On Political Books

November/ December 2012 Up from Independence

Harry Truman was a classic American striver, and a failure, until politics intervened.

By Alonzo Hamby

This is a short book about a great life. It displays the strengths and weaknesses of a genre that has two markets—the college classroom and busy adults in search of a quick read. Such works typically attempt to synthesize a large body of literature and rarely have a significant primary research base. Donald does not seem to have set foot in the Truman presidential library, but does acknowledge the assistance of a researcher who worked for her there.

Unfortunately, she leaves the impression that she is the first person to make much use of Truman’s “Pickwick papers,” a series of often angry musings about his political career and associates produced on the letterhead stationery of Kansas City’s Pickwick Hotel in the early 1930s. In fact, they have been available to scholars for at least twenty years, and Donald makes intelligent, but not original, use of them.

Small books about great lives necessarily have to be selective and need to conflate events. Errors can result. There are some in this book; none are critical. The author’s arguments can be questioned, but none are outlandish. If at times she provokes thought, so much the better.

Alonzo Hamby is a professor of history at Ohio University. The author of Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman and For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s, he is at work on a full life biography of FDR.


  • cwolf on December 15, 2012 11:55 AM:

    Truman ought to be posthumously declared a Genocidal War Criminal for unnecessarily nuking Japan.