Used by Permission of Tupelo Press
  Garden by Renee Rothbein, 1924–2001. “I bring flowers — cosmos, phlox, and hollyhock, / Your favorite — from our garden,” writes Sarah Hannah in “Westwood Lodge, 1980–1990.”
Unknown Solutions

By Eric McHenry

Inflorescence by Sarah Hannah
(Tupelo Press, 72 pages, $16.95)

Longing Distance
by Sarah Hannah
(Tupelo Press, 80 pages, $16.95)

“My father had a workshop / In the basement of our house,” Sarah Hannah ’91SOA, ’05GSAS wrote in Longing Distance, her first book of poems, and “[. . . ] in the years after / He left, still I continued / To creep down there alone, / Snap on the light, and stare / At all the myriad contrivances— / The bearings and the fasteners, / The rusting jars of unknown solutions.”
Hannah died by her own hand last May, and it is difficult, now, not to approach her work the same way she approached her father’s workbench — looking for evidence. When a writer commits suicide, everything she wrote becomes a suicide note. And even if the poems shed little light on the death, the death will inevitably cast shadows on the poems. There is no way, as Albert Goldbarth has pointed out, to read Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath without “the happenstance of elegiac context,” or to “separate the great, exclamatory / words of Shelley from the seareek / of his body.”

The temptation to comb Hannah’s writing for clues may be particularly strong. Of the three prominent American poets (all with Columbia connections) who took their own lives in 2007, she appeared to have the most life to take. A stroke had recently robbed Landis Everson ’51GSAS of the ability to write. Liam Rector, who taught at Columbia from 2002 until 2006, was battling cancer and a heart condition. Hannah was 40 years old, physically healthy, and just coming into her own as a poet. Longing Distance (2004) had been well received, and she was by all appearances eagerly awaiting the publication of her second collection, Inflorescence, at the time of her death.

That collection, moreover, is an unflinching account of the decline and death of Hannah’s mother, the expressionist painter Renee Rothbein, and it includes frank descriptions of Rothbein’s mental illness and multiple suicide attempts. It’s a book, in other words, that constantly reminds the reader of its author’s fate, and that invites all sorts of connection making and conclusion drawing: “you smoked and drank to excess, tried / Twice to gas yourself, ran cars into trees,” Hannah writes in “Threepence, Great Britain, 1943,” a poem that also makes reference to her grandmother’s psychotic episodes and electroshock sessions. Readers who assume a distinction between poet and speaker are asked not to: “I’ll save you all the trouble, / Provide the proper shelf: this one’s a confession.”

Yet it is precisely this combination of candor and single-minded devotion to her subject that makes Hannah such a selfless poet, and that keeps her own story from upstaging the one she’s trying to tell. Ultimately, Inflorescence achieves a provisional victory over “the happenstance of elegiac context” by the unlikeliest of means: elegy.

For some time, Hannah explains in her “Cantankerous Author’s Notes,” the book’s working title was Inflorescence, or, How to Know the Wildflowers, “based on the idea, put forth rather insistently throughout this volume, that there are two names for everything.” Indeed. And yet Hannah is never a poet of mere dualities. When she places a flower’s Latin and common names side by side, it’s not so much the opposition that interests her as the indeterminacy — the implication that a specimen can be labeled and pinned to a sheet of Styrofoam but cannot, finally, be pinned down. Appending “(Cnicus benedictus)” to the exquisite poem title “Blessed Thistle” only compounds an extant irony, which Hannah teases out in a series of appropriately dissonant off-rhymed couplets: “Let’s go ahead and bless these double crosses, / These leaves about to stick us in a hundred places.”

