Blogs > HNN > Michael Kazin: "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan" (Knopf 2006) . A summary of two reviews.

Feb 15, 2006 4:10 pm

Michael Kazin: "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan" (Knopf 2006) . A summary of two reviews.

If most Americans remember William Jennings Bryan at all it is because of “Inherit the Wind,” the once- famous play and film about the Scopes Monkey Trial set in southern fundamentalist land. They emphasized what Christian Science Monitor reviewer [Feb. 14, 2006] Christopher Capozzola --he teaches American history at MIT-- called H.L. Mencken’s “snide disdain” and also transformed the “Great Commoner” into a religiously fanatical clown.

Michael Kazin's biography of Bryan paints a very different picture. He was “not a fundamentalist” but instead “burned only and always to see religion heal the world.” A perennial loser in three presidential races, he nonetheless appealed to ordinary people and thus helped to change a Democratic Party dominated by corrupt city bosses, Southern racists and wealthy patrons. “When reform comes to this country,” said Bryan, “it starts with the masses” and not “the brains of scholars.”

While praising the book (“ a richly textured narrative”), Capozzola considers that Kazin, “hoping to recover a hero for liberal Christianity…lets Bryan get away with a lot.” All the same, Capozzola writes, “in an age of Enron and empire, at a time when matters of religious faith are debased by political controversies over Sponge Bob’s Square Pants, Kazin’s longing for a prophetic voice is understandable. But in Bryan’s case, that voice too often crossed the line from prophecy to melodrama.”

A slightly different view is to be found in Alan Wolfe’s review [Washington Post Book World, Feb. 5, 2006]. Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Life at Boston College, calls the book “ intensely political biography.” He praises Kazin’s comparison of Bryan to many of today’s political leaders, “who are either religious but lack a passion for social justice or who identify with reform but fail to speak with Bryan’s prophetic sincerity.”

Indeed, Wolfe says Kazin’s portrait “is anything but a whitewash.” And though Bryan supported racial segregation, Kazin argues that otherwise he was a positive force in political life.

Says Wolfe: Kazin’s Bryan “not only stands up well against the right but also has something to teach the left…In a society as religious as the United States, leftists commit political suicide by turning their backs on what Bryan tried to accomplish.” Bryan’s complex legacy, says Kazin, was a direct link to the Democratic progressivism of the New Deal and after but also to today’s Bush-Rove Republicans. In the end, Wolfe concludes “it would be difficult to imagine a biography of any early 20th Century political leader more relevant to the early 21st century than this one.”

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