Monday, September 12, 2016

Book Review: Rightful Heritage

Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America
Douglas Brinkley
History, biography

The Roosevelt who usually gets all the good conservation press--not without merit--is FDR's fifth cousin Theodore. If Franklin gets any credit, it's usually for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Rightful Heritage is Douglas Brinkley's exhaustive attempt to rebalance the historical scales.

It works very well, at the level of partisan investigative journalism. That is, Rightful Heritage is a long catalogue of who, what, where, when, why. The who is usually FDR, and the what is usually working the politics of conservation. You can open the book to pretty much any page and find out that on [date], FDR was working towards establishing the [Soandso National Wildlife Refuge/Park/Forest]. The focus is on his first two presidential terms, but--as Brinkley makes clear--this was a lifelong passion, curtailed but not stopped even by the Second World War.

That, by the way, is one of Rightful Heritage's better accomplishments: it gives Roosevelt some credit for both personal consistency and intellectual heft. FDR was a notoriously protean man, and various observers have derided him for it. He was "a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament" (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). Or he was "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president" (Walter Lippman). Theodore Roosevelt's acid-tongued daughter Alice called him "Miss Nancy". However, Brinkley's research makes an overwhelming case that conservation was for FDR a lifelong, serious, and consistent passion, one to which he gave his full attention and of which he had an excellent intellectual and policy grasp.

The overwhelmingness of the case gets to be too much sometimes. That's the limitation of investigative-journalistic writing. Many of the pre-presidential chapters read like diary entries: each paragraph is complete of itself, but completely lacking in connective tissue to what's around it. (I believe I once counted seven consecutive paragraphs with totally unconnected topic sentences.) There isn't much analysis or depth in Rightful Heritage (the ever-present tension between "wise use" conservation and "forever wild" conservation is described, but never really explored), and Brinkley makes his partisanship pretty glaring. And let's face it: six hundred pages of who, what, etc. can't help but be repetitive.

So Rightful Heritage is not entirely for the faint of heart. If your interest in FDR or conservation would be met by a Wikipedia article, best go there. If you're opposed to conservation or to Roosevelt himself or to Rooseveltian political ideas, this book will just make you angry. On the other hand, it doesn't require any special background knowledge, it's nicely readable prose, and it does exactly what it sets out to do: give Franklin Roosevelt the respect he should have as an effective conservationist activist politician.

This book crosses not one but two Ken Burns documentaries: The National Parks: America's Best Idea and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. I recommend both of them highly, particularly the latter. (Seriously, if you're the kind of person who likes this blog, you need to watch Ken Burns documentaries.) 

On the written side, The Man He Became by James Tobin is a very fine and focused chronicle of Roosevelt's polio, his paralysis, and how his response to it changed him. There's a respectable argument that Roosevelt was something of a lightweight--specifically, that he was something of a Cousin Teddy Roosevelt wannabe--and that his response to his illness was one of the things that forced him to become his own man.

No comments:

Post a Comment