If Hannah is insistent that there are two names for everything, she’s emphatic that there are two things for every name. Inflorescence is, among other things, an extended study of the power of single words to mean severally, whether through etymological subtlety, grammatical ambiguity (does “Cantankerous,” above, modify the notes or the author?), even puns. In the poem “Common Creeping Thyme (Serpillum a serpendo),” Hannah’s muddled mother tries to focus her mind by naming the herbs in her garden while a hospital intern tries to deliver the bad news: “‘Metasta—’ / Rosemary! you holler, Rosemary! as your arthritic hand / Smacks down in triumph on the piled white sheets— // ‘Sized,’ he concludes, then speaks slowly to my face. / ‘It doesn’t look good.’ / I turn to you, repeat / The clause. You beam. You’ve always wanted // A brain tumor.” By the end of the poem, gallows humor has yielded to tenderness and vulnerability, as Hannah comes to terms with the creeping time that is about to overtake her mother:

[. . .] and I pray

To the fluorescent ceiling: Stay this Creep;
Shut this book right now, I’ll read it later;
Let’s fly back inside another spring

When I am low, just at your hem, knowing
Only that woods don’t end and sun
Patters into shade, and we run down

Narrow paths to look for fern and toad
And early flower.

Flowers were the favorite subject of Hannah’s mother, and they are indispensable to Hannah as a figure for her own subject: lovely, fragile, ephemeral, ill-suited to many environments: “After a long time alone / Your house fills with dried flowers,” Hannah writes in “Dried Flowers.” She continues: “[You] come / To prefer the Victorian fadings of hydrangea / To the gloss and mettle of new leaf. // [. . .] They don’t clamor for light or water; / They don’t grow in strange directions. // In the dense air, they shatter, fine clouds / Of no color—your children—how they rise! / Without blame or complaint.” In the book’s extraordinary title poem, flowers brought to comfort Hannah’s hospitalized mother prove mercilessly diagnostic:

Canterbury Bells your former painting student
Drove down one day from Maine,
In a graceful vase of milky green. How we
Gasped over those, tolling, pale blue, color
Of the liquid morphine.

And the handpicked bunch my friend
Brought from her garden in Somerville,
Clutched in tin foil: Meadow Rue,
Celandine, waving in the air conditioner’s
Tempered breeze. They won’t last the week.

The writer of elegies runs two risks: sentimentality and a studied detachment. Because both are a kind of self-blinkering — the eyes are either averted or clouded by tears — the antidote to both is attention. Hannah was a successful elegist because she was an attentive poet, keen to the world’s complexities, never failing to find malignancy in the beautiful or beauty in the malign.

Another temptation, when reviewing the recently deceased, is to be excessively reverent. In the spirit of a poet who never wrote in the hushed tones of the funeral parlor, I won’t either. Inflorescence is not a perfect book. Hannah had trouble handling narrative, a weakness for modifiers (the most common side effect of a large vocabulary), and a tendency to pile up participial phrases in a way that saps sentences of their syntactic energy: “And for a moment I believe him, // Sun aslant, articulating volumes— / Fissures in the crumbling rock—envoi // Borne in error to a solitary place, / The dull glass absenting from my eyes, // The oil veil lifting from the world.” A few of her concluding lines are real clunkers, too, although the courage to risk clunking is an admirable trait in this age of self-protective evasions.

The suicide of a talented poet is always somewhat baffling — more so than it should be. Readers don’t see the life in all its chaos and discomfort, only its most beautiful and orderly byproducts — what Frost called “momentary stays against confusion.” The question that occurs to me as I read Inflorescence is, on its face, a simplistic and naïve one. It’s a testament to Hannah’s achievement that it keeps arising anyway: How could she have been miserable when she had that mind to keep her company?

© Bettmann/Corbis  
Bon appétit: Charlie Chaplin digs into a boot in The Gold Rush (1925).  

Modern Times

By Marshall Berman

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
By Peter Gay (W.W. Norton, 640 pages, $35)

Peter Gay ’51GSAS has had a remarkable scholarly career. He has written about many different things, and he has always been smart and serious, vivid and nuanced. He knows a lot, but wears it lightly. Modernism is his 26th book.

There are many accounts of modernism, and they all accept as part of modernism’s core the idea that art and thought are shaped by the artist’s or thinker’s perspective. (Disclosure: I wrote a book on modernism called All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity.) Gay was my teacher at Columbia half a century ago, starting with my freshman Gen Ed course, CCA2, ending with a senior seminar on the Enlightenment. My first book, The Politics of Authenticity (1971), on Montesquieu and Rousseau, cites him as a prime influence.

