only just now have read in full. I began reading it in early July and only finished it very late in August after two weeks inwhich it was my sole read.

If you look for lists of best biographies, you'll find McCullough's other major biography, John Adams, on those lists. Relevant Magazine says it's " of the few biographies on anyone to cross into the realm of beautiful writing and nearly perfect prose. It is not only a well-researched, well-paced biography, it is fine literature and can be as compelling and moving as any fiction.

I haven't yet read John Adams, but recommendations for Truman, on the other hand, on these lists, appear to be far sparser.

Let this be the recommendation, then.

It is this biography that has played such a part in the reevaluation of Harry Truman as someone far more than a simple inferior riding upon the coattails of those better than him and relying upon the goodwill of political bosses. In fact, he was man of greater culture, talent, and decency than he ever let on - one of a few character flaws.

I'll add my voice to those praising David McCullough's prose, because it is fantastic, as pacy and carrying as the best prosewriters of fiction. 992 pages, spread across two months, most of it in two weeks - and it didn't feel like that long of a book, even though it surely is.

It is utterly compelling reading. Even when I wanted to put it down, I found that I could not without effort. Even as I set my bookmark within it I already was reading the next page. I look forward to reading John Adams.

It begins with some eighty-ish pages not on Truman himself but on his background, of his family, the Youngs and Trumans to come before him. Though this is important place-setting, some readers may find themselves bored by it.

After reading this book, my respect for Harry Truman rose greatly. The decisions of his successors were not at all the obvious, logical conclusions from the decisions he took, and it is a folly to ascribe their decisions backwards to his decisions.

His character, its merits and flaws, become clear, especially in those merits which became flaws - his loyalty to his friends, his "longhand spasms." But so does emerge his relentless optimism, his intelligence and culture - both of which may be surprising to those who simply thought of him as no more than "a common man from Missouri."

There are numerous moments that stand out, even in a life as interesting as Harry Truman's: his romance with Bess, his service in World War I, the Truman Committee, the political maneuvering that surrounded the '44 VP pick, and the whistlestop campaign of '48.

As biographies go, it's almost perfect. What few flaws can I name? Truman himself fades into the background a little bit when the Truman Committee comes in. The post-presidency seems slightly abbreviated. Though balanced, one does get the sense that it is slanted in Truman's direction. But these are minor, petty nitpicks against the backdrop of Truman's long life and political career.

Both Truman and his times are brought to life in beautiful detail. There are points where I could almost hear McCullough's warm tones, pulled straight out of the American Experience, narrating to me. It is detailed (it has to be, with its length of time spent on it) but never does it feel excessive or overly-long.

It's no wonder Truman became the subject of a full biography. You could've ripped him straight out of a classical epic: a nobody from the plains, growing up on a farm, a book-ish child bearing glasses, with no great educational or financial advantages to his name, who managed - by dint of luck, by his own diligence, by relentless optimism, by an ability to self-teach rooted in a curiosity in the people who shaped history - to rise from origins almost as humble as Lincoln's to become President of the United States and a man who has perhaps done more than anyone else besides FDR and Woodrow Wilson to shape not merely the U.S. but the entire world throughout the 20th century.

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Compulsively readable, endlessly fascinating, lead by McCullough's astonishing gift for prose and for carrying story and his respect for his subject, Truman is one of the best books I've read all year and it surely deserves a place as one of the best biographies ever written.


Thank you @terry93d for this good review of the book. I've never thought much about autobiographies but this certainly is one that I would consider reading, much thanks to your concluding thoughts :) You have brought us through page by page journey of the book.

Thank you for drawing our attention to this book. Your well-written review of her has piqued my interest in this biographical book. Probably I will choose free time to get acquainted with this work. Thanks @terry93d

Damn fine review, @terry93d, and super congrats on the @curie vote! This hasn't been up but a few hours, and I think this is the fastest I've ever seen a piece of content get the Curie nod. Great work. :)

Pretty fast paced and well-prosed review my friend. LOL, I had to laugh at pretty much the first line most surprising upset till 2016. That was an awesome start to a great review. I take it that I need to pick this one up. I actually usually enjoy eventful biographies, sometimes truth is stranger and more exciting than fiction.

I've been reading a lot more biographies these past few weeks than I used to. David McCullough is an amazing writer. And even beyond that I'm developing an appreciation for history with such a narrow focus. My TBR list has expanded with a bunch of biographies.

I thought that was a pretty good line myself. :-) Wasn't it Mark Twain who said something along the lines of "Fiction has one sole requirement over reality; it must be realistic." or was that Hemingway? Some cogent American, anyway.

lol, it sounds like it could be twain. He was a real interesting character. On quote of his that I love was in response to some editors trying to correct his grammar, he basically told them to keep their thoughts inside the mush of their decayed brains....

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Hi terry93d,

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Hi @terry93d! Thank you for your nice book review. Your article has been upvoted by the Literature Guild on steemvoter ( The Literature Guild is an emerging association of steeemians interested in literature, books and writing. The Guild organizes automatical Upvotes from all Guild-Members (Followers) to support quality posts about books and literature chosen by responsible curators. You are invited to join the Guild. If you are also interested to be involved as a curator, drop me a comment. Hope to see you soon joining the Guild. Kind regards Literaturkritik

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Thank for the resume, right now i hope read some books like this some day.

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