“The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order (1919-1933)” is the first in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s three-volume series about FDR. Schlesinger won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for “The Age of Jackson” and another in 1966 for his book “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.” Schlesinger was a well-known historian, social critic and prominent Democrat and served as Special Assistant to President Kennedy. He died in 2007 at the age of 89.
Like its literary doppelgänger (“The Age of Jackson”), this first volume in Schlesinger’s series on FDR is far less a biography of its subject than a review of the political, social and cultural currents of his times. The first two-thirds of the book is essentially a political science treatise examining American society during the Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover presidencies.
Not until more than 300 pages have elapsed does the text begin to focus on Roosevelt. And even this first chapter dedicated to FDR himself is brisk, sweeping the reader through the first three decades of his life. Missed (or nearly so) are countless moments in his early life which are instructive to understanding the politician (and spouse, and father) he was to become. The basics of his youth and early political career are covered, but rarely with much depth.
Better- and more thoroughly-described are Roosevelt’s years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration, his fight with polio at the age of 40 and his service as governor of New York. During these years, the book’s pace is slower and more deliberate. And during these pages Schlesinger does an often excellent job introducing interesting ancillary characters such as John Nance Garner (FDR’s future running-mate).
As the volume closes, President-elect Roosevelt has arrived in Washington D.C. and is preparing for his inauguration. Readers not paying close attention will miss the brief discussion of his nomination, but even careful readers will miss most of the drama of the Chicago convention (which is simply never reviewed).
Schlesinger’s book is consistently excellent at what it does cover. But it leaves so much aside that someone new to FDR will fail to obtain a picture of the whole man. And readers familiar with him will wonder what was gained by taking this seemingly supersonic journey through his pre-presidency. Very few details of his personal life are shared, almost no mention is made of his family and the only insights the reader absorbs are those provided by the author (there are not enough anecdotes, stories and context to deduce much else).
Clearly intended more as a political history of his times and not as a personal history of the man himself, “The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order” is disappointing as an introduction to FDR. Readers seeking an academic discourse on the political philosophies of the early 20th century, or to understand the context into which FDR assumed the presidency, will find a happy home here. But those hoping to re-live the personal and political journey which swept Franklin Roosevelt into the White House will be sorely disappointed.
Overall rating: 3 stars