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A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan Hardcover – February 7, 2006

4.4 out of 5 stars 43 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kazin (Barons of Labor) attempts a revisionist portrait of Bryan (1860–1925), whom scholars have long dismissed as a rabid white supremacist, bullying fundamentalist and braying pacifist/isolationist. But Kazin errs in downplaying such popular characterizations of Bryan as a closed-minded Bible-thumper and bigot. In a speech delivered, ironically, on July 4, 1906, Bryan argued that "blacks carried away into slavery have been improved by contact with the whites." Clarence Darrow referred to his Scopes trial nemesis as "the idol of all Morondom." And H.L. Mencken, after observing Bryan at the Scopes trial, wrote: "He seemed... deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty...." In the place of these popular negative images of Bryan, Kazin argues without much success for appreciation of the attorney, orator, congressman, presidential candidate and secretary of state as 20th-century America's first great Christian liberal: an eloquent voice and leading force in the fields of anti-imperialism, consumer protection, regulation of trusts and campaign finance reform. But the fundamentalist bigot in Bryan trumps the earnest populist at every turn. In sum, Kazin's heroic Bryan is simply not to be believed. (Feb. 10)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

In American memory, the image of William Jennings Bryan, whom the Democrats nominated for President in 1896, 1900, and 1908, has been obscured by the pathetic, evolution-bashing Bible-thumper based on him in "Inherit the Wind." And yet from the "Cross of Gold" speech, which stunned the 1896 Convention, until his death, three decades later, Bryan was a hero to populists, an advocate of prohibition and women's suffrage, and a truer Wilsonian than Wilson, whom he served as Secretary of State. In this powerful, timely reevaluation, Kazin argues that Bryan's faith-based liberalism reshaped the Democratic Party and made the New Deal possible. He manages to make even Bryan's attacks on evolution palatable, writing that his real target was social Darwinism (Scopes's textbook called for eliminating "feeble-mindedness" through eugenics). But Kazin refuses to redeem his subject entirely. "Bryan's passion for democracy," he writes, "always cooled at the color line."
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 374 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (February 7, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375411356
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375411359
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #158,909 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lonya VINE VOICE on March 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all. Luke 6:19

There is a tendency in the U.S. today that when we think of William Jennings Bryan, if we think about him at all, we think of the aging demagogue defending Creationism at the "Scopes Monkey Trial". Bryan's image seems coextensive with the actor Frederic March's characterization of a preening, self-righteous zealot in the movie "Inherit the Wind". Michael Kazin's "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan" does a wonderful job of capturing the political life of a man who captured the ears and hearts of millions of Americans from 1896 until his death in 1925 at the age of 65. Millions of American farmers and laborers saw virtue in Bryan and sought to touch him. Kazin goes a long way towards explaining the social and political phenomenon that was William Jennings Bryan.

Kazin's "A Godly Hero" is both well-written and meticulously researched. Bryan, known to friends and foes alike as the "Great Commoner" was the Democratic Party's candidate for President in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Kazin does an excellent job of presenting Bryan as more than a cartoon-like caricature. Although always a devout, fervent Christian Bryan rose to national acclaim not on the basis of his religious world view but on a populist platform that was more than a bit radical for his time. Kazin points out, of course, that Bryan's political views were informed by his Christian beliefs, but notes that those beliefs led him to fight as a populist for social justice. Bryan's three presidential campaigns called for support for the rights of small farmers and factory workers as they did battle against the big railroads and factory owners.
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Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed the book without really planning on it. Kazin makes a long ago period come alive, and it is amusing looking at the years of Theodore Roosevelt from a deliberately oblique angle, as it were. As Kazin points out, Bryan and Roosevelt were nearly contemporaries, born a mere two years apart, and their lives intertwined on many levels, though they were miles apart in their views on--well, on just about everything. Everything, that is, except the power of manifest destiny and the call of the American Empire.

Kazin brings it all up close, and the gallery of American politicians, many of them long forgotten, jump into life. You can almost feel you were at one of those long-drawn-out political conventions of the turn of the century, and his cast of characters are vivid and fleshy. Do you know how in the YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON author Robert Caro manages to animate all manner of pols, give them flesh and blood? Kazin's style will remind you of Caro's way with a tale, only his task might be more difficult for the era was a good 60 years before LBJ's and in some ways more difficult to access. Some of the platforms men stood on seem almost to have a schizophrenic edge to them, and Jennings Bryan, as Kazin admits, has an opaque quality to his thinking that mirrors the perplexities of the common man of his day (I use the words "man" and "men" in shorthand to denote a day before universal suffrage, not that Kazin's biography doesn't include some powerful female figures, such as Bryan's acerbic, "choleric" widow Mary, who spared no one the foul side of her tongue and when she had something to say she let you have it!)

Thus Bryan shamefully stood by when Josephus Daniels urged Democrats in the Carolinas to prevent black voters from going to the polls by any means necessary.
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Format: Hardcover
Professor Kazin has previously written a couple of well-regarded books on the Populist movement of the late 1800s. His very latest work demonstrates his skills again; this is a well-paced narrative with good character sketches of some of the major political figures of the time, including of course William Jennings Bryan. Most people, if they think of the Populist movement at all, think of romantic revolutionaries, people unhappy with economic instability brought by early industrialization and eager to return the US to a democratic nation of small producers and farmers. Kazin never really calls Bryan a Populist, preferring instead the term Progressive, and uses Bryan's life as a means to argue that the insurgency of the time was more complex than some believe. The result is a very passionate biography of Bryan.

Bryan never was a Populist. The Great Commoner was an agrarian Democrat who convinced the Populist Party to support him in the 1896 Presidential election, despite the fact that the Populists ran surprisingly well in 1892 on a platform that really took it to the corporate interests then running roughshod over the American landscape. Bryan's 1896 Democratic Presidential nomination also represented the Party's rejection of the conservative stand-patism of President Grover Cleveland -- really a Republican who differed from the GOP only on the issue of a protective tariff -- in favor of a platform of economic reform based primarily on the call for inflation to ease the plight of debt-ridden farmers. Bryan lost the 1896 election, one of the four or five most important in American history, to William McKinley.

1896, though, was only the start of Bryan's career.
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