MAN OF THE PEOPLE: A Life of Harry S Truman by Alonzo L Hamby, OUP pounds 25
Sunday 03 March 1996
A generation later, Truman had been transformed. By 1975, the stumbling incompetent who was a threat to his country had fallen into the vat of history and emerged a centrist hero. Communities all over the country rushed to rename streets and public buildings in his honour. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both claimed him as a political ancestor.
Rich material for a biographer. Yet Alonzo Hamby prefaces this story by describing similarities between his own background and that of America's 33rd president. They both claim Missouri ancestry by way of Kentucky stock, he says. They both grew up in unwaveringly Democratic homes in small- town America.
Hamby should have gone further. They both followed popular giants in their fields: Truman assumed the Presidency on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt with the war in Europe at an end and a vast national government in place to regulate the strong and protect the weak; Hamby produced his biography two years after David McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling Truman, celebrating the Everyman who stumbled into power.
Here the author and his subject do diverge. Truman rose to confront the issues of the first modern American Presidency: the atomic bomb, Soviet imperialism, the creation of Israel, the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, the birth of the civil rights movement. Hamby, on the other hand, descends into a ponderous academic review of the data, from who owned what portion of the family farm, to how many episodes of a television documentary series Truman produced in his last years. This "Life of Harry S Truman", as it is subtitled, certainly is exhaustive, and mostly lifeless.
Hamby reviews the record at a laboratory pace, with all the passion of the scientific method. Writing with a tin ear for the details that would have brought the times to life, he dutifully chronicles the failures of a young entrepreneur: the lead-mine operator, the gas driller, the banker, the farmer, the insurance broker, the haberdasher. He reviews the courtship with Bess letter by letter. He trudges along with Truman to France as an artillery officer in the Vosges.
The same style pervades the reporting of Truman's election campaigns. Hamby dwells on district-by-district results, the kind of details that a Missouri political operative might thrive on. He exhibits little feel for the people who cast the votes. We learn plenty about the roadworks contracts Truman handled as a young county official, less about the Marshall Plan and the battle to stop the Communists in Iran and Greece, subjects somewhat more significant in both the life of Truman and the history of the human race. Hamby is positively sterile when it comes to a Europe in ruins in 1945, or to a Hiroshima obliterated by the first atomic bomb.
Few scholarly writers venture into the field of biography these days, Hamby claims: they abandon it instead to popularisers who reduce the historical process to the interplay of great men. Oh, for a few great men in these pages, or even for a reduction of the pages.
Truman often captured American hearts and votes with one-liners that flattened the opposition, the kind of dog-bite that earned him the nickname "Give-'em-hell Harry". Campaigning for John F Kennedy in 1960, he declared: "If you vote for Nixon, you ought to go to hell." Had Hamby made better use of Truman's own words, he might have given us a richer - and briefer - biography.
educationTo mark International Women's Day, Sarah Brown on how charities have brought proper joined-up thinking to the delivery of education
Arts & Ents blogs
Jared Leto: Best Supporting Actor Oscar sparks backlash from transgender community
In Kony's shadow: Shocking photographs reveal brutality of Lord's Resistance Army
Captain Phillips actor Barkhad Abdi struggles despite Oscar nomination
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill set for new film penned by Captain Phillips screenwriter Billy Ray
First clip of Outkast's Andre 3000 in Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side emerges
Apple's Tim Cook: Business isn’t just about making profit
Thousands of young people forced to go without food after benefits wrongly stopped under 'draconian' new sanctions regime
Ukraine crisis: New navy chief 'defects' and surrenders Crimean HQ as Putin claims ultranationalists forced intervention
Ukraine crisis: Russia dismisses '3am ultimatum' as 'total nonsense'
If you're horrified by a flame-roasted dog, you should be shocked at a hog roast
Poor 'live like animals' says Boris's privately educated sister after going on 'poverty safari'
- 1 The future of sex: The first female condoms were derided, mistrusted and shunned - but will their modern counterparts catch on?
- 2 South African rhino finally put down after roaming Kruger park for days with horn hacked off and bullet in brain
- 3 Study suggests that 'gaydars' are real - at least for women
- 4 Man stabbed with Legend of Zelda Master Sword in serious condition
- 5 First clip of Outkast's Andre 3000 in Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side emerges