- Author: James Tobin
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REMEMBER THIS STORY WHEN SOMEONE SAYS, “YOU’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO DO THAT.”
One day while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, someone asked him to name his favorite poem. His taste in reading ran more to factual matters, especially political history and geography—even atlases, which he studied so closely that he knew the elevations of various mountains around the world. But he did like one poem in particular, he said. The title was “Invictus.” The author was an Englishman named William Ernest Henley (1849–1903).
It’s a short poem that tells of the writer’s determination to stay strong in the midst of terrible troubles. The title is Latin for “unconquerable.”
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed …
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Why that poem?
Roosevelt may have known that William Ernest Henley suffered from Pott’s disease, a painful form of tuberculosis that invades the bones. When Henley was sixteen, his left leg had to be amputated. At twenty-eight he was told he would lose his right leg, too. But he found a new surgeon who managed to save the leg in a series of delicate operations. In the hospital’s recovery ward, Henley wrote “Invictus.”
This book is about why “Invictus” spoke to and for Franklin Roosevelt.
At first, fate had been kind to him, placing him in a famous and wealthy family blessed with every advantage. But in 1921, when he was thirty-nine years old, fate turned cruel, cutting short the pursuit of his dreams.
That’s where this story begins—with the “bludgeonings of chance” that suddenly fell upon Roosevelt. Then it tells about the decision he had to make—whether to drop back into a quiet life of comfort or to fight on. His choice revealed much about his character. What he did for the next ten years revealed much more, and that is the rest of the story.
The book ends just as Roosevelt is about to embark on his twelve years in the presidency. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, the deepest point of the Great Depression. He served until his death twelve years later, on April 12, 1945, near the end of World War II.
Those were the most dangerous years the American people had endured since the Civil War of the 1860s. Without Roosevelt’s leadership, the crises of economic depression and war might have turned into catastrophes. When historians are asked to rank the country’s greatest presidents, four names always appear at the top of the list: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt—or FDR, as he so often signed documents and letters, in bold, slashing diagonals that captured the vaulting energy of his personality.
To understand America in those hard times, you have to know who Franklin Roosevelt really was. As the journalist Joseph Alsop, a distant cousin of Roosevelt’s, later wrote: “One of the central problems facing anyone dealing with Franklin Roosevelt’s personal history is just what made him the man he became.” This story is one of the keys that unlocks that mystery.
He followed a twisting path to the mastery of his fate. He learned that to be unconquerable was not a matter of sheer willpower. It was more complicated than that. It required seeing and facing the truth. It meant failing and starting again, then failing again and trying something new. It depended on flexibility and perseverance, not brute strength. By the time he reached the White House, he had learned that while no one hopes for misfortune, it can lead to unexpected opportunities and rewards—even to greatness.
Writing a biography is like opening an old box full of the jumbled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then discovering that many pieces are missing.
Biographers search for the fragments of a person’s life that have survived the passage of time—things like old letters written in scratchy handwriting, articles clipped out of forgotten newspapers, grainy black-and-white photos. Then they try to fit the fragments together to form a picture that captures the essence of the person’s life.
Pieces are always missing. Some biographers spend decades searching for them. But the puzzle can never be complete, even when the subject is someone like Franklin Roosevelt, who kept just about everything and who was observed as closely and remembered as vividly as any American of the twentieth century. In his case, it sometimes seems as if the holes outnumber the pieces.
So … what to do?
We study the pieces that surround a hole and say to ourselves, I bet I know what goes in that hole—it’s obvious from the pieces all around it.
Or we ask questions and suggest possible answers: What goes there? Maybe this; maybe that. But we never know for sure which answer, if any, is right.
Some biographers pretend they’ve found every missing piece. They tell the story as if they know more than they really do.
Others are honest about the missing pieces. When they have questions they can’t answer, they say so. They tell the reader when they’re speculating.
Doing it the first way can make a story more readable. When all the missing parts are filled in, the biography reads more like a novel.
But if readers