Until the Last Trumpet Sounds: The Life of General of the ArmiesJohn J. Pershing, by Gene Smith, John Wiley & Sons, $30.
This book, the subject of an unfavorable review in The New York Times, is worth having, but for unusual reasons. Telling the life of “Black Jack” Pershing is like peeling an onion: There are countless layers the biographer has to strip away, and there is no certainty of reaching the core. Biographer Gene Smith managed to reach beyond the well-known qualities of John J. Pershing that comprise so many of this American military legend’s biographies. However, one is still left with a sense that something is missing.
The problem with Pershing biographies is that the biographers seem to lose objectivity. This reviewer was among a group of West Point military history instructors more than a quarter century ago when Professor Frank E. Vandiver discussed his work on a two-volume portrait of Black Jack. Vandiver began by saying, “The chief failing of biographers is that they fall in love with their subjects–now, let me tell you about the greatest man since Jesus Christ.” Vandiver, the head of Rice University’s history department, proceeded to describe a general without faults and a man without peers. Fifteen years later, Donald Smythe finished his two-volume Pershing biography with an equally laudatory treatment. Gene Smith’s book is not much different.
Smythe’s glowing treatment of Pershing stems from accounts left by the general’s close associates and subordinates. Virtually none of these gentlemen had anything negative to say about the man. His biographers, with scant evidence to the contrary, have been left with little choice but to accept this charitable view: Pershing “the Superb.”
Smith has taken a somewhat different course to arrive at similar conclusions. He has concentrated on the general’s relationship with his immediate and extended family, not his professional inner circle, to draw the portrait. Alas, there is not much new here, only reinforcement of what has been previously described. Pershing, usually pictured as a cold and unfeeling martinet, was actually a passionate and loving husband, father, grandfather, uncle, brother, and companion. Throughout his long life he was a soft touch for any relative or close friend who needed help, sending away thousands of dollars to practically anyone who asked for it. This side of Pershing was best brought to life by Donald Smythe in 1986. Smith has only embellished this description of the general’s character.
However, there are two solid values in Smith’s effort. First, since Black Jack’s best biographies are multivolume, this book serves as a quick reference that captures the fundamentals of Pershing’s life. Second, Smith has tried to circumscribe his predecessor’s pitfalls by focusing on the general through the eyes of friends and relatives. As a technique, it is a good one, but John J. Pershing is–and unfortunately will likely remain–a bit mysterious. Then again, maybe he was superb.