A debut biography focuses on the life of William Jennings Bryan.
As the wife of Bryan College’s president, Livesay saw the need after nearly two decades with the institution “for students and alumni of the College to understand the significance and uniqueness of” its namesake, one of the most important politicians of the early 20th century. From the outset, it is clear that this book is not a critical assessment of Bryan’s life, but a celebration. Eschewing the chronological conventions of biographies, the author instead divides her work thematically into five sections that explore Bryan’s family life, his turbulent political career, his oratorical prowess, his religious activism, and his place in America’s historical memory. The author paints Bryan as a principled common man worthy of contemporary admiration. In particular, she highlights the paradox of Bryan as an unwavering religious fundamentalist who championed progressive politics. The same man who advocated for the income tax, women’s suffrage, business regulations, and fair labor laws also led the crusade against teaching evolution in public schools and was one of the nation’s first radio evangelists. Yet the strength of Livesay’s book is not its biographical information, which is rather encyclopedic, but its gorgeously designed pages. Nearly every page features photographs, charts, maps, timelines, or other visual aids that collectively form a polished, accessible, and engaging work. Unfortunately, readers looking for nuance will be disappointed by the author’s lack of critical analysis, which is no doubt in part due to the volume’s connection to Bryan College, a conservative Christian school founded in the wake of the politician’s anti-evolution campaign in the 1920s. For example, though Bryan at times lived in the South and was a beloved figure among white Southerners, Livesay is silent on the statesman’s ambivalence toward segregation and black disenfranchisement, two defining features of Southern politics. More context on the Populist and Progressive eras would also help readers see Bryan not just as a self-made, “great” man, but as the byproduct of grassroots movements as well.
A beautifully designed work limited by its rose-colored admiration of a flawed, complicated politician.