William Jennings Bryan

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William Jennings Bryan : biography

March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925

Popular image

Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, is a highly fictionalized account of the Scopes Trial written in response to McCarthyism. A populist thrice-defeated Presidential candidate from Nebraska named Matthew Harrison Brady comes to a small town named Hillsboro in the Deep South to help prosecute a young teacher for teaching evolution to his schoolchildren. He is opposed by a famous trial lawyer, Henry Drummond, and chastised by a cynical newspaperman as the trial assumes a national profile.

Bryan also appears as a character in Douglas Moore’s 1956 opera The Ballad of Baby Doe and is briefly mentioned in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In addition, he is a (very) minor character in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. His death is referred to in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. In Robert A. Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice, Bryan’s unsuccessful or successful runs for the presidency are seen as the "splitting off" events of the alternate histories through which the protagonists travel.

He also has a biographical part in "The 42nd Parallel" in John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy. Dos Passos, John (1896-1970). U.S.A. Daniel Aaron & Townsend Ludington, eds. New York: Library of America, 1996.

In political cartoons

The sheer volume of political propaganda cartoons featuring Bryan is a testament to the amusement and fear he caused among conservatives. Bryan campaigned tirelessly, championing the ideas of the farmers and workers, using his skills as a famed orator to ultimately reshape the Democratic Party into a more progressive one. These political cartoons attacked just about every facet of Bryan’s character and policy. They mocked his religious fervor, his campaign slogans, and even his ability to unify parties for a common cause. As Keen puts it, "The art of propaganda is to create a portrait that incarnates the idea of what we wish to destroy so we will react rather than think, and automatically focus our free-floating hostility, indistinct frustrations, and unnamed fears".Keen (1986), p, 26 Bryan embodied these fears of the Republican Party of the time, which is clearly evident in the lengths they went to deface his character in these cartoons.

The most notable cartoons are of Bryan illustrated as a snake, representing Populism, swallowing a donkey, symbolizing the Democratic Party. Another notable Bryan cartoon is one where he is standing atop a Bible, marketing the sales of a "crown of thorns" and a "cross of gold" both referencing "The Cross of Gold," his most popular speech.

Nicknames

Bryan had an unusually high number of nicknames given to him in his lifetime; most of these were given by his loyal admirers in the Democratic Party. In addition to his best-known nickname, "The Great Commoner", he was also called "The Silver Knight of the West" (due to his support of the free silver issue) and the "Boy Orator of the Platte" (a reference to his oratorical skills and his home near the Platte River in Nebraska). A derisive nickname given by journalist H.L. Mencken, a prominent Bryan critic, was "The Fundamentalist Pope", a reference to Bryan’s devout religious views. He is called "Adam-and-Eve" Bryan in "O Russet Witch!, Tales of the Jazz Age" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

References and Sources

  • Bryan, William Jennings. William Jennings Bryan: selections ed. by Ray Ginger (1967) 259 pages
  • Bryan, William Jennings. The first battle: a story of the campaign of 1896 (1897), 693pp; campaign speeches
  • , annual compilation of The Commoner magazine; full text online for 1901, 1902, 1903, 1907, 1907, 1908
  • Bryan, William Jennings. The old world and its ways (1907) 560 pages
  • Bryan, William Jennings. Speeches of William Jennings Bryan edited by Mary Baird Bryan (1909)
  • Bryan, William Jennings. In His image (1922) 226pp
  • Bryan, William Jennings. The Memoirs: of William Jennings Bryan, by himself and his wife (1925) 560pp;
  • Bryan, William Jennings. British Rule in India (1906)