American history, biographies, book reviews, FDR, Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns, presidential biographies, Presidents
Geoffrey Ward’s “A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt” was published in 1989, four years after the publication of its predecessor volume “Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt.” Ward is a historian, author, screenwriter and frequent collaborator with Ken Burns who recently directed Ward’s PBS documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”
This 799 page sequel covers Roosevelt’s life from his marriage in 1905 (where “Before the Trumpet” concludes) to his election as governor of New York in 1928. Given this span of his life, there is understandably more emphasis on Roosevelt’s character and personal relationships and less focus on his political philosophy. But where FDR was often peripheral (or entirely absent) from large swaths of this book’s prequel, he is undeniably the center of attention here.
“A First-Class Temperament” is exquisitely written and provides a richness of detail rarely found in biographies; to suggest the book was the result of exhaustive research almost seems an understatement. And in this volume Ward continues his habit of providing copious – and uniquely insightful – footnotes which routinely take up much of the page but provide more than their share of wisdom.
Ward is neither a clamorous critic nor a fawning disciple of FDR; his book describes a self-centered and often deviously ambitious man blessed with unflinching optimism and energy. FDR is at once charismatic, energetic and self-assured while also selfish, immature and slightly duplicitous. Not a biographer to leave delicate topics aside, Ward provides significant transparency into nearly every aspect of FDR’s life.
Critical to any first-rate biography are compelling portraits of the most important figures in a subject’s life. FDR’s mother (Sara), his wife (Eleanor), his “boss” at the Department of the Navy (Josephus Daniels) and his long-time adviser (Louis Howe) emerge from these pages as vibrant characters who shaped – and were shaped by – the future president. But the most outstanding feature of this biography is its lengthy but powerful discussion of FDR’s battle with polio and his protracted rehabilitation at Warm Springs.
But as compelling as this book (and series) proves to be it is certainly not perfect. Ward’s narrative carries the flawed hero to the cusp of national renown and then just…ends. With no third volume published (or apparently ever contemplated) this is a carefully crafted historical journey which lacks any real denouement.
In addition, this book is quite lengthy which could intimidate some readers. A judicious editor could trim the text by one-third without losing any of the book’s magic. And while the pace usually feels brisk, the narrative is occasionally so detailed that the audience risks losing the essence of a moment or particular event while absorbing nuances which are comparatively inconsequential.
Overall, Geoffrey Ward’s “A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt” is an excellent and uniquely penetrating examination of the maturing (but not quite presidential) FDR. It requires a modicum of patience and perseverance but offers much in return. This final volume is satisfying in nearly every way, so it is regrettable that Ward has not been convinced to write a third volume covering the last two decades of Roosevelt’s illustrious life.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars
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Jim Kane said:
Hi Steve! Don’t recall seeing this one on FDR so thanks for the review. I will be interested in your thoughts on Goodwin’s book. Jim
Alec Rogers said:
Glad you enjoyed the Ward volumes. If only he had written about the New Deal and WWII, I think you’d have your definitive multivolume choice. I guess he figured others adequately chronicled this period though.