History is not my strong-suit. Like the stereotypical “STEM” student, I opted
out of the humanities whenever possible and doubled down on math. I’ve been
trying to balance that out in recent years, though. Thanks to works like All
the Sha’s Men and Stamped from the Beginning, I’ve come to recognize Harry
S. Truman as a real class act. I’ve wanted to understand him on his own terms,
though, especially when it comes to the use of the atomic bomb–a decision
which I considered to be the most difficult ever made by a US President .
That’s how this computer programmer found himself browsing
Goodreads for a biography on Truman. As for why I
chose a 1,000 page tome, well, that’s a mix of perfectionism and ambition.
Truman is the biography on the 33rd President, evidenced by its critical
acclaim and its receipt of the Pulitzer Prize. Still, I was intimidated.
Imagine: a thousand pages with nary a flow diagram or space ship to speak of!
In fact, I was enthralled by the entire thing. Here’s why.
It’s extraordinarily well-researched, for starters. From the enlisted men in
Truman’s battery during World War I , to the nurse who delivered his
daughter , it feels like McCullough gives a voice to everyone who crossed
the man’s path. It helps that throughout Truman’s life, he was prolific and
sincere in correspondence with his family and in his personal journal.
(McCullough wisely notes that this remained true, “even after it was clear that
he was to be a figure in history.“) Naturally, Truman was surrounded by
influential people while in office, affording McCullough the luxury of two
(sometimes even three ) perspectives on many exchanges. That’s not to say
McCullough had his job done for him; he labors to explain subtext–sometimes
literal subtext . He even includes meta-analysis, explaining how other
scholars have misinterpreted Truman (and not always in his defense).
Beyond that, McCullough is an excellent storyteller. His occasional use of
foreshadowing demonstrates his deeper appreciation for irony. He shows us
how Truman the farmer had “a sneakin’ notion that some day maybe I’d amount to
something.” And how Truman the soldier dreamed, “Maybe have a little politics
and some nice little dinner parties occasionally just for good measure.” And
how Truman the failed businessman tried politics despite his shortcomings
because, “I’ve got it eat.” These details give a cinematic quality to the man’s
life. In that sense, McCullough serves more like an editor than a director,
sometimes forging strict chronology in favor of emotional impact . Though
he really doesn’t have to work so hard to tug at your heartstrings .
When the situation calls for it, he can also drop in to a more dramatic
narrative style, as when Truman learned of FDR’s passing , or when he
narrowly avoided assassination .
You might be crying “foul” at this point in the review. What I’ve called,
“dramatic narrative style,” could easily be taken as dramatization or even
sensationalism. These more thriller-like sequences are rare and (to my mind)
justified, but then again, I might not be the best judge. I found myself
getting caught up in the more idyllic scenes. For instance, McCullough almost
channels Bradbury in his depiction of Independence . It’s harmless enough
for a biographer to have warm feelings for Midwestern life, but it makes you
wonder about the tint of his glasses. And that’s crucial when it comes to the
subjects that matter.
McCullough’s respect for Truman sometimes borders on adoration, as in the
inclusion of seemingly-irrelevant praise or exaggerated depictions of
adroitness . And while he doesn’t hide Truman’s faults, he kind of gives
Truman a pass on a couple inconsistencies: his cronyism versus his hatred of
graft and his racism versus his work on civil rights. Even Harry’s temper,
while documented, isn’t really called out as such.
Them’s fightin’ words, I know. Besides mendacity, bias is probably the most
serious complaint you can bring against a historian. I don’t want to oversell
this criticism. These are small grievances relative to the size of the work.
Besides, as a self-described history class delinquent, my bullshit detector is
suspect. The folks at Columbia University certainly have a better one; they
don’t hand out the Pulitzer to just anybody. So while my appreciation for the
book was tempered by a desire to get a second historian’s perspective, that’s
only natural for any work that strives to explain the world beyond objective
fact. And there’s no way I would have made it through even 100 pages of a book