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Biographies of Political Figureswith special reference to the Founders


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#1 dirac

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 04:01 PM

This topic has come up on several threads, including canbelto's recent thread related to biographies of President Johnson, so I thought I'd start a new thread. I also recall that the subject of biographies of the Founders was discussed at length on an older thread, so I pulled it up and the link is below.

canbelto, I admit to a certain puzzlement about where you’re finding these essays and biographies you mention. It’s true that some popular biographies take such views, but there are a large number of responsibly written books that don’t contain the kinds of simplifications and generalizations you mention – visit the library, browse the shelves there, and you’ll see what I mean.

As mentioned, the topic of books about the Founders came up in another thread and was discussed at some length here.

Sample quotes from the LBJ thread:

carbro:

Read Walter Isaacson's bio of Ben Franklin. It is probing, thorough and written in breezy, conversational style.

Brodie's bio of TJ failed in an important regard for me. What I need from a biography is a sense of what it's like to be in the subject's presence. However, the more I've read about Jefferson, and the more I've learned from living, this may not have been Brodie's fault. Apparently, on the personal level, he cultivated a certain inscrutability.


Helene:

I liked Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton a lot, as well as Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers. I disliked the much lauded David McCullough biography of John Adams; I had to force myself to finish it.


canbelto:

I thought the Brodie biography did give a sense of Jefferson as a man, especially the letters he wrote to his daughters and also the Adamses (John and Abigail). He was a very complex person, I think. Very crafty, tough, and manipulative under that genial surface.

Oh I forgot to mention Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton as an excellent political biography. But, warning: fans of Jefferson will not be pleased.

I agree, Helene, about the Adams biography: I thought it bordered on hagiography.

Actually, come to think of it, thats my beef with many political biographies, which is that they always set the rival as a villain (or hero). Sometimes even with marriages -- Eleanor is the villainess in many biographies of FDR, while FDR is the villain of the Eleanor biographies. Ditto RFK and LBJ.



#2 canbelto

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 04:18 PM

dirac, I'm mostly talking about newspaper articles, and, sometimes, tv shows that come up with the gross generalizations. I apologize if I meant actual biographies.
But I do think that many biographies of the founding fathers tend to stake a side, and then trash the other side. The Federalist vs. the Democratic Republicans. Even the very nuanced biographies like Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton portrayed Thomas Jefferson as manipulative and underhanded, while understating Hamilton's own underhanded and manipulative ways. David McCullough's biography of Adams I think almost hagiographic. His overriding desire to portray Adams as a wonderful father and husband and person makes him under-evaluate the Alien and Sedition act, one of the most unpleasant laws ever enacted, and Adams' other failings as president.
As for the Roosevelts, Blanche Wiesen Cook's biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt paint a very unflattering picture of her husband. An unfair picture, I think.

#3 dirac

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 04:27 PM

dirac, I'm mostly talking about newspaper articles, and, sometimes, tv shows that come up with the gross generalizations. I apologize if I meant actual biographies.
But I do think that many biographies of the founding fathers tend to stake a side, and then trash the other side. The Federalist vs. the Democratic Republicans. Even the very nuanced biographies like Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton portrayed Thomas Jefferson as manipulative and underhanded, while understating Hamilton's own underhanded and manipulative ways. David McCullough's biography of Adams I think almost hagiographic.

As for the Roosevelts, Blanche Wiesen Cook's biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt paint a very unflattering picture of her husband. An unfair picture, I think.


Point taken, canbelto. The Roosevelts' marriage was a very complicated affair, and some commentators do oversimplify. (I still think Eleanor had a hell of a time, though. I can't imagine having Sara as a mother-in-law!)

