FDR and the New Deal for Beginners

Book Review

“FDR and the New Deal for Beginners”
By Paul Buhle and Sabrina Jones, afterword by Harvey Pekar
2010, For Beginners Books, paperback, 160 pages, $14.99

In the throes of this Great Recession, during the presidential campaign of a promising, well-spoken candidate with a political repertoire deeply affected by community service, celebrated historian Paul Buhle was struck by inspiration. Buhle, after writing and/or editing a wealth of texts, turned his attention to progressive comic-art histories several years ago. He sees this trend as a powerful means to reach the youth of this time – an extension of the Left’s cultural institutions of days past, particularly those led by activist-artists of the 1930s. So how could he pass up the opportunity to reintroduce yesterday’s fight-back now?

The latest release of the “For Beginners” series, Buhle’s collaboration with underground comic artist Sabrina Jones brings the New Deal’s politics and radicalism to life in a relevant time. Herein we find the backstory to Roosevelt’s rise and his ideological awakening, the incalculable importance of First Lady Eleanor’s role, the revolutionary struggles which helped to forge the New Deal, and the breadth of that platform’s reach.

While choice passages are liberally illustrated in post-punk sturm und drang, the pair worked individually more often than not, with Buhle writing extended passages of text and Jones creating other entire sections, shifting gears dramatically. “FDR and the New Deal” is itself revolutionary in that this is the first “For Beginners” book set up in this way, with the artist refusing to simply serve as text illustrator, and the author laying claim to space so he can write unimpeded.

Buhle, ever the progressive historian, delves deep into the nuances that allow the New Deal to shine well beyond its period of success (relatively short) while also focusing on FDR’s personal challenges, peccadilloes and heroic stature for a decimated nation. Furthering this call to arms is a sprinkling of vintage political cartoons amidst the copy. The legendary William Gropper leaps straight from the pages of the “New Masses,” and his angular, oft-times ferocious, art captures the contemporary eye and heart, immediately drawing one to today’s jobless figures and news of foreclosures. Samplings of Bits Hayden’s illustrations and those of Fred Ellis, Jacob Burck, Gus Peck, John Heiker and others blend into the thick, darkened contours of Jones’ own work – like film noir invaded by grainy newsreel footage in a Brechtian landscape.

“FDR and the New Deal for Beginners” lays out the era in chronological sections which tell of Roosevelt’s early Hudson Valley life, his initial attempts in the political world, his governorship of New York, his struggle with disability, and his immersion into the fabric of the people. We see how the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) led into the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and how the latter bore the Federal Arts Project, a favorite target of a rabid right. Buhle and Jones display working class struggle and wealthy patronage, the AF of L and the CIO, the roles of labor and populism, war and peace, racism and internationalism; the social service of Harry Hopkins, the Allies’ fight against fascist domination, the unreachable Second Bill of Rights, the lost promise of Henry Wallace and the frosty winds of the early Cold War. Seeing all of this in perspective offers not only a radiant sense of hope but downright excitement about just what a new New Deal would mean to the contemporary U.S. – and ultimately to the world. As Harvey Pekar writes in his Afterword, this book “offers a novel approach … both as history and as a lesson for today’s world.”

Agitated by the radical visions of generations past and the urgent needs of right now, “FDR and the New Deal for Beginners” speaks to us in a gripping prose that is at once warmly familiar and startlingly relevant, right here, right now.

Photo: Detail from the cover of “FDR and the New Deal for Beginners.”



John Pietaro
John Pietaro

Poet, Arts Journalist, Creative Writer, Spoken Word Artist. Works at Local 802 AFM. DJ, co-host Beneath the Underground at Sheena's Jungle Room on WFMU. Staff Writer, Columnist, Critic at The NYC Jazz Record.