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)
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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."
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