“Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt” is H.W. Brands’s 2008 biography of FDR and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Brands is a professor at the University of Texas and the author of more than two dozen books (including six presidential biographies). His most recent biography “Reagan: The Life” was published in 2015.
This lengthy single-volume biography of FDR is detailed, comprehensive and magisterial. It is organized into three major sections and its 824 pages leave no major aspect of Roosevelt’s life unexplored – but it focuses on the various phases of his life with different levels of intensity.
Coverage of Roosevelt’s early years and pre-presidency is solid (but not exceptional) and Brands provides more background on FDR’s retreat at Warm Springs than I’ve encountered elsewhere. His two-term gubernatorial career, however, is surprisingly under-covered. Discussion of President Roosevelt’s domestic agenda (with the New Deal as its key component) is clear, thorough and well-balanced.
One of Brands’s most conspicuous talents is his ability to not only describe the individual events in his subject’s life but also to provide robust historical context for his narrative. Important moments – particularly during FDR’s presidency – are not just described, they are explained. As a consequence, readers lacking a thorough background in Roosevelt’s era rarely feel out of touch with the landscape in which he operated.
The most successful aspect of the biography is its three-hundred page coverage of Roosevelt’s service as a wartime president. Brands’s review of these years – from his commentary relating to the events which sparked World War II through his captivating review of the Yalta Conference – is excellent. The biography ends on a strong note with an outstanding chapter reviewing Roosevelt’s legacy and his impact on American (and world) history.
But for all the detail Brands provides in this weighty tome, relatively little effort is expended covering Roosevelt’s family and “friends.” His mother, who by many accounts was doting and highly supportive of Franklin, is treated relatively harshly. Eleanor – compelling in her own right – appears only sporadically and seems to frustrate (rather than enhance) the narrative. And the roles of Lucy Mercer, Missy LeHand and FDR’s children are surprisingly under-weighted.
Readers familiar with Brands’s other biographies will recognize his writing style – it is a straightforward, fact-focused and occasionally dry style which lacks the fluidity and color of other world-class biographers. More disappointing is that Brands reports events far more diligently than he analyzes or interprets them. It is usually the reader’s responsibility to decipher events or to consider Roosevelt’s evolution as a husband, father and politician.
Overall, H.W. Brands’s “Traitor to His Class” is a detailed, comprehensive and meritorious single-volume biography of a compelling and highly-regarded president. While providing little new insight into an already exhaustively-reviewed subject, this biography provides readers with a solid introduction to FDR’s life with a particular strength in its coverage of his political career.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars