My Review Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson

has been published at

It’s not a favorable review–I argue that Katznelson grossly exaggerates the extent to which FDR was stymied from pursuing a progressive agenda by the power of southern Congressmen, and that he is unpersuasive in excusing some of Roosevelt’s worst policies on the grounds that the alternative was to put democracy in grave peril.

But the book is even worse than the review lets on. First, there are many times when the subject at issue cries out for the author to display at least a rudimentary understanding of economics, but he never does.

Second, and more important, while Katznelson’s prose is fine, the book is both a disorganized mess, with little apparent rhyme or reason as to which topics the author covers and in how much detail, and way too long. To take just one very minor but telling example of unnecessary detail that clogs the narrative, we learn that Sen. Theodore Bilbo favored “loud check suits and brash ties.” That would be relevant information for a biography of Bilbo, but what does it tell us about “the New Deal and the Origins of Our Times” (the subtitle of the book)? Overall, the book reads as if Katznelson and/or his research assistants gathered lots of information on a bunch of different topics from a particular historical period, and then basically dumped the information into the book, regardless of whether and to what extent it formed a consistent narrative. As long-time readers know, I think most books written by academics are too long, and this one, in particular, could easily have been cut by at least 40%.

On the other hand, for favorable reviews here is Kevin Boyle in the New York Times, and Robert Kaiser in the Washington Post.

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