Doing the Lord's Work

March 1, 2006

Two images of William Jennings Bryan have settled into the public memory, neither of them flattering. One is the fundamentalist mountebank familiar to viewers of Inherit the Wind, with its fictionalized rendering of the Scopes trial. In it, the character based on Bryan proclaims himself “more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” He is, in short, a crowd-pleasing creationist numbskull, and nothing more.

The other portrait of Bryan is less cinematic, but darker. The classic version of it appears in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948 and still selling around 10,000 copies each year, according to a forthcoming biography of the historian. Hofstadter sketches the career of Bryan as a populist leader during the economic depression of the 1890s, when he emerged as the Midwest’s fierce and eloquent scourge of the Eastern bankers and industrial monopolies.

Yet this left-leaning Bryan had, in Hofstadter’s account, no meaningful program for change. He was merely a vessel of rage. Incapable of statesmanship, only of high-flown oratory, he was a relic of the agrarian past –- and the prototype of the fascistic demagogues who were discovering their own voices, just as Bryan’s career was reaching its end.

Historians have been challenging these interpretations for decades -– beginning in earnest more than 40 years ago, with the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine, who is now a professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. It was Levine who pointed out that when Bryan denounced evolution, he tended to be thinking more of Nietzsche than of Darwin. And the Nietzsche he feared was not today’s poststructuralist playboy, but the herald of a new age of militaristic brutality.

Still, old caricatures die hard. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to pick up Michael Kazin’s new book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) without imagining that its title contains a snarl and a sneer. Isn’t the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity and anti-elitist sentiment always just a disguise for base motives and cruel intentions? To call someone godly is now, almost by default, to accuse them of hypocrisy.

But Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, has a very different story to tell. Revisionist scholarship on Bryan -- the effort to dig beneath the stereotypes and excavate his deeper complexities -- has finally yielded a book that might persuade the general reader to rethink the political role played by “the Great Commoner.”

In an earlier study, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), Kazin described the emergence in the 19th century of an ideology he called “producerism” – a moral understanding of politics as the struggle between those who built the nation’s infrastructure and those who exploited it. (The farmer or the honest businessman was as much a producer as the industrial worker. Likewise, land speculators and liquor dealers were part of the exploitive class, as were bankers and monopolistic scoundrels.)

The producerist ethos remains a strong undercurrent of American politics today. Bryan was its most eloquent spokesman. He wedded it to a powerful (and by Kazin’s account utterly sincere) belief that politics was a matter of following the commandment to love thy neighbor. As a man of his era, Bryan could be obtuse about how to apply that principle: His attitude toward black Americans was paternalistic, on a good day, and he was indifferent, though not hostile, concerning the specific problems facing immigrants. But Kazin points out that there is no sign of nativist malice in Bryan’s public or private communications. Some of his followers indulged in conspiratorial mutterings against the Catholics or the Jews, but Bryan himself did not. At the same time -- canny politician that he was -- he never challenged the growing power of the Klan during the 1920s.

It’s an absorbing book, especially for its picture of Bryan’s following. (He received an incredible amount of mail from them, only about two percent of which, Kazin notes, has survived.) I contacted Kazin to ask a few questions by e-mail.  

Q: By today's standards, Bryan seems like a bundle of contradictions. He was both a fundamentalist Christian and the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He embodied a very 19th century notion of "character," but was also exceptionally shrewd about marketing his own personality. For many Americans, he was a beloved elder statesman -- despite losing his two presidential bids and otherwise spending very little time in elected office. How much of that contradictoriness is in Bryan himself, and how much in the eye of the beholder today?

A: Great question! The easiest part to answer is the first: for Bryan and many other reform-minded white Christians, there was no contradiction between their politics and their religion. The “revolution” being made by the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers was destroying the pious republic they knew, or wished to remember (slavery, of course, they forgot about). What Bryan called “applied Christianity” was the natural antidote to the poison of rampant capitalism. The rhetoric of Bellamy, the People’s Party, and the Knights of Labor was full of such notions -– as were the sermons and writings of many Social Gospelers, such as Washington Gladden and Charles Stelzle.