Of course, where the Founders are concerned, you could argue that a little partisanship is only a contemporary reflection of what was a highly partisan era, where newspapers, for example, made no pretense whatsover to objectivity. :)

#4 canbelto

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 04:58 PM

dirac, I'm totally sympathetic to Eleanor in her marriage. It must not have been easy knowing she was in many ways being used purely for political purposes. I can't imagine having a mother-in-law like Sara. But I do think Cook's biographies portray Eleanor as The Conscience of the FDR administration. And FDR as a womanizer, a man with few political principles, who betrayed Eleanor time and time again.
Then head over to FDR's biographies, including one written by the Roosevelts' sons. Doris Kearns Goodwin's is another example. They paint a picture of a lonely, overworked president, longing for companionship, abandoned by a cold, hectoring wife, who passive aggressively made sure FDR's every meal was miserable, etc. etc. I suppose it's like the Plath/Hughes biographies.
The biography that really I think is evenhanded about the marriage is Joseph Lash's (aptly titled) Eleanor and Franklin. There was also a wonderful documentary on PBS a couple years ago about Roosevelt that I thought was very evenhanded. Personally, I'm sympathetic to both Eleanor and Franklin. I think they were both extraordinary people, and just because they failed in their marriage doesn't mean they were unprincipled (FDR) or cold (Eleanor).

As for the Founding Fathers cottage industry I think there's been a resurgence of pro-Federalist biographies because of the re-evaluation of Jefferson as much more hypocritical (in light of the Hemings DNA tests) and "political" than previously thought. But still, the fact that both Jefferson and Hamilton set up newspapers with ghost-written partisan editorials doesn't mean biographers need to take sides so obviously. I mean, there is such a thing as "fair and balanced" isn't there? :)

#5 carbro

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 08:49 PM

Does evenhandedness mean accuracy? There will be bias, and I don't suppose anyone who wasn't in the Roosevelt menage will know what the truth was. With evenhandedness you get "A Vatican spokesman replied, 'This Galileo is a certifiable nut job! Everyone knows it's the sun that revolves around the Earth!'"

#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 July 2006 - 03:01 AM

One of the hazards of writing biography is that authors run the risk of losing impartiality and become partisans for their subjects. An interesting contrary result happened to the late Grady McWhinnie when he undertook to write a biography of Confederate General Braxton Bragg. To that date, no one had written a biography of this complex man, and McWhinnie built bridges before he came to the chasms. He lined up a publisher, got an assurance of publication in two volumes, made a research plan, and started to compile data for the books.

He found out why there had never been a biography written. Bragg was, personally and professionally, a highly difficult man, and McWhinnie soon found himself loathing his subject. He finished the first volume, and put the disgusting Bragg up on the the graduate division's bulletin board, "FREE, BRAXTON BRAGG! All data needed to write second volume of biography complete. Publication guaranteed! You can have him!" A student took him up on the offer, and the set is now complete.

#7 dirac

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Posted 11 July 2006 - 12:14 PM

Does evenhandedness mean accuracy? There will be bias, and I don't suppose anyone who wasn't in the Roosevelt menage will know what the truth was. With evenhandedness you get "A Vatican spokesman replied, 'This Galileo is a certifiable nut job! Everyone knows it's the sun that revolves around the Earth!'"



Hee! :huh: I agree, some situations are pretty one-sided. When it comes to the Roosevelts, though, I don't think anyone knew for sure -- not even people within the family circle.

.

#8 canbelto

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Posted 11 July 2006 - 01:32 PM

When it comes to the Roosevelts, though, I don't think anyone knew for sure -- not even people within the family circle.


The kids were firmly on FDR's side. Anna (their daughter) moved to the White House to take care of her father, and also arranged for discreet meetings with Lucy Mercer, FDR's ex-lover, for whom he still carried a torch (to put it mildly). In fact, Lucy was by FDR's side when he died, and Eleanor and Anna were estranged for a time because Eleanor realized Anna had been complicit in these meetings. Their son wrote a biography that also made Eleanor seem cold and self-absorbed. Reading all the biographies, it occurs to me that Eleanor was an extraordinary woman, but perhaps not a good mother or wife.
But Eleanor's own autobiography says that she felt she was just another person FDR "used" and I always sensed a bitterness that FDR thought of her more as a nagging policy advisor than wife. And then there's Lorena Hickock and Earl Miller, two other mysteries ...
My sense is that these two extraordinary people were not compatible on a personal level, although they made a great political "team" and, as Eleanor said, she was a "spur." I thought Cook's biographies, as well-written as they are, were really unfair to FDR.

