Alonza Hamby’s “Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century” was published in 2015 and is one of only two comprehensive, single-volume biographies of FDR published recently. Hamby is a historian, author and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Ohio University. He is the author of a biography of Harry S. Truman I read and reviewed in 2016.
While acknowledging there is no shortage of FDR biographies, Hamby felt compelled to write this book given his view that most coverage of FDR is excessively friendly and insufficiently critical. His goal, therefore, was to produce an objective – and efficient – biography of FDR’s entire life. But while this book is judiciously balanced and comparatively short (with 436 pages of text), it almost entirely fails to humanize Roosevelt, offers inadequate coverage of his pre-presidency and exudes a disappointingly antiseptic style.
Franklin Roosevelt’s complicated and contradictory persona can only be unraveled through careful inspection of his early life and career. But Hamby allocates less than one-third of this compact book to FDR’s first fifty years. While no critical elements of Roosevelt’s pre-presidency are missing, the narrative’s pace does not allow the reader to observe numerous personal moments which add clarifying color and complexion to his portrait.
In addition, although Hamby is careful to acquaint the reader with important supporting characters, these introductions are often regrettably terse and too little attention is paid as their roles in FDR’s life evolve and unfold. With Huey Long and Winston Churchill as possible exceptions, no less than Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Louis Howe and Lucy Mercer appear in the narrative only when absolutely necessary.
One of the most compelling components of a great presidential biography is its review of a president-elect’s cabinet selection. Here, however, the author’s description of those weeks is surprisingly bland and reveals relatively little of FDR’s cunning political calculus. Similarly, Roosevelt’s “first hundred days” unfolds in a rather incurious and mechanical way.
Finally, “Man of Destiny” reads like a history text and not like the remarkable life story of one of the most incredible personalities of the 20th century. Given the extraordinary arc of FDR’s life and his enormous impact on history, the narrative is remarkably lifeless and matter-of-fact.
But while far from ideal, there is much to be admired in Hamby’s biography. The text is well-organized and easy to follow, it is undeniably breviloquent (single-volume biographies of Roosevelt often exceed 800 pages) and it reviews FDR’s life with a keen eye on history…if not the associated drama. This biography does not get sidetracked by rumors or innuendo and pays little attention to unverifiable personal peccadilloes.
And while Hamby’s biography of FDR is unlikely to appeal to readers seeking a captivating story or who hope to watch events unfold through Roosevelt’s eyes, it will intrigue serious students of history for whom Roosevelt’s personal relationships and motivations take a back seat to the flow of foreign and domestic affairs.
Overall, Alonzo Hamby’s “Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century” is quite competent as history but unexciting as biography. It is articulate but frequently dull, insightful but not revelatory, and methodical but rarely engaging. Readers seeking an efficient facts only approach to Roosevelt’s life may find this biography ideal; most others will find it disappointing.
Overall rating: 3½ stars