In This Review

A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
By Michael Kazin
Knopf, 2006, 400 pp

William Jennings Bryan is a major figure in American political and cultural history who has never received his due. A populist and an evangelical, he straddled cultures and constituencies that were already beginning to separate in his day; indeed, today it is very hard to imagine a world in which the country's leading populist politician with redistributionist economic views could simultaneously be one of the country's leading spokespeople for the Christian right. In this distinguished contribution to American letters, Kazin proves himself to have had both the historical vision and the generosity of spirit necessary to have crafted the richest and most nuanced portrait of Bryan since the former "Boy Orator of the Platte" died. Ever since H. L. Mencken danced on Bryan's grave following Bryan's confused and feeble performance under Clarence Darrow's withering cross-examination at the "Scopes Monkey Trial" (on teaching evolution in public schools), many self-described progressive intellectuals have accepted the image of Bryan as an ignorant yahoo from the sticks. But with the reemergence of evangelicals as an important political presence, Democrats are trying to rebuild the old bridges. This may be tough; most white evangelicals today are more pro-market than they were in Bryan's day. Ironically, African Americans are now the largest group among whom the economics and the religion of Bryan, the lifelong segregationist champion of the old democracy, still hold sway.