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A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (edition 2006)

by Michael Kazin

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193761,059 (3.95)7
Member:Schmerguls
Title:A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
Authors:Michael Kazin
Info:Knopf (2006), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 374 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:political biography, Nebraska, Democrats, Bryan

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A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin

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Thisis an excellent, fresh, perceptive biography of a n iconic political giant. I had read Koenig's biography on June 15, 1980, and Coletta's three volume biography in the summer of 2006, and yet I found this book covered the tremendous events which marked Bryan's tumultuous career full of high interest, with never any dull parts. The author rightly points out that Bryan's leadership of the Democrats, while nevver successful, played a pivotal role in making that party the vehicle which did so much to modernize America and lead to the triumphs of progressive politics in Wilson's time and FDR's. While Bryan is shown not to be a deep thinker he had many right tendencies and so often he was right. For instance, hindsight puts his view of our participation in World War One in a favorable light. This is a really great study and I enthusiastically give the book five stars. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jan 17, 2013 |
Biography is a merciless unmasker. Leon Edel, Henry James’s biographer, slightly altered one of the master’s phrases to declare that the biographer uncovers the “figure under the carpet.” In the Edelian biography, the biographer ferrets out the facts of private life that the subject has carefully concealed and reveals the unconscious motivations—or at least unspoken—impulses that Freud has taught him to look for.
​Hamlet may not have know about seems, madam, but biography is all about the difference between appearance and reality. At least since the 1920s, the world has been a stage in which the players strut and fret but also repress and inhibit themselves. Eugene O’Neill adopted masks for “The Great God Brown” and “Strange Interlude” in order to emphasize the divided self, the inner and outer, that society, he believed, had to reckon with.
​But this Freudian fuss about the divided self is not applicable to one and all and, in fact, ought to be burlesqued—as Groucho Marx does in “Coconuts”: “Pardon me,” he announces, “while I have a strange interlude.” Indeed, the way Groucho always mugs for the camera with his painted-on mustache reminds us that no matter what character he is playing he is always Groucho.
​And so it was with William Jennings Bryan a.k.a. “The Great Commoner,” the standard bearer of the working class, three-times the Democratic Party nominee (1896, 1900, 1908, the scourge of corporations, the nemesis of Wall Street, and in popular lore, the fundamentalist whom Clarence Darrow humiliated in the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.
​Any biographer looking to detect contradictions in character, discrepancies between his private and public behavior, or scandal of any kind, will be sorely disappointed. Bryan made lots of money but never invested in the stock market; a charismatic politician and preacher, he turned away adoring women and not only remained faithful to his wife but was downright uxorious. He loved to lecture about Jesus Christ, and there was a good deal about Bryan that was Christ-like. One of the best features of Michael Kazin’s biography is his quotations from people who wrote to Bryan—not only the poor and downtrodden but wealthy businessmen and people of all classes who saw him as a kind of savior.
​Bryan was not a fundamentalist in the contemporary sense of the term, Mr. Kazin demonstrates. Unlike the Christian right, he did not side with the Republican Party. And though he opposed evolution and believed communities had the right to ban its teaching in schools, he was not a literalist; that is, if the earth was created in six days, those days, he suggested when Darrow cross-examined him, would be eons in our terms. Bryan correctly saw that Darwinism could be interpreted as a noxious in its social consequences, with “survival of the fittest” interpreted to mean that society had no obligation to help the weak. He was also disturbed by idea of eugenics which many believers in evolution adopted because, again, under the guise of developing a more healthy species, the disadvantaged would be marked for elimination.
​So the caricature of Bryan the religious zealous and naïve Democrat is destroyed in this learned and gracefully written biography even as Bryan the man and the orator takes on a stature that makes him a precusor of the New Deal (many of Bryan’s colleagues and followers gravitated to Roosevelt after their leader died).
​But what intrigues me even more is what Mr. Kazin’s book does for the genre of biography. It is often charged that biography is reductive, that it restricts our sense of history by according to much attention to individuals. But just the opposite can be true, especially when Mr. Kazin applies his understanding to what historians such as Richard Hoftstadter have said about populist and progressive movements in the early 20th century. In Bryan, the biographer finds a figure who had an appeal that cut across supposedly divided voting blocs: the populists (working class), the progressives (middle class). Indeed, a lot of TR’s rhetoric, Bryan himself pointed out, was pure Bryanism even though TR despised Bryan.
​Why was Bryan so popular, even though he failed three times to capture the presidency? He was a great speaker, to be sure—even being able to make the transition from addressing large crowds without the aid of microphones to, in his last years, triumphing in the medium of radio. He could make a political position seem like a sacred principle, so that his belief that the country should go off the gold standard and increase the money supply by minting silver coins became the equivalent of Christ throwing the money changers (the Republicans) out of the temple: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” This speech, given to the 1896 Democratic convention, was punctuated by Bryan’s stepping back from the podium, pulling his hands away from his brow, and extending them straight out from his body, holding the Christlike pose for perhaps five seconds, Mr. Kazin reports.
Bryan spoke to the “heart of America,” his wife Mary said. “But that answer is too sentimental,” Mr. Kazin objects:
It fails to grasp the historical context for Bryan’s popularity and neglects the fact that he often challenged his audiences with political talks—from recitals of the Cross of Gold speech to long critiques of World War I and arguments for prohibition and woman suffrage. Neither does it explain what he meant to these Americans—in small cities as well as crossroads villages—that other well known speakers on moral topics did not.
What is that historical context that Mr. Kazin finds so important? Bryan came of age before the advent of modernism, before the likes of John Reed and the bohemian left ridiculed him as an old fogey, before the disjunction between a Christian left and secular reformers became so wide that many of the commoners Bryan called on in building the Democratic Party have deserted it, understanding that their faith has been deemed a subject of ridicule.
​Bryan had his blind spots. For him, African Americans hardly existed. Even after it was no longer politically expedient to side with Southerners who formed a large part of his core constituency, Bryan seemed incapable of seeing the injustice of segregation.
Mr. Kazin thinks Bryan was right to oppose America’s entry into World War I because it led to Communism, fascism, and much else that was evil. But would not entering have been sensible? Would the German kaiser’s victory have been a better outcome? Mr. Kazin does not consider the question.
​Other than doing justice to Bryan, what is the warrant for this biography. I find it in Mr. Kazin’s juxtaposition between John Reed’s magazine, “The Masses,” and Bryan’s, “The Commoner. The former was irreverent and witty and the latter earnest and righteous. Even in his declining days, however, Bryan was able to “embellish his reputation among people that John Reed could never reach. “I want you to know that I am one of the thousands of young men in this country that you have helped into lofty conceptions of life and its meaning,” a Presbyterian minister in Michigan wrote to Bryan. Mr. Kazin concludes that Bryan represented the “yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives. As everyone who heard him could attest, Bryan made significant public issues sound urgent, dramatic, and clear, and he encourage citizens to challenge the motives and interests of the most powerful people in the land. That is a quality absent among our recent leaders, for all their promises to leave no man, woman, or child behind.”
​It seems to me that in such sentences Mr. Kazin is using biography not only to describe a man but also to show how history was once made.

