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'If You Ask Me' is a delightful compendium of the thoughts of Eleanor Roosevelt

Editor Mary Jo Binker works with a wealth of material from the magazine column Roosevelt wrote from 1941 to 1962.

If You Ask Me: Essential Advice from Eleanor Roosevelt Edited by Mary Jo Binker Atria Books 272 pp.

Let’s say you are about to meet the President of the United States.  What’s the correct etiquette?  Extend your hand or wait for him to do so?  And while we’re asking…. how do you respond if you are a guest in a house where someone makes a racial slur?   How do you keep informed of world events when everything seems so complicated? And what can we do to convince other countries that Americans are actually good-hearted?

Eleanor Roosevelt has some answers.   Hundreds of them, actually.  Between 1941 and 1962, Ms. Roosevelt wrote an advice column in the Ladies Home Journal, and later McCall’s magazine called “If You Ask Me,” in which she tackled reader questions from everything about civics to childrearing to presidential etiquette. (A President will likely extend his hand first, by the way. They “know quite well that almost every individual is a little shy when meeting the President of the United States and they are eager to put the person at his ease.”)  

Today’s readers now have a chance to share in some of this wisdom.  In the new book If You Ask Me: Essential Advice from Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Jo Binker, a consulting editor for the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University, has sifted through the former First Lady’s columns to create a surprisingly modern compilation. 

Although Mrs. Roosevelt’s words often come from the midst of crises past – World War II and McCarthyism, the Korean War and the civil rights marches – her counsel reminds the reader of just how much is constant. The deepest divides, fears, and hopes of American society had as much impact in Roosevelt’s time as in our own, we learn.  Her message of love, personal responsibility, and faith in the American experiment is equally as lasting.

Binker divides the book topically, with Roosevelt’s writing categorized under chapters such as “politics and economics,” “youth, popular culture, and education,” and “etiquette,” with short explanatory essays to explain the historical context of Roosevelt’s writing.  These introductions serve as useful history lessons for those who might be unfamiliar with Roosevelt’s substantial roles in the White House, Democratic politics, the civil rights movement, or the United Nations.

But Binker quickly and effectively gets out of the way for Roosevelt’s own writing – and that of Roosevelt's readers –  to take center stage, and it is those words that give the most insight into the United States of the 1940s and 50s.  It is a place, we learn, where people are anxious.  They are worried about each other, asking, for instance, how to behave around someone sympathetic to Communists, or how to deal with those with different views about minorities.  (To the question of what to do as a guest hearing racial slurs, Roosevelt wrote that “If I can possibly do so without being rude or making people uncomfortable, I try to pick up the remarks and reason them out. But if this cannot be done, I usually try to leave that particular house as soon as possible.”)

Some of her Jewish readers shared their fears that the country would not protect them from violent anti-semitism.  Others asked how they could assuage their children’s worries about the atomic bomb.

Roosevelt’s readers are also tussling over taxes, health care reform, a living wage and childcare – topics that seems both strikingly modern and somewhat banal, compared to the wrenching events of the time. Her younger questioners look toward her for advice, with questions that seem similarly consistent across the ages. How to make kids more appreciative? What should a boy of 17 know about the world? How young is too young for a girl to date?  

Her answers are consistently straight-forward and patient.  (“You will have a much better time in the future if you do not try to grow up too quickly.”). They are also motivational. (“You can only free children from fear by developing a philosophy yourself which is free from fear, and by explaining to the children that to live in fear is worse than actually to face the danger of extinction.”)

Together, they offer a calming, and inspirational, salve for the churning, and often short-sighted, public discourse we hear today.  “If You Ask Me” is not a book to pick up and read cover to cover.  The question and answer format, and varying topics, make it too choppy to form a real narrative. But it is a book to read periodically, and regularly. If nothing else, Roosevelt’s words from decades ago offer the sort of support and motivation to stay engaged with the present day. 

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