katznelson on fdr


It’s a powerful argument, swept along by Katznelson’s robust prose and the imposing scholarship that lies behind it. Only at the very end of the book, though, does he acknowledge another side of the story. For all its compromises, the New Deal gave millions of Americans a sense of belonging — a sense of rights — they’d never had before. That sense swept through the industrial working class, where union buttons suddenly became badges of honor. It swept through all those ethnic communities that until the 1930s had been treated as not quite American. And despite the racial dynamics Katznelson so ably describes, it swept through African-­American communities too. No doubt that’s why Bubbeh Frima saw Roosevelt as such a towering figure, because where she lived up in Washington Heights, America seemed a better place than it had been before he took office. That’s also why, just a few years after Roosevelt’s death, Jim Crow began to come tumbling down, shattered by a social movement that had been invigorated by the promise, if not necessarily the practice, of the New Deal era. Roosevelt can’t be given credit for that extraordinary triumph, of course; that belongs to the men, women and children who risked their lives on the streets of the South. But he played a role, however indirect.

more from Kevin Boyle at the NY Times here.