( )
1 vote carl.rollyson | Oct 21, 2012 |
In Michael Kazin’s political biography of the great American champion of the common man at the turn of the nineteenth century, the key to the problem of William Jennings Bryan comes early in the book. This is when Kazin presents us with this quote from his subject relating to the compartmentalization Bryan and his followers had between their sentimental faith, and their comfortable secular existence: “As a rule we disbelieve all fact and theories for which we have no use.” While this might be a workable way of life for the average person (if not very wise), the reality is that Bryan as an aspiring national political leader badly needed a theory on which to base a political strategy that was more than well-intended moralism and the politics of identity, and to get him to fifty-percent-plus-one of the votes cast.

This is just part of the tragedy of man in Kazin’s view, who is most interested in Bryan as a last expression of a time when belief in revealed religion went hand in hand with progressive politics, and which is a comment on contemporary politics with its sharp divide between conventional religiosity (where identity trumps all) and today’s progressivism of personal liberation, redistribution and environmental concern. Bryan’s non-interest (to put the best spin on matters) regarding issues of racial equality makes it impossible to draw connections between him and a Martin Luther King (the closest modern comparison), and renders him a dead end from the modern progressive perspective. On the whole, one is left with the sense that Bryan’s thinking is so much of the nineteenth century that it just seems unhelpful to anachronistically drag the man and his attitudes into the current day.

