William Jennings Bryan Criticism - Essay

Willa Cather (essay date 1900)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Personal Side of William Jennings Bryan,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Winter, 1949, pp. 331-7.

[In the following essay, originally published in the July 14, 1900 issue of the periodical Library, Cather records her personal impressions of Bryan.]

When I first knew William Jennings Bryan he was the Democratic nominee for the First Congressional district of Nebraska, a district in which the Republican majority had never fallen below 3,000. I was a student at the State University when Mr. Bryan was stumping the State, which he had stumped two years before for J. Sterling Morton, now his bitterest political enemy. My first meeting with...

(The entire section is 3106 words.)

Edwin Wildman (essay date 1922)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan: A Crusader of Advanced Ideals,” in Famous Leaders of Character: in America from the Latter Half of Nineteenth Century,The Page Company, 1922, pp. 239-50.

[In the following essay, Wildman examines Bryan's early career.]

Judge Bryan's farm, about a mile outside of Salem, Illinois, was the show-farm of that section in 1866. It entended for five hundred acres, and included a garden and a private park where fine deer were kept. In this spacious environment William Jennings Bryan, born in Salem, started his career at the age of six. This disposes of some fiction about his being the son of a poor farmer. His father was, on the contrary, a...

(The entire section is 3007 words.)

Edgar Lee Masters (essay date 1924)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Christian Statesman,” in Odell Shepard: Essays of 1925, Edwin Valentine Mitchell, 1926, pp. 77-104.

[In the following essay, originally published in the American Mercury magazine in 1924, Masters discusses the political climate in the United States during Bryan's career and Bryan's development of his Christian platform in response.]

With a triumphant centralization, and with the robber tariff and banks of issue, arose the Grangers, the Greenbackers and other sharked-up resolutes, bent on restoring justice in the land. These rebels against the established order were idealists, dreamers, cranks; but they were also brave and good men, men of ideas...

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H. L. Mencken (essay date 1926)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Memoriam: W. J. B.,” in Prejudices, Fifth Series, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926, pp. 64-74.

[In the following essay, Mencken sarcastically eulogizes Bryan.]

Has it been duly marked by historians that the late William Jennings Bryan's last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies? A curious detail, and not without its sardonic overtones. He was the most sedulous fly-catcher in American history, and in many ways the most successful. His quarry, of course, was not Musca domestica but Homo neandertalensis. For forty years he tracked it with coo and bellow, up and down the rustic backways of the Republic. Wherever the flambeaux of Chautauqua...

(The entire section is 2673 words.)

Charles Edward Merriam (essay date 1926)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan,” in Four American Party Leaders, Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1926, pp. 63-74.

[In the following essay, Merriam discusses Bryan's role as a major American political leader despite personal and professional setbacks.]

William Jennings Bryan is a different type of leader from any of those thus far considered. Here was a man who maintained himself in a position of very great political power for a generation, without a political organization, without wealth except his own earnings, without professional position, without holding office except for a brief period. Four years in Congress as a young man and two years as Secretary of...

(The entire section is 4746 words.)

Walter Lippmann (essay date 1927)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “H. L. Mencken,” in Men of Destiny, The Macmillan Company, 1927, pp. 45-60.

[In the following essay, Lippmann refutes Bryan's notions regarding the teaching of evolution.]

During the Dayton trial there was much discussion about what had happened to Mr. Bryan. How had a progressive democrat become so illiberal? How did it happen that the leader of the hosts of progress in 1896 was the leader of the hosts of darkness in 1925?

It was said that he had grown old. It was said that he was running for President. It was said that he had the ambition to lead an uprising of fundamentalists and prohibitionists. It was said that he was a beaten orator...

(The entire section is 3889 words.)

Don C. Seitz (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925),” in The “Also Rans”: Great Men Who Missed Making the Presidential Goal, Books for Libraries Press, 1928, pp. 320-38.

[In the following essay, Seitz considers Bryan's political career.]

From the days of Continental currency to the founding of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1915, the United States had been a fertile field for financial heresies. A fast growing country, with slow communications, limited credit, and a shortage of circulating medium, made it easily subject to financial distress. Of the “hard money” stock, silver was relatively scarcer than gold, with a varying value affected by the supply, which finally...

(The entire section is 5186 words.)

William Allen White (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Boy Orator of the Platte,” in Masks in a Pageant, The Macmillan Company, 1928, pp. 233-79.

[In the following essay, White traces Bryan's entire career, including his religious convictions.]


