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William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

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Published by Carl Rollyson

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Published by: Carl Rollyson on Oct 21, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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06/30/2014

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Biography is a merciless unmasker. Leon Edel, Henry James’s biographer, slightly altered one of the master’s phrases to declare that the biographer uncovers the “figure under the carpet.” In the Edelian biography, the biographer ferrets out the factsof private life that the subject has carefully concealed and reveals the unconscious motivations—or at least unspoken—impulses that Freud has taught him to look for.
Hamlet may not have know about seems, madam, but biography is all about the difference between appearance and reality. At least since the 1920s, the world has been a stage in which the players strut and fret but also repress and inhibit themselves. Eugene O’Neill adopted masks for “The Great God Brown” and “Strange Interlude” in order to emphasize the divided self, the inner and outer, that society, he believed, had to reckon with.
But this Freudian fuss about the divided self is not applicable to one and all and, in fact, ought to be burlesqued—as Groucho Marx does in “Coconuts”: “Pardon me,” he announces, “while I have a strange interlude.” Indeed, the way Groucho always mugs for the camera with his painted-on mustache reminds us that no matter what characterhe is playing he is always Groucho. 
And so it was with William Jennings Bryan a.k.a. “The Great Commoner,” the standard bearer of the working class, three-times the Democratic Party nominee (1896, 1900, 1908, the scourge of corporations, the nemesis of Wall Street, and in popularlore, the fundamentalist whom Clarence Darrow humiliated in the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. 
Any biographer looking to detect contradictions in character, discrepancies between his private and public behavior, or scandal of any kind, will be sorely disappointed. Bryan made lots of money but never invested in the stock market; a charismatic politician and preacher, he turned away adoring women and not only remained faithful to his wife but was downright uxorious. He loved to lecture about Jesus Christ, and there was a good deal about Bryan that was Christ-like. One of thebest features of Michael Kazin’s biography is his quotations from people who wrote to Bryan—not only the poor and downtrodden but wealthy businessmen and people ofall classes who saw him as a kind of savior. 
Bryan was not a fundamentalist in the contemporary sense of the term, Mr. Kazin demonstrates. Unlike the Christian right, he did not side with the Republican Party. And though he opposed evolution and believed communities had the right to banits teaching in schools, he was not a literalist; that is, if the earth was created in six days, those days, he suggested when Darrow cross-examined him, wouldbe eons in our terms. Bryan correctly saw that Darwinism could be interpreted asa noxious in its social consequences, with “survival of the fittest” interpreted tomean that society had no obligation to help the weak. He was also disturbed by idea of eugenics which many believers in evolution adopted because, again, under the guise of developing a more healthy species, the disadvantaged would be markedfor elimination. 
So the caricature of Bryan the religious zealous and naïve Democrat is destroyed inthis learned and gracefully written biography even as Bryan the man and the orator takes on a stature that makes him a precusor of the New Deal (many of Bryan’scolleagues and followers gravitated to Roosevelt after their leader died). 
But what intrigues me even more is what Mr. Kazin’s book does for the genre of biography. It is often charged that biography is reductive, that it restricts our sense of history by according to much attention to individuals. But just the opposite can be true, especially when Mr. Kazin applies his understanding to what historians such as Richard Hoftstadter have said about populist and progressive movements in the early 20th century. In Bryan, the biographer finds a figure who had an appeal that cut across supposedly divided voting blocs: the populists (workingclass), the progressives (middle class). Indeed, a lot of TR’s rhetoric, Bryan himself pointed out, was pure Bryanism even though TR despised Bryan.
Why was Bryan so popular, even though he failed three times to capture the presidency? He was a great speaker, to be sure—even being able to make the transition from addressing large crowds without the aid of microphones to, in his last years,triumphing in the medium of radio. He could make a political position seem like asacred principle, so that his belief that the country should go off the gold st

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