as the us presidential election uu. As 2020 heads toward a torturous and dysfunctional certification, it’s tempting to imagine that the intrigue and machinations belong only to this particular heated moment in American life and history. that would be wrong.
There is always intrigue in American politics, though nothing approaching the current state of near sedition. We would also be wrong to date the role of the iconic First Ladies only to the times of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, or even Jackie Kennedy. before jackie, hillary or michelle, there was eleanor. niece of one president, wife of another; activist, global citizen; mother of the Democratic party in the mid-20th century, when the mother of the party was still something.
You’ll find all of these identities in David Michaelis’s elegant new biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, but the beauty of this robust volume is that there are so many more Eleanors to meet. clumsy girl; yearning and scorned wife; shy but committed romantic; determined partner; distant mother. Michaelis, a veteran biographer, shows us all these many faces, providing a complex and sensitive portrait of a woman who bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, reinventing herself many times over with courage and resilience.
Born into the restraints of upper-class white womanhood, Eleanor was well versed in and adjacent to political power from an early age. Born to a beautiful, judgmental mother and a doting, drug- and alcohol-addicted father, she might well have been identified in the 21st century as the grown-up daughter of an alcoholic, with all the needy and obedient behavior that implies. Her mother, Anna, consumed with keeping up appearances, was no better than any other woman of her class; in fact, her constant taunting of young eleanor certainly compounded the girl’s insecurity and desire to truly belong. Michaelis writes with great sensitivity, using Eleanor’s own recollections and other investigative materials to set the backdrop for recurring themes in his young subject’s life, including the “ritualized humiliation of his mother…very often in front of the company,” including her derisive nickname “Grandma.”
with both parents and a brother dead when she was 10, eleanor was met with tragedy, as well as something firm within herself: “no matter what happens to one in this world, one has to adapt to it.” he”. .” and she accommodated herself to her, to the constrictions of her grandmother, to the disdain of her mother-in-law, to the ambitions of her husband, franklin delano roosevelt. This biography gives equal weight to Eleanor’s personal and political longings, her frustrations with her husband, and her fury at her indiscretions; and her own love, reciprocated and not.
At the same time, however, Michaelis reveals, time and time again, that Eleanor found her true self through duty, hard work, and sometimes punishing overachievement. she felt more loved in society and was deluded by the illusion of it. Longing to be the center of one person’s love, she settled for the greatest public love of a generation as she wrote, traveled and agitated to change the world. What is especially refreshing about this biography are the ways in which Michaelis refuses to hide the fact that Eleanor’s struggles for justice had limits, drawn not only by her grudging acceptance of the role of wife-in-law, but also by the limitations of their race and class.
impressively, the author does not sugarcoat or diminish the casual racism and xenophobia of the time, highlighting fdr’s use of the n-word and comfort with segregation, as well as the well-documented anti-asian racism that underpins the internment of Japanese. Citizens during World War II. Indeed, Michaelis’s framework of these shortcomings in American political life helps us trace their provenance in our own era and allows us to see what Eleanor faced in his bravest and most timid moments.
Their commitment to global citizenship and human rights served to reflect white activists of that period and this: they find the courage to fight for human rights and dignity in the farthest corners of the world, only to drown at the exact moment when his courage could be most effective. She found herself completely mastering the symbolic gesture, allowing Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and renouncing the Daughters of the American Revolution, but refusing to attend the concert herself, at a time when such a symbolic act gesture could have made a bigger difference.
These sections won’t surprise many African-Americans or Japanese. such readers are likely to have personal experience with the failures of white Americans who talk a good game about democracy and equal justice under the law, but fail to deliver when things go wrong. In fact, Michaelis does such an excellent job of describing Eleanor’s back-breaking work to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a reality that the country’s domestic shortcomings during and after FDR’s presidency are highlighted.
The breadth of Michaelis’s research has an unexpected side effect: the introduction and first appearances in Eleanor’s broad history of future American political and social figures. Readers will meet “Bull” Conner, Jedgar Hoover, Thurgood Marshall, and others in between, and get a foreshadowing of their roles in American history. (spoiler alert: some people never change.)
Critics of this broader view of biography are quick to accuse writers (and readers) of injustice, alleging that authors impose contemporary social values on much narrower historical times. However, Michaelis’s skillful writing does nothing more than illustrate the effort and validity of those moments. What’s fascinating is watching Eleanor move from anti-suffrage to advocate for women’s rights; From condescending white woman, immersed in segregated Washington life with fanatics everywhere, to a frustrated champion of desegregation in the face of the pragmatic racism of her husband; to the tolerant globalist, who only dimly sees her country’s broken promises both abroad and at home.
It’s not easy to write so well about political difficulties and disappointments. But readers who choose to immerse themselves in Michaelis’ version of this incomparable life may find it ends too soon.
rosemary bray mcnatt, former editor of the new york times book review, is president of the starr king school for ministry in oakland, california. she is completing a spiritual autobiography, full circle