American history, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., biographies, book reviews, FDR, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize
Published in 1958, “The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (1933-1935)” is the second of three volumes in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s series on FDR. Originally projected to consist of four volumes, Schlesinger never completed the series after being appointed Special Assistant to President Kennedy in 1961. Schlesinger was a well-known historian, social critic and prominent Democrat. He died in 2007 at the age of 89.
This second volume picks up where the first ended – with FDR’s inauguration as president in 1933. The first volume painted a detailed portrait of the political, economic and social backdrop from which FDR emerged as a national leader. This volume covers the first two years of his presidency in extraordinary detail, a period Roosevelt devoted almost completely to combating the Great Depression.
For the most part this volume proceeds topically; readers who prefer a chronological progression may be occasionally distressed by the discontinuous timeline. But given the relatively brief period of time under coverage there is little reason for concern. The book is well organized and distinct chapters are allocated to topics such as farm policy, industrial revitalization and labor issues.
But like the first volume in this series, this book proves far less a biography of FDR than an examination of his era. His New Deal legislative program is dissected in remarkable detail and analyzed with a very discerning eye. But for long stretches Roosevelt rarely, or never, appears.
Nevertheless, at its best this volume is truly awesome. In spite of Schlesinger’s distinct “progressive” tendencies there is much of value to be absorbed by readers of any political persuasion. But there is so much detail on each component of the New Deal that it is easy to lose sight of the ebb-and-flow of the Depression itself – and of the efficacy of the programs designed to mitigate its impact.
Readers hoping to see the crisis through the president’s eyes or to watch him in action will be disappointed. Rather than witnessing his deft handling of the economic crisis up close, readers see Roosevelt more as the “man behind the curtain.” Chapters on the TVA and the CCC, however, were particularly interesting and Schlesinger sprinkles illuminating introductions to many of Roosevelt’s colleagues (such as William Woodin, Henry Wallace and Cordell Hull) throughout the book.
But Schlesinger saves the best for last; the final four chapters are by far the best of the book. Unlike the previous thirty-one chapters, these are almost entirely focused on Roosevelt: his approach to the office, his daily routine, his likes and dislikes, his eccentricities and many of his foibles. His personality is more fully fleshed-out and and his early actions as president make sense within the context of his finally-revealed character. These pages are long overdue but well worth the wait.
Overall, Arthur Schlesinger’s “The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (1933-1935)” is an outstanding review of FDR’s New Deal but an unsatisfactory biography of FDR. As a detailed review of the legislative accomplishments and failures of the first two years of Roosevelt’s presidency this book shines. But as an examination of the man himself, or just of his early presidency, this volume is far from ideal.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
Judalon Manes said:
Good review. Have found the “save the personal tidbits for last” approach by biographers a common approach during early to mid 20th century. He was writing for contemporaries, which makes it historically more viable, perhaps, but difficult to adapt to our generation. Thanks for your efforts, insights and onward with the goal-reaching, Steve! Judalon
My favorite biographies tend to be those written recently, but often enjoy gaining the perspectives of authors whose biographies were written much closer to the presidency itself…if for no other purpose than to understand how perspectives have shifted. (But I always appreciate getting the interesting tidbits throughout the biography rather than waiting until the end!)