edited by David Emblidge
Da Capo ($16)
by Charisse Gendron
Monday through Friday from 1936 to 1962, in a widely syndicated newspaper column called My Day, Eleanor Roosevelt told four-million readers her thoughts about public affairs and domestic life. The title of the column refers to its spontaneous, diaristic tone—"After greeting my children, we went down in a body to welcome all the movie talent which had come to help out in the President's Birthday Balls"—a tone that allowed readers comfortable access to Roosevelt's imposing mind and bionic schedule. She wrote, no doubt, in the same spirit in which she and FDR served hotdogs to the visiting King and Queen of England.
Although naturally not confessional—those seeking the private Roosevelt are directed to Blanche Weisen Cook's acclaimed multi-volume biography—the columns are indeed intimate in that they reveal the evolving convictions of a person centrally involved in the political and social life of the country for three decades. Dedicated throughout her career to the sometimes contradictory ideals of justice and peace, Roosevelt occasionally changes her mind or takes unexpected positions. In 1939, still opposed to the war against Hitler, she writes: "Why can't we get around a table and face the fact that Germany and Italy have started this whole performance because it was the only way in which their people could exist? . . . It is wearisome to read of the balance of power. I would like to see somebody write about a balance of trade and of food for the world . . ."
When Germany invades Brussels, however, Roosevelt throws her support behind the war effort, broadcasting (with Dorothy Thompson, Clare Booth Luce, Pearl Buck, and Marianne Moore) a message of sympathy to the women in detention camps in Poland, encouraging housewives to save cooking fat for the production of glycerine, and, though a champion of workers, advising against coal strikes that would slow the production of weapons.
Accused by misogynists of didacticism—"As she ages, the feminine part of the Roosevelt presidency becomes wilder in her attempts to force American youths to follow the pattern of life she wants to dictate to them"—Roosevelt was a flexible and discriminating thinker. Nowhere is this more evident than during the communist scare in the post-war years, when she served under Truman as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and chaired the Human Rights Commission.
"I think the thing that needs to be settled today," she writes in 1948, "is whether a statement that you believe in certain economic and political theories known as Communism implies that you also believe in the overthrow of your government by force." Roosevelt is one of the few who gets it: If you bully dissenters into waving the American flag, then you don't believe in democracy any more than they do. Considering the actor and activist Paul Robeson's views too radical to endorse, she nonetheless wonders wryly why people go to hear him if they find his words so intolerable. She also reminds readers that racial prejudice drove Robeson to the USSR, where "he was recognized as an educated man, as an artist and as an equal."
Roosevelt was revered by those who really counted, such as Humphrey Bogart, who asked her during a lunch at Romanoffs to autograph his copy of her book, This I Remember. But well-wishers could not protect her projects from the national reaction against liberalism led by a new Republican president and, more stridently, by the red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy. Roosevelt held McCarthy partly responsible when in 1953 the Eisenhower administration refused to subscribe to the Declaration of Human Rights, a document she and her United Nations colleagues had worked for seven years to produce.
In retrospect, the title My Day suggests not only the diurnalism of Roosevelt's columns, but also their encapsulation of the history of a generation. "I have come to the conclusion that the nation as a whole has a very short memory," she writes resignedly in 1951, going on to explain the roots of the current Korean crisis in the Allies' liberation of Korea from Japan and subsequent division of the country between the US and the USSR. In the same year she finds it necessary to reprise the purpose of New Deal legislation, which was not to turn Americans soft but to save farms when "the businessmen who had striven to find answers to the economic problems up to 1932 had not succeeded in keeping down a wave of foreclosures." Farmers and others whom the New Deal kept working "were not made dependent," she continues; "They were simply kept from revolution against our government."
For those of us who failed to learn about 20th-century American history in school, these columns, with invaluable headnotes by editor David Emblidge, offer an inspiring way to make up for lost time.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001