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An insightful biography of the "Happy Warrior"

Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith - Robert A. Slayton

In his short 1958 study of Al Smith, Oscar Handlin noted that "[t]he written word did not come as easily to Al Smith as the spoken word." Because of this, there it no great body of correspondence or private papers for Smith biographers to consult, ultimately hampering any effort to understand "the Happy Warrior." In this respect, Robert Slayton's book stands as a major achievement. Having conducted extensive archival research and interviewed the children and grandchildren of many of the key figures, he presents what is the most thoroughly researched work on Smith that we are likely to have, and easily the most definitive one currently available.


Slayton uses this material to present a compelling interpretive portrait of his subject. Tracing his idealistic, even naive view of America to his upbringing, Slayton argues that Smith never grew beyond viewing the world through the prism of the lower East Side. This was not a problem in the context of New York state politics, where he rode the crest of a wave of change in the state, one which brought him into the governor's office as the first holder representing the urban immigrants who were to plan an increasingly important role in politics during the twentieth century. When Smith ventured onto the national stage in 1928, however, his naivete about America's essential decency and tolerance crashed up against the prejudices of an America still dominated culturally by rural Protestant values. Slayton sees Smith's defeat as a decisive event transforming his character, leaving a streak of bitterness that only grew as he saw Franklin Roosevelt - a man he dismissed as his political junior - capture the prize that Smith would never obtain.


Yet for all of its strengths of research and analysis, Slayton's book suffers is in its writing. Throughout much of the book Slayton peppers his text with unnecessary slang, and at points such as when he is discussing Tammany or Smith's old neighborhood he adopts a more casual, colloquial tone. The effort jars with the more readable narrative of the rest of the text, appearing as if he were attempting to evoke the conversational style with which Smith was most comfortable. Instead of appearing atmospheric and creative, however, it comes across as amateurish and ham-handed, hobbling rather than helping the rest of the work.


These compositional gaffes can distract from the overall quality of this book. Slayton as provided a biography of Smith filled with insight into his character and his times. It is a book, however, that doesn't quite embody the legendary nature of this political figure, who dominated Democratic politics in the 1920s and who heralded many of the changes that America would undergo. Until the book that can capture this is written, Slayton's biography is the best work available for anyone seeking to understand this fascinating individual.