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Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 by T. H. Watkins (415,000 words, 54 illustrations)

Born in rural western Pennsylvania, Harold LeClair Ickes (1874-1952), son of a gambler, womanizer, drunk father and of a strictly reared Presbyterian mother, grew up desperately poor and desperately ambitious. He became a Chicago newsman during its gilded era, a key figure in the Progressive Party, and in FDR’s cabinet became America’s longest serving and most influential Interior Secretary. As Interior Secretary, he helped change the face of America, forging that department into the most powerful tool for the protection of our lands. One of his colleagues was Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, America’s first woman Cabinet member. Ickes was also a major force in reshaping the character and quality of American society, often seeming to speak ex cathedra as the conscience of FDR’s administration. Opinionated, vigorously outspoken, as impassioned defending minorities as defending our wild places, Ickes, who happily styled himself “the Old Curmudgeon,” was arguably the most controversial and most beloved figure in the New Deal.

When Ickes wrote his first column in the
New Republic, the editors of the magazine introduced him on May 2, 1949 as “old enough to be called an Elder Statesman, but he is too salty for that label. He himself has cheerfully accepted the epithet of Curmudgeon, which likewise is insufficient to his case. A more accurate description would be that he is America’s most venerable progressive and one of the stoutest fighters, at any age, for justice and good government.”

Righteous Pilgrim was a non-fiction National Book Award finalist in 1990, and received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography in 1991 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.


“an outstanding biography that is also a major work of social history spanning the first half of the 20th century... [Ickes was] a courageous public servant who in
Righteous Pilgrim receives long overdue recognition.” — Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times

“highly successful... Written in a delightful conversational style that disguises the impressive scholarly research that went into its preparation, this is an appreciative biography of a man who was so temperamental, thin-skinned and bluntly outspoken that he acknowledged these traits himself... This thoughtful, readable, and yet gripping book is so persuasive it may well force a more positive reassessment of the New Deal...
Righteous Pilgrim is likely to be one of the most significant histories of the Progressive and New Deal reform impulse to appear in a decade.” — Howard R. Lamar, Washington Post

“[an] elegant and exhaustive new biography of Ickes... Using primary sources (such as the diary Ickes religiously maintained through most of his life) with great sensitivity, [Watkins] provides an astonishingly intimate portrait of a public man... Watkins, editor of The Wilderness Society magazine
Wilderness, is a wonderfully skillful writer... As Watkins powerfully demonstrates in this rewarding and illuminating work, Ickes had no shortage of ego — but his real fuel was conviction, burning at an octane hardly ever seen in Washington any more.” — Ronald Brownstein, Los Angeles Times

“[an] engaging, monumental biography” —
Publishers Weekly

“Researched with amazing thoroughness and organized with a sure hand, this will undoubtedly prove to be the definitive work on Harold L. Ickes... Watkins portrays the currents of political maneuvering that swirled and eddied about Ickes with admirable clarity. A complex, fascinating, and convincing portrait.” —
Kirkus Reviews

“[a] worthy, well-written biography.“ — Clayton R. Koppes,
Reviews in American History

“Harold Ickes was one of the most interesting political figures of the first half of the twentieth century, and T. H. Watkins vividly sets forth both the complexities of his personality and personal life and the remarkable scope of his achievements.” —
Frank Freidel

“A superbly written story of the preeminent Progressive of this century. I couldn’t put it down.” —
Stewart L. Udall

Righteous Pilgrim is one of those rare and wonderful biographies that are at once incisive portraiture and important social history.” — Wallace Stegner

“Harold Ickes stomps across the pages of T. H. Watkins’s biography as one of the most arresting and essential figures of the American twentieth century.” —
Frederick Turner

“At last, a biography worthy of its extraordinary subject — vivid, impassioned, larger-than-life.” —
Geoffrey C. Ward