". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Reading Blanche Wiesen Cook's 3 volume Biography of Eleanor Roosevelt

     . . . .  I began, naturally at the beginning with Vol. I The Early Years, 1884-1933  (1992).

Blanche Wiesen Cook

I had read this volume around the time it was published as I was working at its publisher, Viking - Penguin, at the time.  

This is pure Gilded Age era material, and Eleanor Roosevelt was as at the center of the Gilded Age as one could be as a member of the ruling, affluent class of old Dutch New York families. Recall Eleanor's uncle was Theodore Roosevelt, so like Henry Adams, Roosevelts could fairly believe the White House was part of their natural heritage.  But unlike the bitter and disappointed New England aristocrat, Henry Adams, Franklin and Eleanor actually did do politics, and hold political offices -- even if Eleanor, despite her many breakthroughs, could only do so through her husband, so to speak. 

This re-reading, in the depths of our own Gilded Age, while like the previous one should also be more aptly named the Age of Miseries, has me noticing things that must have just slipped by back at the start of the 1990's. Back then I  knew much less of our history than I do now, and truly far less of this period of bottomless corruption and cruelty, ushered in by end to the War of the Rebellion, than I do now. 

ER in Inaugural Ball Gown
Which is why I shudder at the preening announcements of shallow Julian Fellows and his joy in 'the 400' of New York where and when he's locating his new television series, title, of course, The Gilded Age, which was not in use until much later, taken from the title dreamed up by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner for The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today 1873),  their still famous satire of the era's idiocies and excesses.

As Theodore Roosevelt was Eleanor's uncle -- brother to her alcoholic father -- Cook gives us a great deal of background to his family.  What I didn't recall on the first reading was that David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback (1981) contained all this material too (I re-read this one too, rather recently, back in 2015).  As mentioned that the first time I read Vol I. I didn't know all the history I now do -- and I sure didn't know it when reading Mornings on Horseback on the subway to work, morning and night, and at lunch, These two works make good introductions to the residents of their class, for good and a whole lot for ill, who lived at the apex of the age's vaunted opulence, snobbery, bigotry, exploitation and racism.

Having finished Vol I over the weekend I immediately started Vol. II The  Defining Years, 1933-1938 (2000). In the later chapters of Vol I., when Franklin goes through his first campaigns and other election experiences, and takes full advantage of everything Eleanor can and does contribute -- without even acknowledging to anyone else much less ER (throughout the work Cook refers to Eleanor Roosevelt as ER) that she's contributing anything.  It was just what he was entitled to, and many women held him up at all times, beginning with his mother and her money.  The portrait of FDR in these books isn't flattering.  Cook gives him credit when credit is due, but in many ways and far too often FDR shows himself a selfish sob, and even just plain mean, and certainly ready to descend into political skullduggery against other politicians -- but then, he was a consummate politician and that's how they roll.

When ER begins to think politically and of politics and of unfathomable obstacles to women emerging in this sphere, I thought constantly of Hillary Clinton's What Happened (2017). I was certain, of course, that Clinton has read these books, and many more about Eleanor Roosevelt. With what knowing bitterness she has had to recognize ER's conclusions.  So it was exciting then, when the Acknowledgments and Introduction to Vol. II, Cook names First Lady, Mrs. Clinton, who gave her personally a guided tour of the White House in preparation for ER's own White House years.

As ER, with the help of an ever growing circle of brilliant and close friends, began her education in feminism and then became one herself, FDR was already deeply in politics.  ER found everything about politics exciting and felt right at home in all the phases of campaign, and particularly policy, but didn't allow herself to say so, either to herself or the public. She wrote and spoke constantly of the dislike of women by the political patriarchy, and their loathing and disdain at the very idea that a woman could be one of them, either as a designer of policy and strategy or as a candidate herself.  Among her many articles on these subjects in these years she shared with other women in the 'ladies' magazines that when a woman was allowed to run, it would be in elections for seats in which there was no chance of the party winning. This way the party men could say they lost the election because "the candidate was a woman."  ER wrote and spoke of these matters openly and often.

Kirkus review here; NY Times review here.
This project took Cook's adult life, as we see since the concluding  Vol. III The War Years And After, 1939-1962  didn't find publication until two years ago, year of That Election, 2016.   Nothing she learned about the reception of an effective and influential woman at the higher levels of politics either for policy or as a candidate seems to have changed, not even a bit.  Clinton isn't the only one who reads these texts with bitter familiarity.


Foxessa said...

O my -- I just found this, from the NY Times archives:

[ ""I think it's really wonderful that Hillary Clinton wants to use Eleanor Roosevelt as a model . . . I want to write a letter to Hillary saying, please note that when Eleanor Roosevelt disagreed with her husband she reached for her pen. And she wrote articles criticizing her husband's decisions. . . . In 1938 she wrote a whole book, called 'This Troubled World,' which is a point-by-point criticism of F.D.R.'s international policies. So if Hillary Clinton really is serious, she could write a couple of articles, a book, and run for office."
-- Blanche Wiesen Cook, in an interview, June 22, 1999. " ]

Foxessa said...

Also I'd like to draw attention to two just published books.

The first one is by Lanny Davis, long time friend and legal counsel to the Clintons -- The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency by Lanny J, Davis.

This interview with Davis on WNYC (public radio program Midday) is quite in depth, and pretty interesting:

On tv:

Book reviews:

Ya, Davis took this personally, very personally, as such a long time friend and colleague of the Clintons. For me, what was most interesting is what he says / reveals about Ghouls Giuliani and his role -- which still didn't get him the job for which he thought he was a shoe-in.

The second is David Cay Johnston's It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America (Simon & Schuster). A review here:

and then this YouTube from the Politics and Prose bookstore presentation, q&a: