three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
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The Life of William Jennings Bryan

A-AGodlyHeroMost people know William Jennings Bryan as Fredric March. The actor’s thinly fictionalized portrayal of a befuddled, Christian fundamentalist Bryan in Inherit the Wind has become cultural shorthand for our opinion of the American statesman. What kind of liberal, after all, would side with fundamentalist creationism? Though Bryan failed three times in his bid for the presidency between 1896 and 1908, he exerted enormous influence on American political life. A dogged populist who garnered support from the masses, he fought to break the libertarian hold on the Democratic Party, using his oratory skills to urge solutions that would later be taken up by FDR. Michael Kazin moves beyond cinematic simplification to provide a more balanced portrait of this misunderstood American.
Knopf. 376 pages. $30. ISBN: 0375411356

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Bryan rivals Alexander Hamilton as the most important American politician never to be elected president, and a major biography of him is long overdue. Kazin brings to his an unwillingness to treat Bryan as a simpleminded buffoon who, inspired by his Christian certainties, bet against modernity and lost." Alan Wolfe

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The man known as the Great Commoner will remain a tough sell to many progressives, but Kazin has written a superb biography and a challenging reconsideration of Bryan’s place in U.S. political history. … The modern left in America may be antagonistic to faith-based politics, but Bryan belongs to an older American progressivism that took its cues from the Bible, not the teachings of Marx or the prescriptions of soulless technocrats." Matthew Price

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kazin persuasively shows that Bryan’s real crusade in Tennessee was not against free inquiry (he never opposed altogether the teaching of evolution), but against the enormous condescension of scientists who knew what was best for ordinary people—the same battle, in other words, that Bryan fought throughout his life. … . Hoping to recover a hero for liberal Christianity, Kazin lets Bryan get away with a lot." Christopher Capozzola

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Seen whole, as Kazin sees him, he becomes a sympathetic and compelling figure, limited and flawed but at the same time honest, dedicated and sincere in ways that almost no politician appears to be today." David Walton

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The story of William Jennings Bryan illustrates how radically the cultural lines in America have shifted in 80 years. Kazin tells his story well, but I’m afraid to modern eyes Bryan will not look much like a liberal." Bruce Ramsey

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"The critical weakness in Mr. Kazin’s biography is that Bryan’s class enemies never get to take the stand in their own defense. … Exactly what were the sins of the enterprising and successful rich? How could the American standard of living ever have been raised without the profit-seeking work of free individuals? On these critical questions Mr. Kazin and his hero are silent." James Grant

Critical Summary

No critics holler to add Bryan’s bust to Mount Rushmore, yet they agree that this new biography is long overdue and relevant to 21st-century American politics (just reverse the parties’ philosophies). Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, places Bryan’s successes and failures in historical context and examines why Bryan argued so vociferously against Darwinism in the famous Scopes trial. A few critics thought that Kazin was too soft on Bryan and let his clear admiration for the man cloud fair treatment of his opponents’ stances. Though still a divisive character after all these years, Bryan remains an important link to both the expansion of liberal social programs within the Democratic Party and the fundamentalist rigor of the current administration.