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FDR in American Memory

Roosevelt and the Making of an Icon

How was FDR's image constructed—by himself and others—as such a powerful icon in American memory?

In polls of historians and political scientists, Franklin Delano Roosevelt consistently ranks among the top three American presidents. Roosevelt enjoyed an enormous political and cultural reach, one that stretched past his presidency and across the world. A grand narrative of Roosevelt's crucial role in the twentieth century persists: the notion that American ideology, embodied by FDR, overcame the Depression and won World War II, while fascism, communism, and imperialism—and their ignoble figureheads—fought one another to death in Europe. This grand narrative is flawed and problematic, legitimizing the United States's cultural, diplomatic, and military role in the world order, but it has meant that FDR continues to loom large in American culture.

In FDR in American Memory, Sara Polak analyzes Roosevelt's construction as a cultural icon in American memory from two perspectives. First, she examines him as a historical leader, one who carefully and intentionally built his public image. Focusing on FDR's use of media and his negotiation of the world as a disabled person, she shows how he consistently aligned himself with modernity and future-proof narratives and modes of rhetoric. Second, Polak looks at portrayals and negotiations of the FDR icon in cultural memory from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century. Drawing on recent and well-known cultural artifacts—including novels, movies, documentaries, popular biographies, museums, and memorials—she demonstrates how FDR positioned himself as a rhetorically modern and powerful but ideologically almost empty container. That deliberate positioning, Polak writes, continues to allow almost any narrative to adopt him as a relevant historical example even now.

As a study of presidential image-fashioning, FDR in American Memory will be of immediate relevance to present-day readers.

About the Author

Sara Polak is an assistant professor of American studies at Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. She is the coeditor of Violence and Trolling on Social Media: History, Affect, and Effects of Online Vitriol and Embodying Contagion: The Viropolitics of Horror and Desire in Contemporary Discourse.

Endorsements

"In this remarkably timely study of how an American president fashioned himself as a cultural icon, Sara Polak chronicles the process of memorialization through which cultural values and beliefs can be embodied in an individual. Drawing in particular on the insights of disability studies, she offers an insightful and engaging analysis of how the incorporation of FDR's physical condition into his mythic remembrance in turn contributed to the shaping of ideas of ability and disability in the United States."

- Priscilla Wald, Duke University, author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative

"Sara Polak presents a tour de force of cultural history in her book about the fashioning of Franklin Roosevelt as a cultural icon—a man who dominated twentieth-century American history and left us an enduring legacy largely of his own making."

- Jay Winter, Yale University, author of War beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present

"With a keen eye for detail, Sara Polak shows how Roosevelt's self-constructed media image is reimagined in novels and films after his death. Most striking is how FDR's disability, carefully hidden during his lifetime, has become a sign of strength. As an exemplary work of American studies, FDR in American Memory makes constructive connections to disability studies, memory studies, and media studies."

- Jaap Kooijman, University of Amsterdam, author of Fabricating the Absolute Fake: America in Contemporary Pop Culture
Johns Hopkins University Press
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