Biography is a merciless unmasker.

€Leon Edel, Henry James’s biographer, slightly al tered one of the master’s phrases to declare that the biographer uncovers the “figur e under the carpet.” €In the Edelian biography, the biographer ferrets out the facts of private life that the subject has carefully concealed and reveals the uncons cious motivations—or at least unspoken—impulses that Freud has taught him to look fo r. Hamlet may not have know about seems, madam, but biography is all about the diffe rence between appearance and reality. €At least since the 1920s, the world has bee n a stage in which the players strut and fret but also repress and inhibit thems elves. €Eugene O’Neill adopted masks for “The Great God Brown” and “Strange Interlude” in or der to emphasize the divided self, the inner and outer, that society, he believe d, had to reckon with. But this Freudian fuss about the divided self is not applicable to one and all an d, in fact, ought to be burlesqued—as Groucho Marx does in “Coconuts”: “Pardon me,” he ann ounces, “while I have a strange interlude.” €Indeed, the way Groucho always mugs for t he camera with his painted-on mustache reminds us that no matter what character he is playing he is always Groucho. € And so it was with William Jennings Bryan a.k.a. “The Great Commoner,” the standard b earer of the working class, three-times the Democratic Party nominee (1896, 1900 , 1908, the scourge of corporations, the nemesis of Wall Street, and in popular lore, the fundamentalist whom Clarence Darrow humiliated in the Scopes Monkey Tr ial in Dayton, Tennessee. € Any biographer looking to detect contradictions in character, discrepancies betwe en his private and public behavior, or scandal of any kind, will be sorely disap pointed. €Bryan made lots of money but never invested in the stock market; a chari smatic politician and preacher, he turned away adoring women and not only remain ed faithful to his wife but was downright uxorious. €He loved to lecture about Jes us Christ, and there was a good deal about Bryan that was Christ-like. €One of the best features of Michael Kazin’s biography is his quotations from people who wrot e to Bryan—not only the poor and downtrodden but wealthy businessmen and people of all classes who saw him as a kind of savior. € Bryan was not a fundamentalist in the contemporary sense of the term, Mr. Kazin d emonstrates. €Unlike the Christian right, he did not side with the Republican Part y. €And though he opposed evolution and believed communities had the right to ban its teaching in schools, he was not a literalist; that is, if the earth was crea ted in six days, those days, he suggested when Darrow cross-examined him, would be eons in our terms. €Bryan correctly saw that Darwinism could be interpreted as a noxious in its social consequences, with “survival of the fittest” interpreted to mean that society had no obligation to help the weak. €He was also disturbed by id ea of eugenics which many believers in evolution adopted because, again, under t he guise of developing a more healthy species, the disadvantaged would be marked for elimination. € So the caricature of Bryan the religious zealous and naïve Democrat is destroyed in this learned and gracefully written biography even as Bryan the man and the ora tor takes on a stature that makes him a precusor of the New Deal (many of Bryan’s colleagues 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 biog raphy. €It is often charged that biography is reductive, that it restricts our sen se of history by according to much attention to individuals. €But just the opposit e can be true, especially when Mr. Kazin applies his understanding to what histo rians such as Richard Hoftstadter have said about populist and progressive movem ents in the early 20th century. €In Bryan, the biographer finds a figure who had a n appeal that cut across supposedly divided voting blocs: €the populists (working class), the progressives (middle class). €Indeed, a lot of TR’s rhetoric, Bryan hims elf pointed out, was pure Bryanism even though TR despised Bryan. Why was Bryan so popular, even though he failed three times to capture the presid ency? €He was a great speaker, to be sure—even being able to make the transition fro m 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 a sacred principle, so that his belief that the country should go off the gold st

andard and increase the money supply by minting silver coins became the equivale nt of Christ throwing the money changers (the Republicans) out of the temple: €“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” €This speech, given to the 1896 Democratic co nvention, was punctuated by Bryan’s stepping back from the podium, pulling his han ds away from his brow, and extending them straight out from his body, holding th e Christlike pose for perhaps five seconds, Mr. Kazin reports. Bryan spoke to the “heart of America,” his wife Mary said. €“But that answer is too sent imental,” €Mr. Kazin objects: It fails to grasp the historical context for Bryan’s popularity and neglects the f act that he often challenged his audiences with political talks—from recitals of t he Cross of Gold speech to long critiques of World War I and arguments for prohi bition and woman suffrage. €Neither does it explain what he meant to these America ns—in small cities as well as crossroads villages—that other well known speakers on moral topics did not. What is that historical context that Mr. Kazin finds so important? €Bryan came of age before the advent of modernism, before the likes of John Reed and the bohemi an left ridiculed him as an old fogey, before the disjunction between a Christia n left and secular reformers became so wide that many of the commoners Bryan cal led on in building the Democratic Party have deserted it, understanding that the ir faith has been deemed a subject of ridicule. € Bryan had his blind spots. €For him, African Americans hardly existed. €Even after it was no longer politically expedient to side with Southerners who formed a large part of his core constituency, Bryan seemed incapable of seeing the injustice o f segregation. € Mr. Kazin thinks Bryan was right to oppose America’s entry into World War I becaus e it led to Communism, fascism, and much else that was evil. €But would not enteri ng have been sensible? €Would the German kaiser’s victory have been a better outcome ? €Mr. Kazin does not consider the question. Other than doing justice to Bryan, what is the warrant for this biography. €I find it in Mr. Kazin’s juxtaposition between John Reed’s magazine, “The Masses,” and Bryan’s, “Th e Commoner. €The former was irreverent and witty and the latter earnest and righte ous. €Even in his declining days, however, Bryan was able to “embellish his reputati on among people that John Reed could never reach. €“I want you to know that I am one of the thousands of young men in this country that you have helped into lofty c onceptions of life and its meaning,” a Presbyterian minister in Michigan wrote to Bryan. €Mr. Kazin concludes that Bryan represented the “yearning for a society run b y and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives. €As everyone who heard him coul d attest, Bryan made significant public issues sound urgent, dramatic, and clear , and he encourage citizens to challenge the motives and interests of the most p owerful people in the land. €That is a quality absent among our recent leaders, fo r all their promises to leave no man, woman, or child behind.” It seems to me that in such sentences Mr. Kazin is using biography not only to de scribe a man but also to show how history was once made. €

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