Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Eleanor and Franklin, by Joseph P. Lash
That being said, I still think the title, Eleanor and Franklin is a bit of a misnomer because the story's really about Eleanor. It begins with several chapters about Eleanor's childhood and her experiences with her parents. Her mother who never particularly cared for Eleanor and didn't make any effort to hide the fact, and her father who, although filled with love for his daughter, possibly struggled with mental illness and drank heavily as a coping mechanism to his own detriment. Franklin is barely mentioned at all until he starts courting Eleanor and while Franklin plays a large role in Eleanor's life, the focus of the book is very much on her. So in a way, I almost find Franklin getting equal billing in the title almost superfluous because the book really is about Eleanor and her own activities.
Lash's personal friendship with Eleanor, as well as access to countless family letters and documents, as well as interviews with Eleanor's children makes this an exhaustively-researched book. As it was written in 1971 there are some aspects and opinions that are a little outdated, but this is probably the definitive source for information on the personal, intimate life of Eleanor Roosevelt. If nothing else this book is a literary landmark because of Lash's attention to detail and exhaustive research.
Truly one of the most remarkable things about Eleanor was that she had her own career, almost separate from her husband's. Due to Franklin's infidelity with Lucy Mercer, an event Eleanor found difficult to talk about for her entire life, Eleanor did not invest herself entirely in Franklin and made sure to have an identity separate from him. While Eleanor was influential in campaigning for Franklin and organizing Democratic politics, as well as using her writing and radio broadcasts to promote the New Deal during Franklin's administration, Eleanor always had projects that were her own. If there's anything that comes out of this book, it's the sheer indefatigable energy Eleanor possessed, even into her later years. Eleanor was a prolific writer, maintaining a daily newspaper column for several years and consistently making her deadlines. And this was when she was racing all across the country, poking into slums, coal mines, farms, and other neglected areas of the United States to find areas where the government could do something to help people more during the New Deal and see what was working and what wasn't.
Probably the most powerful thing about Eleanor was that she never lost her faith in humanity's better nature and never lost her desire to do good for other people. From her early childhood Eleanor suffered quite a lot of emotional abuse and came to believe her only value lay in what she was able to give to other people. Based on my own reading of her personal correspondence, as well as the opinions of some psychologists, she may have suffered from some form of depression, bipolar, or other mood disorder. (There is some evidence to suggest that depression and bipolar ran in the Roosevelt family. Theodore Roosevelt, his brother and Eleanor's father Elliot, and some of Theodore's sons all have evidence suggesting they suffered from some mood disorder as well.) And while it may not have come from the healthiest place, Eleanor developed a sense of duty to others which led to her performing countless good works and serving as a champion for the poor, downtrodden, and marginalized. Personally I find it really inspiring that somebody who had a life of feeling unwanted and unloved, even feeling betrayed by her own husband, can grow beyond that and become someone with a heart big enough for all of humanity.
Overall I think this book is very good. Being on the weighty side and having less time to read than I'd like, it took me some time to finish, but I think it's well worth the effort. The image of Eleanor Roosevelt, a kind woman who remained her husband's, and the Democratic Party's, conscience, constantly pushing for reform to make America more free, more just, and more equal. When Franklin took a more tepid approach to racial equality, out of a need to maintain support of Southern Democrats for federal legislation, Eleanor proudly promoted equality for African-Americans and other ethnic minorities in the United States. I think the fact that Eleanor was able to fight past her own feelings of inadequacy and accomplished so much in her life is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
If you're interested in learning more about Eleanor Roosevelt, I think this book is well worth the effort. It provides a very detailed view of Eleanor's life with countless documents and offers her opinions on a number of subjects. She was truly one of the most remarkable people of the twentieth century.