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Promotie – Sara Polak (Universiteit Leiden)

Op dinsdag 8 december 2015 verdedigt Sara Polak haar proefschrift getiteld:

“This is Roosevelt’s World” – FDR as a Cultural Icon in American Memory

Datum: 8 december 2015
Tijd: 16:10 uur
Locatie: Groot Auditorium – Academiegebouw Leiden  Rapenburg 67-73 , Leiden
Promotor(s): Prof. dr. P. Liebregts & Prof. dr. F.W. Korsten


“This is Roosevelt’s World” – FDR as a Cultural Icon in American Memory

Take a look at our present world. It is manifestly not Adolf Hitler’s world. His Thousand-Year Reich turned out to have a brief and bloody run of a dozen years. It is manifestly not Joseph Stalin’s world. That ghastly world self-destructed before our eyes. Nor is it Winston Churchill’s world. Empire and its glories have long since vanished into history. The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt’s world.

Arthur Schlesinger in 1998 claimed that the current world order was Franklin Roosevelt’s. Seventeen years later, Roosevelt still looms large in American culture, no longer in the first place as a relevant reference point in politics, but rather culturally, as testified for instance by Ken Burns’ recently broadcast 14-hour documentary series, The Roosevelts, An Intimate History. Both Schlesinger’s and Burns’s grand narratives can be summarized as follows: while in Europe fascism, communism and imperialism and their ignoble figureheads fought one another to death, American ideology embodied by FDR won World War Two, allowing the United States to come into its own as the world’s great arsenal of democracy. This image of Franklin Roosevelt as a personification of modern US America – international champion of democracy and human rights, modernizer of the welfare state, emancipator of the disabled, and first to give space to and profit from an activist First Lady – prevails in American cultural memory, even in some form, among haters.

This dissertation analyzes Franklin Roosevelt’s construction as a cultural icon in American memory from two perspectives. First, it is a cultural history, analyzing how this iconic leader fabricated and propelled a modern and future-proof public image. Second, it is a cultural analysis of how, and with what agendas, 20th and 21st-century portrayals and negotiations of the FDR icon represent him. Linking these perspectives, it argues that an iconic leader needs a large degree of plasticity to gain momentum as a vessel adaptable for a range of (future) narratives and cultural and political demands. The first part of the dissertation focuses on FDR’s autofabrication during his presidency, the second analyzes recent and well-known cultural artefacts representing FDR – novels, movies, documentaries, popular biographies, museums, memorials – as case studies. The study traces diachronic trends in the making, remembering and forgetting of an icon around four themes: the New Deal, World War Two, FDR’s disability and Eleanor Roosevelt. It concludes that FDR’s iconic image remains attractive because it is extremely malleable to fit the needs and ideologies of widely diverse audiences in the present.