G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of
the American Century
by Beverly Gage
Viking (Penguin Random House)
Published: Nov 2022
One of 2022’s most notable new biographies is Beverly Gage’s long-awaited “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.” Gage is a professor of American history at Yale University and the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.
J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) is an intriguing biographical subject; he spent 48 years as Director of the FBI and was arguably the most powerful unelected public official in the country at the time. But any survey of his career also provides unique insight into the lives of the public figures who operated within his sphere. And during his nearly half-century at the FBI he worked with every president from Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon.
One might assume that Hoover’s life has been fully dissected by previous biographers. But a steady stream of new information has become available since the last major Hoover biography was published almost thirty years ago. And in her deeply-researched book Gage relies on recently declassified items and information uncovered through countless FOIA requests to add important texture and nuance to Hoover’s complicated portrait.
Many readers will find this biography’s 732-page narrative dense and detailed – and quite possibly intimidating. Gage embeds significant political and social context into the book, providing a deep sense of the world Hoover operated in and responded to. But it may leave some readers feeling as though too much effort is required to make headway at times.
Perseverance is well-rewarded, however, as readers are able to witness many of America’s most notable domestic moments as observed by Hoover. These include the Joseph McCarthy / Red Scare era, the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK and Bobby Kennedy, the Rosenberg spy case and Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama.
Gage covers Hoover in a surprisingly balanced manner, consistently exposing his flaws and shortcomings while attempting to offset the worst of his tendencies by identifying commendable underlying traits or, occasionally, providing contextual justifications. But while she does not consider herself an admirer of Hoover, in the end she seems to view him more as a well-intentioned fallen angel than as a thin-skinned, racist, power-hungry rapscallion.
One of the best aspects of this biography is the insight it provides into Hoover’s personality. This is often accomplished by exposing the give-and-take of his relationships with his friends – such as Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson – as well as his foes, including Harry Truman, JFK and Bobby Kennedy.
But the most valuable feature of this book may be the perspective it provides into the accumulation and use of power by one of America’s most consequential civil servants over the course of an unprecedented half-century-long career. As such, this is essentially the book that Robert Caro might have written had he decided to tackle J. Edgar Hoover rather than Lyndon Johnson or Robert Moses.
But as interesting as Hoover’s life proves to be, this biography will be a heavy lift for readers seeking the high points and “lessons-learned” without the weighty and occasionally tedious detail. And for all the book’s serious intensity and judicious assessments, the narrative lacks the colorful, effortless eloquence of the most mellifluous biographies.
Overall, though, Beverly Gage’s “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” is a deep, thoughtful and often persuasive exploration of Hoover’s life and penchant for power. While unsuitable for readers seeking an airy, effortless adventure, this biography offers a thorough and balanced look at the complex life of one of America’s most infamous power brokers.
Overall rating: 4½ stars
N.B.: Among the notable previous biographies of J. Edgar Hoover are Anthony Summers’s relatively brief (and seemingly tabloid-esque) “Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover,” Curt Gentry’s weightier “J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets” and Richard Gid Powers’s classic “Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover.”
Christopher Saunders said:
Good review, as usual. As indicated on my Goodreads review I thought Gage might have been a bit too generous towards Hoover’s “dark side” at times – there was a weird passage describing informant Gary Thomas Rowe’s presence at (and possible involvement in) Viola Liuzzo’s murder as a “success for the FBI” which feels like a massively generous framing, to say the least! On the whole though it’s nice to see a biographer who has no obvious axe to grind – I like the old Curt Gentry book but that author definitely tries to make Hoover into the Grand Villain of 20th Century America. Gage pointing out that Hoover had no need to blackmail politicians into doing his bidding is an argument well-worth presenting – every president has skeletons in their closet or wants dirt exposed on their enemies and most were happy to use the FBI when it suited them. A solid book and I too would strongly recommend it.
Your Goodreads review reminds me why reading four or five biographies on one person is so incredibly valuable. I really appreciate the comparative insights you were able to offer which is simply beyond my grasp since I’ve just read this one single biography of JEH…
A good review as always, Steve. Your reviews are as well balanced as the best of the books themselves. I wish I could keep up. (I’m dying to read Andrew Robert’s Napoleon for instance, and it’s been 8 years of me waiting for that deep dive that a thousand-page biography deserves. I’d love to read the J. Edgar book though, since I finally saw the Hoover movie with DiCaprio (and suspect that the movie was perhaps kinder than Hoover deserved). Thoughts on the film?
It seems fitting that I have to confess I haven’t had time to see the film 🙂 And that Robert’s biography of Napoleon is sitting directly across from me on a shelf with about a dozen books “I’ve really need to read next…”