Gay taught at Columbia from 1948 to 1969 (when he moved to Yale) and Modernism is very much a “Columbia book,” a recognizable product of the ambience that pervaded the University in the 1950s. What was special in those years wasn’t just the brilliance of the faculty; American universities were flourishing then, and there were many brilliant faculties. What was different at Columbia was the shared obsession of many of its best minds with modernity. Old heads like Lionel Trilling, Margaret Mead, Meyer Schapiro, Karl Polanyi, younger ones like C. Wright Mills, Steven Marcus, Daniel Bell, Jacob Taubes, and Susan Sontag were all expending their best energy on what it means to be modern.

Gay enriched this discourse in two ways. First, in a long series of works on the Enlightenment, he argued powerfully that any attempt to live decently in modern times had to start from Enlightenment ideas of humanity and human rights. Second, in his short study, Weimar Culture (1968), he portrayed the disastrous trajectory of two very strong currents in Weimar life, “hunger for wholeness” and “fear of modernity.” Much of the strength of this portrait sprang from Gay’s clear love for Berlin, the place where he was born in 1923. But for many of his late 1960s readers who were born in the USA, his vision of “a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano,” echoed ominously close to home.

One of the thrills of doing intellectual history, as Gay did in his youth, is a feeling of intimacy with brilliant and creative people. Spending years working with the Enlightenment philosophes, and more years with Freud — which yielded a Freud biography and anthology, and the five books that formed The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud — Gay got used to being with the very best. Then he left this road and spent years with ordinary people, producing a harvest of exciting and original books. But as the series unfolds, a reader can sense a certain strain and impatience. Maybe Gay was tired of these people; maybe he felt nostalgia for the company of the best, and wanted a chance to be with them again, to connect with the most creative spirits in many countries, in many disciplines, over a span of more than a century. Maybe, too, he felt nostalgic for his years at Columbia, where modernity was a central organizing idea. It’s easy to see how the idea of a big book on modernism could sound like an alluring dream.

And yet, like many dreams, it’s hard to realize in the morning light. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy comes out sounding like a modernism without people. In his preface, Gay tells us he is going to present “painters and playwrights, architects and novelists, composers and sculptors as exemplars of indispensable elements in the modernist period.” What’s wrong with this? Nothing, if artists and works of art are all you know. Plenty, if you have written masterpieces about the adventures and traumas and intimacies and disappointments of ordinary men and women thrown into modern life. Part of this book’s back story, not in the preface, is that at some point, before the book got started, Gay apparently made a decision to drastically narrow his scope. Modernism in Modernism is an exclusive artists’ ball, and the rest of us aren’t invited; like the peasants in Madame Bovary, we press our noses against the glass and wonder why we got left out. Alas, Gay’s exclusive guest list may spoil the party.

The best parts of Modernism are Gay’s readings of works and the creators of works he loves. The stars are familiar: Baudelaire, James Joyce — especially Ulysses and the world of Leopold Bloom — Schoenberg, the architects and artists of the Bauhaus, Picasso, Eliot, Chaplin, Orson Welles, Virginia Woolf, Frank Lloyd Wright. Some readers have complained that we all know these guys already. I don’t think that’s a problem. The point of a book like this is to put the author’s mark on people and works we know, to relate them to one another, and to situate them all in a larger historical context that the author understands. When Gay writes about what he loves, his historical understanding nourishes his empathy, and it’s a delight to be there.

Some of Modernism’s best moments revolve around Chaplin and Leopold Bloom. Gay stresses Chaplin’s emotional complexity: “his mobile, expressive face . . . was masterly in registering ambivalence, the coexistence of contradictory feelings that makes up so much of mental life.” Bloom is “son, father, lover, friend, warrior, companion at arms, a man of wisdom, and a good man into the bargain” — an entirely ordinary man, yet also “the complete human being”; Bloom contains both Everyman and Faust within himself. These homages generate some of Modernism’s emotional climaxes. Ironically, these objects of Gay’s love are incarnations of the very “ordinary people” he has dismissed from his modernist world. For him, they may represent a return of the repressed.