William Jennings Bryan was a dramatic and powerful figure in American politics from 1896, when he became the Democratic presidential candidate, until 1925, when he died. His place in history will be comparable to that of Blaine or Clay; each led America for a generation. Both Clay and Blaine, striving for the Presidency, dramatized important causes. Bryan, in seeking the high office, often had the smoke of...

(The entire section is 13202 words.)

Gerald W. Johnson (essay date 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bryan, Thou Shouldst Be Living,” in These United States, edited by Louis W. Jones, William Huse, Jr. and Harvey Eagleson, Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1931, pp. 266-77.

[In the following essay, Johnson laments the absence of a great liberal leader like Bryan.]


Bryan should be living at this hour. Or if not Bryan, then Lord George Gordon, or Cagliostro, or John Brown of Ossawatomie—some first-class faker who believes in his own bunk.

It has been advanced that the decay of liberalism and the lack of a great liberal leader are to be attributed less to the apathy than to the bewilderment of this generation....

(The entire section is 3764 words.)

Edgar Dewitt Jones (essay date 1937)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan,” in Lords of Speech: Portraits of Fifteen American Orators, Willett, Clark & Company, 1937, pp. 215-29.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses Bryan's career as an orator.]

In July, 1925, Bryan died in his sleep at Dayton, Tennessee, but the music of his voice still haunts our memories. It was my privilege to be acquainted with the Commoner. I heard him speak thirty-two times, and all the way from Los Angeles to Edinburgh, Scotland. On three occasions he spoke for me at Central Christian Church, Detroit. No one will dispute Mr. Bryan's oratorical ability. In some respects his speaking career was unprecedented in our history....

(The entire section is 4025 words.)

Selig Adler (essay date 1940)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bryan and Wilsonian Caribbean Penetration,” in The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. XX, No. 2, May, 1940, pp. 198-226.

[In the following essay, Adler examines Bryan's role in American expansion into the Caribbean.]

The rehabilitation of William Jennings Bryan is a marked example of the influence of the New Deal Zeitgeist on American historiography. When the Commoner died in the midst of the golden twenties, only a remnant of the Bryan wing of the Democratic party still took Bryanism seriously. Free silver, government ownership of railroads, and Philippine independence were, along with Bryan's memory, treated with scant courtesy and much...

(The entire section is 10209 words.)

Hamilton Basso (essay date 1943)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Henry Adams and William Jennings Bryan: The American Turns the Century,” in Mainstream, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943, pp. 131-49.

[In the following essay, Basso examines similarities and differences between Bryan and his contemporary Henry Adams regarding cultural, social, and scientific forces in America at beginning of the twentieth century.]

In 1893, when Grover Cleveland was in the White House for his second term, the world's Fair in Chicago was opened—all the earth's peoples were invited to come and bear witness to the brawn and bustle of the strapping young giant of the West.

John Applegate was then only a boy of nine, but...

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Paul W. Glad (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bryan and the Progressive Movement,” in The Trumpet Soundeth: William Jennings Bryan and his Democracy, 1896-1912, University of Nebraska Press, 1960, pp. 110-39.

[In the following essay, Glad discusses Bryan's role in the American progressive movement, from the early years of the twentieth century to 1917.]

The years between the turn of the century and 1917 have come to be known in American history as the progressive era. This was a period when the nation seemed to awaken from slumber as a new dawn chased away shadows of venality and selfishness from political and economic life. He who does what is true, reasoned Americans, comes to the light, and they...

(The entire section is 12615 words.)

Boyce House (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bryan the Orator,” in Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. LIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1960, pp. 266-82.

[In the following essay, House praises Bryan's talents for oratory.]

How great an orator was William Jennings Bryan?1

He was probably the greatest the nation has ever seen. No other ever drew such crowds. Probably no other made so many speeches. And he stirred his hearers not on one or two occasions but times almost without number.

His most famous speech was delivered in Chicago in 1896, the “Cross of Gold” oration which stampeded the convention and made him the Democratic presidential nominee...

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Richard Challener (essay date 1961)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan (1913-1915),” in An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century, edited by Norman A. Graebner, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1961, pp. 79-100.

[In the following essay, Challener examines and evaluates Bryan's years as Secretary of State in the Wilson administration.]

The passage of time has been unkind to the reputation of William Jennings Bryan. Few can call to mind the image of the young crusader who voiced the protest of the prairie farmer and who thrilled huge audiences with his impassioned demands for social justice; instead, there has emerged the picture of a stubborn, often obtuse defender of...

(The entire section is 10432 words.)

Roger Daniels (essay date 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan and the Japanese,” in Southern California Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, Sepember, 1966, pp. 227-40.