On the character-personality question – I think Warren Susman and many historians he influenced over-dichotomize these two concepts. No serious Christian could favor the latter over the former. Yet, the exigencies of the cultural marketplace and of celebrity culture in particular produced a fascination with the personal lives of the famous. So Bryan, who was as ego-obsessed as any politician, went with the flow, knowing his personality was boosting his political influence. Being a journalist himself, he understood the rules of the emerging game. Do you know Charles Ponce De Leon’s book about celebrity journalism in this period?

Q. Oddly enough, I do, actually. But let's talk about the people to whom Bryan appealed. From digging in the archives, you document that Bryan had a following a loyal following among professionals, and even successful businessmen, who saw themselves as part of the producing class threatened by the plutocratic elite. Was that surprising to discover? Normally you think of populism in that era as the politics of horny-handed toil.

A: As I argued in The Populist Persuasion, when “producerism” became a popular ideal in democratic politics, Americans from many classes were quite happy to embrace it. It thus became an essential contested concept. But among a broad cross-section of people, the critique of finance capital was always stronger in the South and West, where Bryan had his most consistent support, than in places like Philly and NYC.

As for the letters -— I enjoyed that part of the research the most, although it was frustrating as hell to find almost no letters that were written during the campaign of 1908 and only a small number from then until the 1920s. If only WJB or his wife had revealed, somewhere, the criteria they used when dumping all that correspondence! That, at least,would have been a consolation. Of course, if they had kept nearly all of it, I’d still be there in the Manuscript Room at the Library of Congress, tapping away.

Q: I get the impression that Bryan might well have become president if women had been able to vote in 1896 or 1900. How much of his appeal came from expressing the moral and cultural ideals associated with women's "civilizing" role? And how much of it was sex appeal of his rugged personality and magnetic stage presence? 

A: Ah, the counterfactuals! Bryan’s image as a “godly hero” certainly did appeal to many women, as did his eloquence and good looks (the latter, at least while he was in his 30s and early 40s). His support for prohibition and woman suffrage would have appealed to many women as well.

In 1896 and 1900, he carried most of the states where women then had the vote (in the Mountain West). Although that may have been because of his free silver and anti-big money stands, which is probably why most men in those states voted for him. On the other hand, his radical image could have limited his appeal to women elsewhere in the country. Women voters, before the 1960s, tended to vote for safe, conservative candidates.

Q: Another counterfactual.... What if Bryan had won? What sort of president would he have been? The man was great at making speeches; none better. But could he really have cut it as Chief Executive?

A: As president, he probably would have been a divisive figure, perhaps an American Hugo Chavez -— but without the benefit of oil revenues! If he tried to carry out the 1896 platform, there may have been a capital strike against him, which would have brought on another depression. If he hadn’t, the Populists and many left Democrats would have deserted him. The sad fact is that he hadn’t built a strong enough constituency to govern, much less to win the election in the first place.

Q: Finally, a question about the subjective dimension of working on this biography. Any moments of profound disillusionment? Rapt admiration? Sudden epiphany?

A: I wish I had time to pursue this important question at length -- perhaps I’ll write an essay about it someday. But briefly: I started reading all those fan letters and experienced an epiphany. Millions of ordinary people adored this guy and thought he was a prophet! And he was certainly fighting the good fight -– against Mark Hanna and his friends who were initiating the U.S. empire.

I also was impressed by his ability as a speech-writer as well as a performer. He could turn a phrase quite brilliantly. But after a year or so, I had to come to grips with his bigotry against black people and his general inability to overcome his mistrust of urban pols (although he didn’t share the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of some of his followers).

The problem was, in the America of a century ago, Bryan would not have been a hero to the white evangelical grassroots if he had been as clever and cosmopolitan a pol as FDR. So I ended up with a historian’s sense of perspective about the limits of the perceptions and achievements of the past. In recent speeches, E.J. Dionne muses that perhaps we should ask “What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?” I’m not sure that’s a useful question. 


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