The last third of the book, the world after World War II, is a problem. After lively pages on Beckett, Sartre, and French existentialism, Gay seems to get tired. Once the 1960s begin, he just doesn’t like what’s out there. He translates his distaste into an insistence that nothing is out there, and nothing ever was. Thus the existence of pop art is said to “signal . . . the death knell of modernism.” I was startled to see this theological metaphor carrying so much weight in the diction of a man who has always prided himself on his critical secularism. The next sentence features another startling metaphor, appropriated from biology: Modernism seems to have reached the end of its “life cycle.” But is biology an appropriate model for human history and culture? How long are these cycles supposed to be? Says who? And how do they know?
Gay the longtime teacher of historiography would surely have alerted his students to sound instant alarms when giant metaphors get wheeled into the foreground like great siege machines — not to mention, when theology and biology appear on the page as sudden allies.

And Gay the partisan of the Enlightenment would have been enraged at diction shaped to convince us that there’s nothing human beings can do. In Modernism’s last chapters, fatalistic metaphors substitute for direct engagement with culture. Gay’s wonderful empathy and curiosity abruptly shut down. His voice sounds increasingly like that of a book I would never have picked as one of his faves: Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.
Anyone who lived through the 1960s will remember this voice of doom. But there were other voices in other rooms.

Marshall Berman ’61CC, distinguished professor of political science at the City College of New York and at the City University of New York, is the author of On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square and All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity.

  © Ted Williams/Corbis
  John Coltrane’s combination of technical mastery and spiritual yearning produced music that transcended the category of post-bop.

Blue Trane

By Bob Blumenthal

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
By Ben Ratliff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 250 pages, $24)

Saxophonist John Coltrane’s legacy includes one of the most profound bodies of work in jazz and one of its least likely careers. While most of the music’s key figures established their presence relatively young, Coltrane went virtually unnoticed until he turned 29. He first gained attention in 1955 when he joined what became the first classic Miles Davis Quintet and the jazz world gained its initial familiarity with his complex if unfinished tenor sax technique that delivered a charged, unyielding tone. When the trumpeter fired Coltrane in early 1957 for bringing his drug and alcohol habits onto the bandstand, Coltrane risked becoming little more than a footnote to a rich jazz era, another musician who succumbed to addictions all too prevalent in the period.

Instead, as Ben Ratliff ’90CC recounts in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Coltrane became a genius and a saint. After kicking his habits through what he later described as a spiritual awakening, Coltrane joined pianist Thelonious Monk’s quartet in 1957 for a legendary stand at New York’s Five Spot Café, and then rejoined Davis for a two-year stretch best remembered for the epochal 1959 LP Kind of Blue. The promise of Coltrane’s previous work was now realized through a virtuosity of conception and execution that remained extravagant and became even more ambitious. The complexities of his harmonic elaborations and rhythmic juxtapositions drew notices that marked him as emblematic of the period’s most challenging art. His approach was labeled angry, in the manner of the young playwrights then revolutionizing the theater, his torrential arpeggios “sheets of sound” that flowed as aural equivalents of abstract expressionist canvases. The album Giant Steps, his 1959 magnum opus, defines advanced improvisation over a rapidly shifting harmonic foundation to this day.

When Coltrane organized his own quartet in 1960, the music became both formally simpler and more socially resonant. The many choruses of twisting, cascading arpeggios became even lengthier soliloquies over the thick polyrhythms of Elvin Jones’s drums and pianist McCoy Tyner’s tolling of the modes and scales that Coltrane had begun to explore with Davis. When Coltrane added a new sound to his arsenal with the long-neglected soprano saxophone, what became the classic John Coltrane Quartet established itself quickly with its recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things”; but the bulk of its repertoire announced an identification with non-Western music (“India,” “Africa”), religiosity (“Spiritual,” “Dear Lord”), and the civil rights movement (“Alabama,” “Up ’Gainst the Wall”). As his performances grew more prolix and intense, Coltrane’s aggressive approach was characterized as a soundtrack to the protest movements of the period. He became a bellwether, labeled “anti-jazz” by traditionalists (among whom were several prominent jazz critics), and celebrated as the harbinger of a new era by a growing audience mesmerized by his and his band’s music. Ratliff correctly labels this period “Vanguard,” and not just to honor the nightclub that provided the scene for Coltrane’s most famous live recordings. The accolades that greeted A Love Supreme, the Quartet’s 1964 masterpiece (and, according to Coltrane’s own liner notes, his thanks to God for the new life he began pursuing in 1957), were a rare demonstration of innovation converging with popular acceptance.

