Warning: This post contains spoilers for Tim McGrath’s biography of President James Monroe: James Monroe: A Life
If I had to pick a genre, besides science fiction and fantasy, that I most enjoy, it would probably be biographies. I believe that there is a lot to be learned from reading biographies, and they are what I’ll sometimes call gentle non-fiction, because they usually are still telling a story, possessing a narrative arc, unlike other non-fiction that doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a plot. That being said, biographies do vary significantly in quality, and many of them focus on familiar figures. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Chernow’s biographies of famous historical figures are some of my favorite non fiction works. However, sometimes it’s interesting to read a biography of a lesser-known historical figure, like President James Monroe. He was the last of the American Founding Fathers to serve as president, yet almost nothing has survived into the common body of modern knowledge about him. Perhaps this McGrath biography will change that.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been spoiled by reading Chernow biographies, which are both fantastically detailed and very well written, but McGrath’s biography of James Monroe I can only really describe as being “okay.” It was full of interesting information, and provided some interesting insight on this lesser-known president, but from a literary perspective if was fairly bland. The writing did nothing to pull me through the story, and it was not nearly as intimate of a perspective as other biographies that I’ve read.
That being said, this is a part of American history that typically receives little attention, and it is worth taking the time to read this. Since Monroe was younger than the other Founding Fathers, he had a different perspective on the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and the other events that we mostly hear about from the perspective of older participants.