Truman: A Biography by David McCullough

Harry S. Truman (photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Harry S. Truman (photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I recently started reading David McCullough’s biography of President Harry S. Truman. I chose it because  I am interested in learning more about Truman and because McCullough is a very engaging writer. However, at over 1000 pages, the book is rather daunting.I thought it might motivate me to read all of it if I posted on it periodically, rather than waiting until the end.  Right now, I have read about 200 pages.

What has struck me most so far is astonishment that Truman ever became president of the United States.  I do not mean this in a derogatory way to Truman.  I simply mean that he grew up in such ordinary circumstances, far from money, power, or any other kind of privilege.  He was born in 1884 in Missouri, and grew up on a farm near Independence, Missouri.  He had a happy childhood, but it was far from pampered. He worked hard on the farm and also was quite a book worm, with a particular love of history.

He did not go to college because his family could not afford to send him.  Instead, he did a variety of jobs, including farming and working in a bank. Although he worked hard all everything he undertook, he was not particularly successful at anything.  He entered World War I even though he did not have to; he was over 30, with bad eyesight and he was the sole support of his mother and sister.  It was during the war that he realized he had a gift for leadership and he thirsted for more opportunities to exercise it.

If McCullough is to be believed, Truman was squeaky clean morally, with sterling integrity.  He genuinely liked people and got along with most of them.  According to Truman, the only woman he was ever romantically interested in was Bess, who eventually became his wife–only after he returned from WWI and was in his thirties..

It was not until Truman was well into his forties that he became involved in politics.  Even that was as a judge (an administrative positive) at the county level.  Then, when he was around 50, he ran for and was elected as a  Democratic senator on the national level.  The irony of his election is that despite his squeaky clean personal reputation, he was elected because of the famous Kansas Pendergrast “machine,” which had mob connections.  He came to Washington, then, under a cloud of suspicion because “he was sent to Washington by gangsters.”

That’s as far as I have read up to this point.  McCullough is a wonderfully engaging writer, so that the book reads almost like a novel, not at all dry.

Stay tuned for more updates!

David McCullough (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
David McCullough (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

9 thoughts on “Truman: A Biography by David McCullough”

  1. Debra, a great historian and writer has focused on one of our best Presidents, who was vastly under appreciated until later. There was a HBO movie with Gary Sinise doing an excellent job of playing him. Thanks, BTG

  2. I’m a big McCullough fan and that book made me a big fan of Truman’s too! Presidential biographies are one of my favorite genres to read.

    1. I agree, Jackie. I try to read at least one presidential biography a year. So far, at least, I really admire Truman for his integrity.

  3. I think David McCullough is one of the great writers on history. I have read John Adams and 1776 and highly recommend both. I read Truman as well. I really came to admire Truman so much after reading this book. I will not add any info to what you have posted about him because I do not want to spoil it for you.

    1. I agree with you about McCullough. I also read “John Adams” as well as his biography of the early years of Teddy Roosevelt. They are wonderful!

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