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Weekend Reading : The Romance of America (Again)

March 13, 2011

Books have you step into alternative universes, those created by their authors. A free weekend and the bookshelves beckon. Didn’t Disraeli say that watching the sunlight move across the bookshelves in his Hughenden library was the best thing in the world ?

On Saturday I reached for Steve Neal’s Happy Days Are Here Again (William Morrow 2002) which is an account of the 1932 Democratic Convention, the Chicago convention which nominated F D Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, for the presidential contest against the incumbent Herbert Hoover.

No inevitability in Roosevelt’s nomination : the Stop Roosevelt movement included eight of the 10 largest state delegations. Three previous Democratic nominees for president were working against him, while only one of six New York daily newspapers supported him. Seen retrospectively, it had to happen – it was willed that the country squire from Hyde Park with the Harvard accent would become president. But like so much of the 20th Century (the start of World War One, the rise of Hitler, the succession of Stalin) it was happenstance.

This book – nothing original in it, by the way, and a book you or I could have written – tells what a close run thing it was. It may have potentially left the party with a John Nance Garner or William Gibbs McAdoo as president in the Depression and the lead-up to War. The alternatives to Roosevelt don’t bear thinking about.

It is a story that makes part of the Roosevelt presidency clearer. In the desperate days attempting to mobilize a majority he had the support of the South, the white South that is. The region backed him. It was part of his coalition and would be during the New Deal. As a result, his presidency would do nothing to disturb Jim Crow or to elevate blacks, despite Eleanor’s pleading (see my review of the late Hazel Rowley’s book on the Roosevelts in the book review section).

Great cast of characters at the convention : Al Smith, Huey Long, Boston Mayor James Curley of Last Hurrah fame, Clarence Darrow, Jane Adams, Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York, Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago and Roosevelt campaign managers Louis Howe and James Farley. There was “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, governor of Oklahoma – like most of the delegates in white suit and straw boater, with cigar.

Dominated by liquor interests intent on overturning the eighteenth amendment, racially segregated, its mayors and legislators and party bosses tainted with corruption, it was nonetheless a exercise in self government that produced the best president since Lincoln, unequalled to this day. By the way, it was governed by the two thirds rule which meant that Roosevelt entered the convention one hundred votes short.

Reading Benet’s poem on John Brown tipped me to pick up and start Russell Bank’s Cloudsplitter, a 1998 novel narrated by a son of this radical opponent of slavery who helped nudge the South towards secession when he staged his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in a Quixotic attempt at provoking a slave uprising.

He was the embodiment of direct action against a clear and present evil, while other abolitionists like Garrison worked at persuasion and moderate Republicans like Lincoln only sought to contain slavery and wanted to compromise with it where it stood. As a result he is a disturbing character in American history, someone close to being a terrorist (in an unambiguously good cause). I’m 100 pages into it and being rewarded for the time invested and more persuaded that it’s the historical novels I’m drawn to these days more than other types. Anchor the story convincingly in an interesting period and let us live there in our imaginations – that’s a gift.

And that, with two plunges into Maroubra’s surf, was my weekend, reading Bible passages with John Brown and canvassing for Franklin. And if you enjoyed your barbecues, your vintage wine, your race meetings and your sailing boat that’s fine too. Don’t take my books away from me and I won’t denounce your pursuits. Now there’s just time for another surf.

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