In his book The Last Lion: Alone 1932-1940, the late historian and biographer William Manchester wrote about the importance of biography and history to each other: “[History and biography] are often confused, and understandably so,” Manchester wrote. “For both recount the past… There can be no enlightening life which does not include an account of the man’s times.”
As a long-time “armchair historian,” I wholeheartedly agree with Manchester’s assessment of why biography is so important to the study of history, and vice versa. Each provides context for the other. Study a person’s life and you learn about the times in which that person lived; examine a historical period, and you will discover the great people who influenced the times in which they lived.
I suspect that Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), the great 19th century journalist, publisher, philanthropist, and the founder of the Pulitzer Prizes, instinctively understood this. That’s why this Hungarian-born immigrant to the United States, who became the most powerful and influential newspaper publisher of his time, established the prizes that bear his name, and included History and Biography or Autobiography as two categories deserving of recognition. Now considered the most prestigious awards given in the United States for journalistic and literary excellence, the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded annually in 14 journalism categories and 7 categories of letters, drama, and music.
In his 1904 will, Joseph Pulitzer specified Biography or Autobiography as one of the categories he wished to honor. Criteria for the award are simple: the winner shall be “…a distinguished and appropriately documented biography or autobiography by an American author.” A winner has been declared every year since 1917, with the exception 1962. As of this writing, 89 different authors have won a Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography; four writers – Allen Nevins, Douglas Southall Freeman, Robert A. Caro, and David McCullough – have twice won a Pulitzer Prize in this category.
Here is my list of the “Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography books” of all time. I have read each one of them, and each one of them has an honored place on my bookshelves.
In descending order, may I now introduce:
10. Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P. Lash
(1972 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: W. W. Norton
Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P. Lash is an excellent study of how Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd President of the United States, and Eleanor, his wife, worked together as a highly effective political team during their twelve years in the White House. Eleanor and Franklin concentrates more on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt than it does on Franklin’s. It relies extensively on letters and other papers she wrote over the course of her life. Lash was a radical political activist and personal friend and confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt.
9. The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles A. Lindbergh
(1954 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Twenty-five tears after making his historic solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Charles A. Lindbergh wrote his memoir of the momentous event that captured the world’s imagination. The Spirit of St. Louis is a magnificent achievement! In clear and precise language, Lindbergh takes readers along on his flight, allowing them to feel the fatigue, fear, boredom, and exhilaration he felt as the traversed the Atlantic from New York to Paris. An essential book for all who enjoy a good true-life adventure story!
8. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
(2009 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Random House
Despite being one of our nation’s most important Presidents, Andrew Jackson has been the subject of very few biographies over the past 50 years. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House concentrates on Jackson’s eight years as the nation’s chief executive, and how he transformed America from a republic to the democracy we know today. Author Jon Meacham highlights Jackson’s many positive and negative achievements fairly and judiciously, and brings a fresh perspective to the life of this mercurial and still controversial President.
7. Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie
(1981 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
For those interested in Russian history, one must go all the way back to the eighteenth century to find the greatest of all Russian rulers – Peter the Great (1672-1725), the Romanov tsar that dragged Russia from her medieval ways, and planted her firmly in the eighteenth century. Peter the Great: His Life and World, Robert K. Massie’s masterful biography of Peter the Great, not only chronicles the life of this great autocrat in detail; it also provides a brilliant narrative of the times in which Peter lived. A beautifully written and thoroughly enjoyable book!
6. Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg
(1999 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Putnam Books
When Charles A. Lindbergh completed his historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, he was catapulted into instantaneous worldwide fame. In Lindbergh, author A. Scott Berg captures the essence of this reserved and often controversial man who experienced the height of fame, the indescribable pain of losing a child to murder and kidnapping, and his public vilification and ostracism for his pro-Nazi, isolationist political views. Lindbergh is a truly brilliant biography.
5. Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren
(1939 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: The Viking Press
One would think there would be a cornucopia of biographies with Benjamin Franklin as their subject; however, this is not the case. Of the few Franklin biographies available, Carl Van Doren’s Benjamin Franklin stands head and shoulders above the rest. This book, published in 1938, captures the essence of the great Founding Father – his humor, wisdom, common sense philosophy, and scientific and inventive mind. Despite its length (over 700 pages), Benjamin Franklin is a reasonably quick read, and is absolutely fascinating from beginning to end.
4. John Adams by David McCullough
(2002 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Simon and Schuster
John Adams is the second of two magnificent presidential biographies written by David McCullough. This is an exquisitely written account of the life of the 2nd President of the United States. McCullough completely captures John Adams’ irascibility, stubbornness, patriotism, and dedication to his family and country. John Adams is literate, elegant in tone, entertaining, highly informative, and an absolute pleasure to read!
3. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
(1980 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan
Theodore Roosevelt (TR) is arguably one of the greatest Presidents in America’s history, and certainly deserving of a great biography. With The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, author Edmund Morris has provided a superb chronicle of the first half of TR’s life. Here are Theodore Roosevelt’s formative years, when he transformed himself from an intellectually brilliant but physically weak youth to the robust and energetic politician he became in midlife. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a sterling example of the biographer’s art at its very best.
2. The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro
(1975 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Long before he began writing The Years of Lyndon Johnson, author Robert A. Caro had already established himself as one of the best biographers in the business. In 1974, he wrote and published The Power Broker, a fascinating and utterly scathing biography of Robert A. Moses, the “man who built New York.” Moses was an engineer and politico who operated for nearly forty years outside the democratic system in order to acquire and maintain an iron grip on power over New York City’s infrastructure. In Robert Moses, The Power Broker affirms Lord Acton’s famous adage: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
1. Truman by David McCullough
(1993 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Truman is the greatest of all presidential biographies, written by one of the best American historians and biographers of all time. Truman is a brilliant account of the life of Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, and perhaps one of our nation’s most underrated chief executives. With his trademark mellifluous and elegant prose, author David McCullough traces Truman’s long life from his obscure beginnings on a hardscrabble Missouri farm; through years of toiling at various jobs with limited success; his entry into politics through the Kansas City political machine; his selection as FDR’s running mate in 1944; and his ultimate succession to the Presidency after Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Truman is a superb achievement in every respect: scholarly and detailed without being stuffy; eloquent; and highly readable.
Read and enjoy all of these outstanding books!
The Last Lion: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987) p. xvii.
The Pulitzer Prizes – The Official Web Site
Pulitzer Prize – Wikipedia Article
“The Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for History Books of All Time” – Associated Content Article
Book Jackets of Listed Volumes
Personal Reading Experience