[In the following essay, Daniels discusses Bryan's ideas about Asian immigration, particularly Japanese, into America.]

A little more than a year before he died, William Jennings Bryan wrote out a three point statement of his political principles for the journalist, Mark Sullivan. His first point was that “in Government, people have a right to what they want.”1 That most of Bryan's career was consistent with this and his other principles, goes almost without saying. The modern view of Bryan doubts his wisdom rather than...

(The entire section is 5362 words.)

Willard H. Smith (essay date 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan and the Social Gospel,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. LIII, No. 1, June, 1966, pp. 41-60.

[In the following essay, Smith examines Bryan's religious conservatism and his ideas about the proper application of Christian beliefs to social concerns.]

One of the important leaders of the Progressive era who until recently has fared rather poorly at the hands of historians is William Jennings Bryan. Most of the writing about him, including the biographical, has been unsatisfactory. An occasional scholarly article has been the exception. In the last few years, however, the story is different, and one can expect a new Bryan image to...

(The entire section is 9048 words.)

Willard H. Smith (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan and Racism,” in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 54, No. 2, April, 1969, pp. 127-49.

[In the following essay, Smith contends that, although Bryan purported to believe unexceptionably in democratic rule by the people, his thoughts on race relations were “inconsistent” and paradoxical.]

“‘Let the people rule’ is a slogan for which our people can afford to stand—those who advocate this doctrine are traveling toward the dawn.” So wrote William Jennings Bryan in January, 1918.1 This was one of the central ideas of the Great Commoner which he stressed not only during the “war to make the world safe for democracy”...

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Edward H. Worthen (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Mexican Journeys of William Jennings Bryan, A Good Neighbor,” in Nebraska History and Record of Pioneer Days, Vol. 59, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 485-500.

[In the following essay, Worthen traces Bryan's trips to Mexico with his wife, which he believes illuminate Bryan's stance on U.S.-Mexico relations during his time as Secretary of State.]

In 1897 William Jennings Bryan toured Mexico. In 1904 the by-then twice-chosen presidential standard bearer of the Democratic Party and future secretary of state again ventured south of the border. He visited Mexico for the third and last time in 1922. Bryan's biographers are silent concerning these excursions or at...

(The entire section is 5584 words.)

Arthur Bud Ogle (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Above the World: William Jennings Bryan's View of the American Nation,” in International Affairs, in Nebraska History, Vol. 61, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 153-71.

[In the following essay, Ogle attempts to explain Bryan's “Americanism”—his belief in the uniqueness of the United States as a purely Christian and democratic nation—and his political philosophy.]

Twenty-nine years and one day after his tumultuous “Cross of Gold” speech, William Jennings Bryan took his place with the counsel for the prosecution in Dayton, Tennessee. There, as on that scorching day in Chicago three presidential candidacies and three long decades earlier, Bryan engaged in...

(The entire section is 7350 words.)

Kendrick A. Clements (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Development of a Christian Statesman,” in William Jennings Bryan: Missionary Isolationist, The University of Tennessee Press, No. 2, 1982, pp. 3-22.

[In the following essay, Clements discusses the roots and outgrowth of Bryan's Christian-based politics and social beliefs.]

When William Jennings Bryan was born, on March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois, nearly all Americans were preoccupied by the sectional crisis. Although the Civil War and its aftermath had little direct impact on the Bryan family, the crowding events of those years pushed aside all political issues except those having to do with the internal state of the country. Few Americans, including...

(The entire section is 8549 words.)

LeRoy Ashby (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “America's Don Quixote (1920-1925),” in William Jennings Bryan: Champion of Democracy, Twayne Publishers, No. 2, 1987, pp. 175-203.

[In the following essay, Ashby examines Bryan's career in the 1920s, a time of tumultuous change in American culture, economy, and politics, maintaining that Bryan remained more dedicated than ever to the ideals of democracy and rule by the people.]

“The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” wrote novelist Willa Cather, a contemporary of William Jennings Bryan. Although her choice of the year 1922 was purely symbolic, she correctly sensed that American culture was undergoing a profoundly significant transformation,...

(The entire section is 11794 words.)

John G. Geer and Thomas R. Rochon (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan on the Yellow Brick Road,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 16 No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 59-64.

[In the following essay, Geer and Rochon argue that L. Frank Baum's children's fantasy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has political undertones that serve as an allegory for the ideals of the Populist movement, including Bryan's stance on free silver.]

Literary allegory can be a useful tool for investigating the ways in which contemporaries frame the political conflicts of their day. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1899 as the first of a highly popular series of children's books, was, we shall argue, an...

(The entire section is 3594 words.)