Big Men and Hero-Myths: Observations from the FDR Home

Yesterday, I visited two great estates along the Hudson River: the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site and the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Sites, both in Hyde Park. The region is certainly a frontier zone between the sprawl of “BosWash” and Upstate society and especially in Hyde Park one can see the growing line of condos, strip malls and McMansions working their way north from New York.

However, my discussion today will not be on the creep of Sprawl or the border conflict between two ways of life, but instead on the observations that I had in the homes of “Great Men.”

American society, and we are not unique in this regard, seems taken with the idea of a single mighty hero-leader who shapes society to their will. According to this theory, history and society moves along with no major changes until the appearance of one or more of these hero-leaders: Napoleon, Lenin, Caesar, Alexander, Hitler, Churchill, Washington, FDR. These people, regardless of the moral value of their actions, are the same in the fact that they possess a vision of the future and the will and ability to see that vision enacted. History bends itself around them. This theory suffuses our view of history, all the way down to the local level (for more on this, take a look at my discussion of the Harry L. Johnson memorial in my home town). At the FDR house, the President was referred to as “the Big Man,” so I will use that term to sum up this concept.

A place like the FDR house is a monument to not only FDR, but also the concept of the Big Man itself. We come and stare at the minutia of his life, his stuffed birds, the ramp he used to maneuver and his favorite dressing gown, and somehow these things are important. In fact the house and its staff, in carefully preserving and interpreting these items, proclaim that these things are “history.”

History, in my eyes, is the story that a society tells about itself to give meaning to the present and to inform decisions on the future. When a society says that one particular 100 year old dressing gown is important history because a particular individual wore it while another one is fit for rags because only ordinary people wore it, that teaches a lesson to everyone that hears it: some people are so important that their used toothbrushes and mismatched socks should be preserved for posterity while the rest of the people, you and I, are worthwhile only to serve and admire these individuals.

These concepts are the antithesis of democracy and equality. They are the ideological foundations of hierarchy and oppression because they legitimize the idea that some folk (Big Men) deserve to control and dictate over the lives of other folk (you and I) because they are somehow more endowed with vision, will and ability. However, we cannot ever devise some method for truly determining who has these qualities so instead this philosophy is utilized to legitimize the position of those already in power and controlling others. Why is one man a President and another a shoe salesman? Because he has those three qualities. How do we know he has those qualities? Because he is the President and the other man is a shoe salesman. It is a form of cyclical reasoning that occurs on all levels of society. Why does the manager deserve more pay than the assembly line worker? Because he has proven himself a more valuable human being by demonstrating vision, will and ability. He has done this by becoming a manager.

The Big Man theory eliminates outside factors. It gives no place for racism, classism, heterosexism or sexism (for example), because the Big Man would “obviously” rise above those factors through his natural endowments. When the question is asked: why did FDR, the nephew of a President and the inheritor of great wealth and prestige, become President, isn’t that quite a coincidence? The answer is that he must have come from a family of strong-willed, able, visionary people.

I am not saying that President Roosevelt was not a titanic figure in history, that he did not have true compassion for poor folk, that he did not have incredible will to overcome disability and disease. But the man that was FDR has been dead for 62 or so years now and what we have at the FDR memorial is not an unbiased look at the man that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but a carefully orchestrated shrine to the idea behind Roosevelt and to the hope for another hero-leader to emerge to take his place.

-Posted by Jesse


Joe said...

I've always seen FDR and Kamal Attaturk in the same way. People are waiting for them to come back and fix all the messed up stuff, except for in FDR's case it's just a bunch of democrats pining away while all of turkey is waiting for their messiah.

Alia said...

Jesse, I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

Linda D said...

Jesse, I visited Hyde Park several times when I lived in the Albany area, but I came away with a different view. While I suppose Hyde Park is a "shrine" of sorts, I found the mundane accoutruements of FDR's life more humanizing than deifying.

Visiting Hyde Park brings up the question in my mind of, "Where did the greatness in FDR come from?" There's nothing in his life that particularly foreshadowed his ability to lead the US from the depths of the Great Depression to world leadership. Rather than looking at FDR and asking why did he deserve to become a leader, I always ask myself, "Why did the US get FDR rather than Huey Long?" Surely the history of the this country -- and the world -- in the last 70 years would be different, if for no other reason than FDR was husband to the remarkable Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to push for civil rights for African Americans among her other causes.

BTW, Valkill Cottage, which was Eleanor's refuge from what had to be a less than ideal situation at Hyde Park since her domineering mother-in-law, who essentially controlled the family purse-strings, lived at Hyde Park with Eleanor and Franklin, is just a couple of miles up the road from Hyde Park. A visit there will you give you great insight into the life of a pretty conventional turn-of-the-century young woman who eventually matured into one of the great lights of the twentieth century. (You can't tell that Eleanor is one of my heroes, can you?)