Yet Coltrane remained restless, and by mid-1965 was moving even further from fixed rhythms and tonalities, into combustible exhortations with religious overtones (“Ascension,” “Meditations”) that expanded the basic quartet by adding younger players lacking both Coltrane’s grounding and his command of jazz tradition, a situation that quickly led Tyner and Jones to leave the band. The change may have been generated in part by practical considerations. Coltrane was beginning to succumb to the cancer that claimed his life two years later at age 40, and may have needed the extra voices to sustain a style of playing that would soon be characterized as “energy music.” But it also fit his profile of the ever-questing, unfulfilled seeker. Even longtime supporters began to question his new direction, but they ultimately took solace in their assurance that, had Coltrane only lived, his commitment would have led him to an acceptable aesthetic resolution.

Ratliff, a music critic at the New York Times, wisely sees that there are two stories here — what Coltrane achieved and how he was and continues to be received. He divides his narrative accordingly into two roughly equal sections. The first contains a serviceable journey through the recorded legacy, as open to question as any subjective selection might be, but nonetheless effective in charting the technical and conceptual hegira that Coltrane pursued during his tumultuous creative decade. The second addresses not just the critics and theorists of varying agendas who made Coltrane a cause célèbre, but also the fans who obsessively taped his performances (the library of bootlegged Coltrane may even exceed that of Charlie Parker) and the generations of young musicians who have been in thrall to his now-codified techniques. What results, like Coltrane’s music, is a mixed bag.

Ratliff makes several important points, especially in his discussion of how Coltrane’s music confronted the conventions of both recording and live performance. The temporal limits of the long-playing record in documenting Coltrane’s music are clear enough, but Ratliff is even better at underscoring how Coltrane tested what at the time was the standard 30- or 40-minute length of nightclub sets. In practical terms, this was Coltrane’s most immediately revolutionary act: to create an aesthetic that was both incapable of being accurately documented on a 20-minute album side and inimical to the business interests of club owners and concert producers. The form of the music challenged the powers that be as much as its content. When asked about whether he and Coltrane ever discussed such matters as the relative merits of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, saxophonist Archie Shepp once said that “the only political discussions we ever had were about the music business.” Ratliff emphasizes how Coltrane’s most radical stance may have been vis-à-vis the jazz world’s means of production.

Other important matters get lost in a deluge of reinforcing interviews and Ratliff’s justifiable dissatisfaction with the negative impact of Coltrane the prolix technician on many musicians who followed. We lose sight of the man who often retreated backstage to practice while others soloed, and who frequently diverted the political and spiritual queries of interviewers to focus on music. (Commentators rushed to link Coltrane with various belief systems as third world and religious references proliferated in the song titles of his final years, and especially after his widow, Alice Coltrane, founded an ashram; yet the religious figure called to mind by the Coltrane work ethic is John Calvin.)

Ratliff captures the tumult of Coltrane’s music and the responses it continues to generate, and underscores the shifts in approach that continue to make Coltrane such an important contemporary influence. At the same time, Ratliff underplays a few major issues. While the book’s subtitle promises a focus on sound, he spends too little time on either the aural attraction of Coltrane’s tenor and soprano saxes or the collective voice of his Quartet. There is a story in Coltrane’s sound, but Ratliff only begins to tell it.

Bob Blumenthal is the former jazz critic of the Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix, and the author of Jazz: An Introduction to the History and Legends Behind America’s Music (HarperCollins/Smithsonian).

Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library  
A somber Roosevelt at the funeral of trusted aide and confidant Louis McHenry Howe in 1936. He is flanked by his son Franklin Jr. and his wife, Eleanor.  

His Firm Belief

By Samuel McCracken

By Jean Edward Smith (Random House, 880 pages, $35)

Who is the least-known president of the United States? As presidents, Fillmore and Pierce might vie for the palm. As a human being, Franklin Delano Roosevelt — whose exterior was universally known and who bestrode his time and ours — would until recently have been short-listed. Jean Edward Smith ’64GSAS has now made Roosevelt the man far less of an enigma.

FDR certainly bestrode my world. I spent World War II as a child just across the Potomac from him.

On April 12, 1945, I was at the end of my paper route when I heard, from the house of a customer, the words “Mr. Roosevelt will be buried at Hyde Park.” I assumed that one of the president’s sons had been killed in the war. FDR, who consigned all the other Mr. Roosevelts to mere mortality, could not need burying. I learned better when I got home. Two days later, FDR returned to Washington and I watched Harry Truman drive down Pennsylvania Avenue to receive his predecessor at Union Station.

All of which is to say that for the declining number who remember the extraordinary phenomenon that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no FDR biography can lack interest.

Jean Edward Smith is John Marshall Professor of Political Science at Marshall University, and author of John Marshall: Definer of a Nation and of Grant, a 2002 Pulitzer finalist. He has produced a biography that will probably stand as definitive unless substantial new material is uncovered. Smith does not seem to have unearthed any striking new facts, but his command of what is known is all-encompassing and his presentation phenomenal. He proceeds at three levels: the compact and fluent prose of the main narrative, the never-failing footnotes in which he provides the necessary background for the general reader with suggestions for further reading, and the endnotes in which he further documents the narrative and provides additional bonbons for the connoisseur.

Smith examines Roosevelt’s early life without a tinge of armchair Freudianism. He corrects the popular view of FDR as the child of a domineering mother and an old and distant father. (James Roosevelt was 54 when Franklin, his son by a second marriage, was born.) To the contrary, Sara Delano Roosevelt appears as deeply supportive, emotionally and financially, of her only child, and James Roosevelt was FDR’s best friend.

The picture Smith draws is of a gifted and privileged young man whose self-confidence took him triumphantly through the disaster of paralysis and the challenges of democratic politics and a world war.

FDR began his political career in 1910 by winning a state senate seat in a soundly Republican district that included the family estate at Hyde Park. The following year, he met Louis McHenry Howe, the Albany correspondent of the New York Herald, who quickly decided when covering FDR that, as he later said, “nothing but an accident could keep him from becoming President.” Howe almost immediately dedicated himself to the prevention of any such accident.
Howe, plagued by ill health and often described as “gnome-like,” was not to Eleanor’s taste, but they became close friends: politically and personally Howe was ER’s Pygmalion. He was a constant mediator between two formidable partners in a difficult marriage. He also served as an able surrogate, successfully campaigning for Roosevelt’s reelection in 1912 when FDR was knocked out with a bout of typhoid.

The next year, FDR joined the Wilson administration as assistant secretary of the navy. As Smith makes clear, FDR’s imaginative and activist performance during the war prefigured his presidency. He won a reputation such that he was on the Democratic dream ticket for 1920 with Hoover, whose party affiliation was still ambiguous. In the end, FDR became James Cox’s running mate and the ticket was snowed under by Harding and Coolidge.

Then, awaiting his political opportunities, he embarked on a career in business and law when in August 1921, at his summer home in Campobello, New Brunswick, paralysis struck. His mother urged him to retire to the life of an invalid country squire, but FDR seems to have regarded his paralysis as a minor blip in his career. His psychic recovery from that exception was fueled by determination and not a little denial (he seems to have thought, perhaps to the end, that some day he would walk), but also because he was accustomed to winning. He did not win the battle with his leg muscles, but he did triumph over any public perception that a man who could not walk could not govern.

He was fully back in play at the 1924 Democratic convention, when he moved painfully on crutches to the lectern to nominate Al Smith for president in a speech that did not win the nomination but that made Al forever “The Happy Warrior.” Four years later, a successful Smith persuaded a reluctant FDR to run to succeed him in Albany. He won a term, and then another.