#9 atm711

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 04:37 AM

Two people in a marriage have a hard enough time explaining it without the World jumping in. I once read a very slim book written by a man who had the same physical problems as Roosevelt. He went into great detail about what it was like to live hour- by -hour, day-to-day- with such an affliction. Unfortunately, I can't recall the title. Most Roosevelt biographers don't delve too deeply into this. If anyone is looking for a wonderfully pro-FDR book I recommend Conrad Black's recent bio "Champion of Freedom"---it was worth plowing through 1,000 pages. :huh:

#10 dirac

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 08:09 AM

Thank you, atm711. The best account I've read of FDR and his illness is that given by Geoffrey C. Ward in his biography, "A First Class Temperament." I came away very moved by FDR's courage and fortitude, and that of his wife and Louis Howe, who wouldn't let him give up. When you think of how the handicapped were regarded in that era, their accomplishments are doubly impressive.

#11 canbelto

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 08:23 AM

FDR carefully cultivated an image that hid his physical impairment though. As a result some Americans did not know that he had polio and was a parapelegic. Hard to believe, but true.
The PBS documentary shows a very moving clip of FDR's last State of the Union speech, in which he admits that he can no longer "stand up." He looked exhausted. I think he probably literally worked himself to death.
By the way, I do not mean to bash the Cook biographies of Eleanor. They are incredibly well-researched and insightful. I just felt that her treatment of FDR was unfair.

#12 dirac

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 01:36 PM

Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Queen of Scots is one of my favorites. Partisan, but delightfully so, and she doesn’t stretch the facts to make her case.

#13 canbelto

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 02:58 PM

In the same vein, David Starkey's biography on the six wives of Henry VIII is really good ... for Catherine and Anne Boleyn. His chapters on the remaining four wives seem almost perfunctory in comparison, but I thought he made Catherine and Anne Boleyn very real and believable.
I also enjoyed Jane Dunn's "Elizabeth and Mary."

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 04:33 PM

Well, of Harry's wives, Catherine (of Aragon) and Anne Boleyn were probably the most interesting. Jane Seymour was sort of a cipher, and was more notable for her surviving Seymour relations (who were rather naughty). Nobody knows whether Anne of Cleves was incredibly canny, or incredibly stupid, but we all have to agree that she was incredibly lucky! Katherine Howard had rather more on the ball, but again, it's her male survivors who were the real rascals. Catie Parr was a very interesting woman, and her post-Harry career, although brief, is full of the mystery that makes (and in fact did make) a good ghost story.

#15 Ed Waffle

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 04:45 PM

This may have been covered already in other threads, but Robert Caro’s three volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is as good a political biography as I have ever read. The first volume, “The Path to Power” in enthralling—it discusses in great detail how growing up in poverty in the central Texas hill country shaped everything that LBJ did as an adult and as a politician, which cover the same years saving Johnson’s military service during World War II. The next two volumes, “Means of Ascent” and “Master of the Senate” are as meticulously researched and beautifully written as the first although the subject matter was, at least to me, a bit less interesting although the chapters in “Means of Ascent” that dealt with Johnson’s relationship with Sam Rayburn are as good as anything one can read on how power relationships develop and change.

Caro’s other big book—just one volume—is a biography of Robert Moses “The Power Broker”. If you want to know why New York City and Long Island look the way they do this is the book that will tell you. Some of it is heartbreaking—the accounts of how city neighborhoods were destroyed through “urban renewal” programs or the construction of mega-highways. Moses was probably the most powerful person in New York City in the decades after World War II and was as ruthless as one could be in exercising that power.

While I am by no means the greatest fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin, her “No Ordinary Time--Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II” seems to be evenhanded and well done regarding their relationship and the strengths each drew from it.


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