February 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Franklin & Eleanor’ by Hazel Rowley

By Carmen Callil

It is always a pleasure to read a biography by Hazel Rowley. She is an enthusiastic chronicler of the lives she chooses to present to us, and has considerable narrative and research talents. Her biography of Christina Stead remains her best. Always she chooses subjects who are unconventional or, in some way, crusaders and outsiders.

Her joint biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Tête-à-Tête, first took Rowley into uncomfortable waters. Certainly the brutal insensitivities of those two intellectuals were worth recording but the retelling of such lives mainly through the prism of emotional and sexual concerns can make even the nastiest of humans – it’s hard to view de Beauvoir and Sartre as other than this – seem footling and tedious.

Rowley is equally at odds with her better self in this new biography, in which she tells the story of the Roosevelts’ marriage. Franklin D Roosevelt (1882–1945): four times president of the United States, crippled by polio for most of his adult life, a liberal leader and saviour of his country, who directed America’s victory over the Nazis and the Japanese in the Pacific War. His wife, Eleanor (1884–1962): his political partner, the mother of his children, an activist of enormous energies and wide sympathies, who came to stand for all that was best in American democratic principles in the mid-twentieth century. They wrote themselves – Eleanor copiously. Many excellent biographies, memoirs, histories and accounts have been written about them; there is already a vast Roosevelt bibliography.

It has long been known that Franklin dallied with other women, that Eleanor too had other loves, including women. Rowley claims originality in this biography in her assertion that, despite these infidelities, the Roosevelt marriage was a “bold and radical partnership”, one of deep love in which each accepted that the other’s emotional needs might require fulfilment elsewhere. The trouble is that this has been clear for many a moon and it’s difficult in the twenty-first century to contend that a marriage such as this is something exceptional and astonishing.

A further problem is that the Roosevelts are part of world history, not literature; the lack of any historical context makes Rowley’s book a one-sided portrait of two most interesting beings. Where is Roosevelt the well-known political bully? Can the adoration of, and slavish servitude from, all who surrounded the couple be seen as bullying of a very high order, rather than as a series of semi-idyllic relationships?

These qualifications, however, never make her work uninteresting. Rowley is a biographer of the very first order and this rosy account of the Roosevelts shows no diminution of her skills. This book will provide a new generation with a succinct account of the lives and time of two Americans of unquestionable human worth. That in itself is something.

(The Monthly is deeply saddened to learn that Hazel Rowley passed away on 2 March 2011.)

Carmen Callil
Carmen Callil is the founder of Virago Press. Her books include Lebanese Washing Stories and Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family & Fatherland.

'Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage' By Hazel Rowley, Melbourne University Press, 352pp; $36.99
Cover: February 2011

February 2011

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Planting hope

A community gardening program is bringing hope to asylum seekers

Scott free

The rorting revelations continue, but who will be held properly accountable?

Image [detail] of Agency, by William Gibson

Days of future passed: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

The cyberpunk pioneer’s latest novel continues his examination of the present from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic future

Image from ‘Extinction Studies’

Wildlife’s whispered traces: ‘Extinction Studies’

Lucienne Rickard’s durational art performance at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery reckons with extinct species


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

John Peter Russell & Vincent van Gogh

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Life juices

Fasting at a ‘Fat Farm’

'How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly - And the Stark Choices Ahead' By Dambisa Moyo, Allen Lane, 224pp; $32.95

‘How the West was Lost’ by Dambisa Moyo

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A tale of two cities

Mahmoud Saikal and Kabul’s ‘New City’ Proposal


More in Arts & Letters

Untitled (Pollo Frito), 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Stopped in the street: ‘Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines’

Early death meant the work of these renowned artists never fully emerged from ’80s New York subcultures

Image [detail] of Agency, by William Gibson

Days of future passed: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

The cyberpunk pioneer’s latest novel continues his examination of the present from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic future

Image of Gordon Koang

The king in exile: Gordon Koang

The music of the South Sudanese star and former refugee offers solace and a plea for unity

Image from True History of the Kelly Gang

Kills, frills and Kelly aches: Justin Kurzel’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

The Australian director brings a welcome sense of style to the unusually malleable story


More in Noted

Image of L’Arlésienne [detail], by Pablo Picasso

‘Matisse & Picasso’: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Hanging works by the two masters together highlights their artistic rivalry and mutual influence

Image of A Couple of Things Before the End, by Sean O'Beirne

‘A Couple of Things Before the End’ by Sean O’Beirne

The Australian author’s debut story collection confidently converts the linguistic detritus of our era into something of lasting value

Utagawa Yoshimori, The Tongue-cut Sparrow [detail]

‘Japan supernatural’

The Art Gallery of NSW’s examination of Japan’s centuries-long artistic traditions depicting the spirit world and the macabre

Cover of ‘The Topeka School’

‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner

The American author’s latest novel canvasses the seething hate speech of the burgeoning alt-right and white-boy rap battles in the Midwest


Read on

Image from ‘Extinction Studies’

Wildlife’s whispered traces: ‘Extinction Studies’

Lucienne Rickard’s durational art performance at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery reckons with extinct species

Image of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull

Turnbull’s legacy costs

The former PM’s promise to legislate a religious freedom bill has ensured the culture wars rage on

Image from ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’

Party of three: ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’

Australian comedian Josh Thomas brings his unique brand of comedy to the classic American sitcom format

Image of Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott composing ‘Tao of Glass’

A dream within a dream: ‘Tao of Glass’

Theatremaker Phelim McDermott on his highly personal collaboration with Philip Glass


×
×