Eleanor in the Village: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search for Freedom and Identity in New York’s Greenwich Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

Every time I walk through Washington Square Park, I look up at the building on the corner of MacDougal Street and Waverly Place. Eleanor Roosevelt lived at 29 Washington Square from 1942 to 1949, one of several residences she occupied in New York’s Greenwich Village throughout her life. Having read many biographies on Eleanor Roosevelt, the time she spent in Greenwich Village always remained a bit of a mystery. The details of her relationship with Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman in the twenties are well-known, as is her teaching job and several other details, but what was it that made Greenwich Village so appealing to Eleanor Roosevelt, how did it influence her, what was life like for her living there during the twenties? There were so many questions I hoped to find answered in Eleanor in the Village, but by the time I finished I realized I learned nothing more than I already knew.

Eleanor in the Village sounded like a great premise, but it woefully under-delivered. I was hoping to read an in-depth and focused story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life in Greenwich Village, but instead I merely got a compelling digest of her life with some reference to the Village thrown in. Either not enough information is available on the subject to warrant a book on the topic, or this was a rush-job without adequate research, but Eleanor in the Village lacks depth and left me wanting more. Very little of the book deals with the Village, and Ms. Russell never actually manages to show how Eleanor Roosevelt searched for, and eventually found, “Freedom and Identity in New York’s Greenwich Village.

The history of Greenwich Village is compelling, but it runs alongside the history of Eleanor Roosevelt, instead of being integrated with it. The book merely skims the surface of how she acquired many of the progressive beliefs she became known for through the connections she made there. Some of those connections, and some of her activities, were controversial enough they caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who compiled one of the biggest single files in the FBI on Eleanor Roosevelt. Quite some pages are spend on this dossier, but they add very little to the narrative that isn’t known already. In telling Eleanor Roosevelt’s life as a whole, instead of focusing on this particular period of her life, Eleanor in the Village does not live up to its full potential.

All in all, Eleanor in the Village is well-written, and I imagine a delightful read for those who don’t know much about Eleanor Roosevelt. For those who do, don’t let the book’s title mislead you into thinking it is something it isn’t.

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review

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