Are There Too Many New Deal Diaries?

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Here, then, is Roosevelt, a man of many sides, presented in as many aspects by each of those who saw a part but not the whole. While he was an exceedingly complicated man, he was by no means a baffling or unexplainable one. This becomes clear to those who have had the patience to read the impressions of him set forth by the half-dozen or so of the most perceptive of his contemporaries—both favorable and unfavorable. On the critical side there are Raymond Moley, Richberg, Farley, and Louis B. Wehle; on the friendly side, Mrs. Roosevelt, Miss Perkins, Judge Rosenman, Rexford Tugwell, and Robert Sherwood.

One can glimpse the personal side of him as he appeared to his wife, his secretary, the White House housekeeper, the secret service men, the newspapermen, his physician, his Negro cook at Warm Springs, and even the woman who had charge of his stamp collection.

 

If the New Dealers at times appear ludicrous in their writings through their headlong scramble for preferment and their assignment to themselves of overimportant roles as Roosevelt’s advisers, the President is himself at least partly to blame. One of the ways in which he inspired such hard work and keen competition was by assigning overlapping tasks to his subordinates, and on occasion by listening so attentively to each one, that each felt he alone had the President’s ear.

Just as the qualities and interests of the New Dealers varied, so do their memoirs and diaries. Most of them, with one or two possible exceptions, are basically honest, according to their writers’ own perception of realities. Ambassador William E. Dodd’s diary, prepared for publication after his death, has rather too many remarkable bits of foresight in it. But certainly there is basic honesty in the two principal diaries in print, those of Secretary Ickes and Ambassador Joseph C. Grew. Neither of them was guilty, like Lincoln’s wartime Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, of doctoring his diary with afterthoughts. Afterthoughts aplenty appear in the memoirs, as they should, and often this leads to misrepresentation or distortion of the evidence. This is inevitable in memoirs, and is one of the main reasons why historians must use even the best of them with some caution.

The contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in these highly personal forms of writing, the memoirs and diaries, will at times be baffling. At other times, the reader will piece together the many fragments from various sources to form a well-rounded whole. The effect of them all together is like that of a kaleidoscope. The factual bits of colored glass that make up each of them differ little from those of the others, but with each turn they fall into a new and fascinating pattern to delight the historian’s eye.