The two terms were Acts One and Two. In the first, FDR freed himself of Al Smith, who was at loose ends after his defeat and urged FDR to retain his major advisers Robert Moses ’14GSAS, ’52HON and Belle Moskowitz. In Act Two, he confronted the Depression and sketched out what was to follow in 1933 and after.

And yet when he turned his attention from Albany to Washington, his self-confidence, coupled with the powerful but superficial quality of charm, led others, in the word of a successor, to misunderestimate him. Walter Lippmann’s acerbic judgment in 1932 was that he was “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.”

The fight for the nomination was no cakewalk, but once it was in hand, Hoover was an easy act to follow. Before 1932, candidates waited to be informed of their nomination a month or so after the convention and made a routine speech on their front porches. Roosevelt electrified the country by flying from Albany to Chicago, where he promised a new deal.
In 1932, however, the presidential term still began on March 4, so Hoover had almost four months of lame-duckery, and by the time FDR took the oath, the nation’s banking system (much of which was closed) was in a state of collapse.
This was the context of FDR’s first inaugural. When he spoke of fear (“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”) he was confronting a threat that was alive in the land.

Smith’s account of the first year moves sure-footedly between the political and the personal.

In Smith’s concisely detailed account of the first hundred days’ legislation, one understands the astonishing march of events that FDR drove. These are not merely reported but set in the context of their future. Footnotes relate court challenges, and in noting the great speed with which the first New Deal bills were drafted, Smith sets up an overconfident FDR, who, in a later chapter called “Hubris,” fails to fashion a Supreme Court more to his liking.

Meanwhile, back at the White House, we learn that Franklin and Eleanor did not see much of each other. They had separate bedrooms, (largely) separate dining rooms, separate coteries, and separate personal schedules. Eleanor seems to have dealt with Franklin largely through his secretary, Marguerite (“Missy”) LeHand.

FDR’s failures in his second term may be attributable to Louis Howe’s death in the spring of 1936. As Howe lay dying, he remarked to a visitor, “Franklin is on his own now.”

I once saw a photograph on a corridor wall at Campobello showing FDR at Howe’s funeral: devastated, for once bereft of his trademark ebullience. Smith’s selections from Howe’s advice to FDR, frequently sent by telegram with the practiced reporter’s compression, suggest the ways in which Howe had kept FDR’s persistent confidence from morphing into hubris.
FDR’s presidency remains so contentious that polemic is always a temptation, one which Smith avoids. In discussing Pearl Harbor, he does not explicitly clear FDR of the conspiracy theory that in order to intervene in the European war he provoked the Japanese attack. He merely documents the administration’s concern that an inevitable war with Japan would complicate an inevitable war with Germany, and its assumption Japan would attack the easiest target: the nearby Philippines. Unaware of the strategic and tactical brilliance of Admirals Yamamoto and Nagumo, FDR regarded Pearl Harbor as impregnable.

In Smith’s account, FDR was not just a morale-boosting, charismatic commander-in-chief, but a capable strategist as well. He quotes Churchill, lodging in the White House shortly after Pearl Harbor: “[FDR’s] breadth of view, resolution and his loyalty to the common cause are beyond all praise.” Later, after the Casablanca conference, Churchill concluded, “he is the greatest man I have ever known.” It is unlikely that when Smith quotes these encomiums he does not in large part assent to them.

Yet this admiring biography is never tainted by hagiography. Smith describes FDR’s internment of Japanese aliens and Japanese-American citizens quite simply: “one of the shabbiest displays of presidential prerogative in American history.” And he goes on to explain in detail just why the internment was not merely a legal abomination but one without any claim to reason of state.

Smith’s epigraph is worthy to have been written in Latin: “He lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees.” His conclusion is that Roosevelt “proved the most gifted American statesman of the twentieth century.” Anyone who would dispute this judgment must first read this remarkable biography word by word, footnote by footnote, endnote by endnote.

Samuel McCracken is a critic and essayist living in Boston.