One question that Kazin’s line of argument also begs is whether Bryan could be viewed as a precursor to the contemporary protest politics of the so-called Tea Party. The man had sufficient proportion and good will that this seems unfair, but Bryan would not be the first person to complete a trajectory from the progressive to the reactionary in mentality. Bryan’s inveterate conflict with corporate interests would also make him an inconvenient hero for modern conservatism.

The other question that I still have coming away from this book is Bryan’s real attitude towards Catholicism. On one hand he was an enthusiastic prohibitionist, which is usually a litmus test for nativist, anti-papist, thinking. On the other, as a Democrat, Bryan knew that his electoral success depended at least in part on the Catholic vote. Perhaps this is just another example of an unsystematic thinker ignoring a structural issue, or it might be a commentary on how Bryan and his wife sanitized the record in regards to what they truly felt. ( )
  Shrike58 | Aug 18, 2011 |
I am a huge fan of A Godly Hero. It is dense and takes a while to plow through, but provides a great overview of Bryan's life, how he evolved as a man, and how he became a household name. Kazin necessarily goes further by detailing life in the Gilded Age and how Bryan's populist politics fit into the period.

Kazin fills a gap in historical research by providing the biography of a man who ran for President multiple times, but never made it to the White House. History concentrates on the winners, but as Kazin convincingly argues, Bryan did as much as anyone else when defining a devoutly Christian populism for America that lingers in American politics today.

Kazin's book is both academic and readable. I recommend it for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of this time period and how Bryan shaped America's thinking during it. ( )
  chellinsky | Feb 2, 2010 |
Well-written, well-researched biography of one of the United States' most fascinating political figures. Kazin traces Bryan's life through his family, education and many public speaking engagements to show the development of this politician and eventual Scopes trial prosecutor. Kazin shows how Bryan's intertwining ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Jesus made him a populist figure and father of the Christian Left. ( )
  TheBookWorm | Jan 30, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375411356, Hardcover)

An illuminating and dramatic biography of William Jennings Bryan that restores him to his place of importance in American history – as a hero and leader of the Christian left.

Bryan is remembered today mostly as the fundamentalist voice in the 1925 Scopes trial. But as Michael Kazin makes clear, he was a man of exceptional accomplishment. The most popular speaker of his time, he gained a vast and passionate following among both rural and urban Americans, to whom he embodied the righteousness of a pastor and the practical vision of a reform politician. As leader of a major political party, he was able to put the fight to improve the welfare of ordinary Americans in a moral and religious frame. He preached that the nation should expand the power of the federal government and counter the overweening power of banks and industrial corporations by legalizing strikes and supporting labor unions, banning private campaign spending, giving the vote to women, instituting a progressive income tax, and prohibiting the sale of alcohol.

At the 1896 Democratic convention, he delivered the famous Cross of Gold speech and made the fight against the gold standard, believing it was the cause of the nation’s economic travails, his own Christian mission. Thereafter, the size of his following mushroomed: for the first time, millions outside the industrial north felt they had a champion with a chance to take power in Washington. Bryan became their “godly hero,” in honor of whom they named their sons and to whom they wrote fervent letters of admiration. In 1896, 1900, and 1908, the Democratic Party nominated him to be its presidential candidate, relying on the discontent of the heartland to tip the balance in his favor. But despite his immense popularity, the Republican opposition was able to defeat him each time.

Yet Bryan’s legacy in American political history is enormous. He did more than any other man to transform the Democratic Party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt. As secretary of state, Bryan helped craft the idealistic foreign policies of Woodrow Wilson before resigning in protest against the administration’s drift toward entering World War I.

This is the first major biography of Bryan in almost forty years—and the first to draw on the countless letters Bryan received from his followers as well as on his speeches and the lively journalism of his time. The result is a clarifying portrait both of a seminal figure in the history of our national politics and religion and of the richly diverse and volatile political landscape in America during the early twentieth century.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:53 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A portrait of the American orator describes his unique role as a leader of the Christian left and his seminal place in both American politics and religion in the volatile political landscape of turn-of-the-century America.

(summary from another edition)

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