“FDR” is Jean Edward Smith’s 2007 biography of the thirty-second U.S. president and is the 2008 recipient of the Francis Parkman Prize. Smith taught political science at the University of Toronto for 35 years and at Marshall University for 12 years. His next biography “Bush” will be released July 2016.
“FDR” is among the most widely read and beloved of biographies and for good reason. It is meticulously researched, exceedingly well-footnoted, admiring but balanced, and surprisingly facile for a book containing 636 pages of text.
The biography begins with an articulate, engaging preface and rarely disappoints during its twenty-six chapters. Smith clearly admires FDR but proves nearly as quick to criticize Roosevelt as to praise him; the strengths and weaknesses of this complicated man are on full display.
Early chapters provide interesting background into FDR’s ancestry and a brisk but competent walk through the first two decades of his life. The pace slows and the focus sharpens as Roosevelt begins his political life in the New York State Senate. From this point Smith furnishes greater-than-average detail but the reader is left with the distinct impression this book could have put an additional 100 pages to excellent use.
The author offers excellent insight into the women who strongly influenced FDR’s life (including his mother, his wife and his mistress) and provides the reader a sharper account of Herbert Hoover’s “Bonus Army” problem than even Hoover’s own biographers. Smith’s description of the enormous toll of the Great Depression and his coverage of the Japanese preparation for the attack on Pearl Harbor leave a vivid and indelible impression on the reader.
For all that is conveyed of Roosevelt and his colleagues, however, comparatively less is disclosed about his six children or his family life (to the extent it even existed). About two-thirds into the book the reader is treated to a robust review of their personalities and whereabouts but, more often than not, the author (like FDR) is focused elsewhere.
Smith’s writing style is clear, sober and often captivating. But this is not a highly animated, dramatic narrative in the style exhibited by some biographers. Facts consistently take precedence over scene-setting and readers predisposed to colorful or carefree prose may find this biography occasionally dry.
Early in the book the author alludes to the mystery of FDR’s evolution from Hudson River aristocrat to champion of the common man. Unfortunately, this dramatic but improbable transformation is never fully explored. And after carefully documenting the tragedy of FDR’s personal life and the majesty of his political life the book ends just three paragraphs after his death with no conclusion or sweeping review of his legacy.
Overall, Jean Edward Smith’s “FDR” is a thorough, engaging and penetrating exploration of the life of this renowned US president. More an intellectual than an emotional biography, this book is well-balanced in tone, thoughtful in content and makes excellent use of every page. Readers seeking a comprehensive but not exhaustive review of FDR’s life will find this biography an excellent choice.
Overall rating: 4½ stars