Is it that time of year already? I suppose it is. We have here the third annual Nine Best Books list (see 2007 here and the legendary 2006 list here)! Please hold your applause until the end of the list, thank you.
You know, when I started this in 2006, I had such hopes, dreams, and ambitions. Now I know not to rely on such things. That 2006 list got my hopes up too high, I suppose. The 2008 list has more in common with 2007, in that there are books that I admired, liked, and learned from but nothing that lives with me. That's not a strike against these--it's just an impossible standard. Also like the 2007 list, these are all very close contenders--number two could have easily been number one, number five would be fine as number three, and number eight could be in fourth place. Any of the honorable mentions could fit into the eighth or ninth spot. This is all just how it happened today, and that, for better or worse, is what will live on.
The rules, by the way, are to consider any book I read during 2008--not just books published in 2008. Going over the list of all the books I read, I did notice that for someone who has long professed a disinterest in World War II and the Civil War, I somehow managed to read an awful lot about both subjects. And the first book of the year was about World War II and the last book was Civil War era. I guess I do protest too much.
And without further rambling, here's the list, with links to my full-length write up of each book.
9. Lincoln: Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan
A different way of looking at an oft-written about figure, done with thoughtfulness and precision. Kaplan's research is very specific and he takes apart many myths.
8. The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America, by David Hajdu
Every generation finds something to blame for juvenile delinquency. For a brief time in the 1950s, the culprit was comic books, with the outcry growing so great that comic book makers were put before a HUAC like commission (the transcripts are hilarious). I liked this book not so much because of the explanation of the war against comics--though that is of course compelling--but because of Hajdu's story of the history of comics and the people who created them.
7. White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple
Like the Lincoln book, this is a different way of looking at a historical figure who's been the subject of endless numbers biographies, critical appraisals, and psychological dissections. Looking at Dickinson's correspondence with Higginson reveals a different side of the poet than you see in just the general sketches. While the book is good for Dickinson fans, I'm sure, it's also fine for those not really familiar with Dickinson's life (like me). Wineapple's studies of various poems is also instructive and clear, especially for people who aren't really students of poetry (like me).
6. Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, by Pope Brock
There are two things I love to see in a book--that the author cares deeply about his or her subject, or that the author is having a great time. Pope Brock's book about an unrepentant fraud scamming America in the 1920s and '30s is written with such glee and mischief that you want to laugh along with him, except you're too busy thinking, "What? What?!!" as each astonishing heist is revealed.
5. The Day of Battle, by Rick Atkinson
Atkinson's account of the Allied campaign in Italy is distinguished by great writing, and a neat ability to find just the right quote from the right person at the right time. He's good, as they say, at finding the details while still seeing the big picture.
4. Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel
This book about Ted Hall, a physicist who gave secrets about US atomic weapons to the Soviets, taught me more about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project than many other books specifically about that subject. It also deals with the troubling issue of what happens when a person does something that he believes is in the world's best interests but everyone else thinks is not. Is it evil or traitorous if the accused thinks he was helping?
3. Whittaker Chambers, by Sam Tanenhaus
This biography of one of the 20th century's more controversial figures is sympathetic without being defensive. Somewhat like Bombshell (and who could be more opposite than Ted Hall and Whittaker Chambers?), it offers readers a chance to understand who Chambers was and why he did what he did.
2. Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, by Tim Jeal
This is a fantastic job of research as Jeal peels away the layers to find the real man behind the larger-than-life myth--a real challenge considering Stanley's lifelong efforts to bury his ignominious past and create a biography he thought would be more suitable for an eminent Victorian.
1. Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis
This biography of the cartoonist Charles Schulz reveals the spectacularly complicated man behind the seemingly simple drawings. Schulz was someone who hid in plain sight--everything about his life came out in his cartoons, though it's not obvious until you read Michaelis's book. His use of Peanuts strips throughout illuminates how the cartoons reflected Schulz's life in a way that makes you think, "Ohhhhh...now I see." It's an incredibly detailed book that shows impressive research, but also left me a little bit in wonder. Schulz seems like the unhappiest man who ever lived, but maybe that's what he needed to create his work.
Honorable mention (alphabetical by title): The Devil Kissed Her, by Kathy Watson; Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson; Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City, by Neil Bascomb; Hons and Rebels, by Jessica Mitford; One Minute to Midnight, by Michael Dobbs; Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, by Barbara Goldsmith; The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall; Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, by Barbara Weisberg; The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes
Thanks to the magic of video, I was able last week to catch up on a few of the big movies I missed last summer. So a few words about them--and first, yes, there is a huge difference between seeing these kind of popcorn action movies in a theater with an audience and by yourself on a tiny screen. But taking that into account, here's what I thought.
Tropic Thunder Lots of clever ideas and funny moments here, but in the end the parts were less than the whole. At one point I paused it and when I saw I still had 45 minutes left I wondered what else they could possibly do in that time? When it got to the end and there was a scene that was meant to be a reference to a scene from the opening, I felt like I had watched the beginning of the movie years ago. Part of the problem, though, was the version Netflix sends out--I didn't listen to the commentary but my roommate did and she said that the one we had was an "extended version" and during it Ben Stiller was talking about why they cut various bits or shortened parts that were part of the extended version. I was like, so wait, a better version went into theaters and the one they put out on video is essentially the one the creative team rejected? How does that make sense? And, oh, Tom Cruise's cameo was one of the most overrated movie moments of the year. He's playing a jerk movie producer. Kids, people have been playing jerk movie producers since the 1930s. I didn't get the big deal.
The Dark Knight The most overrated movie moment this year was, well, this whole movie. Again, I acknowledge that this was really a movie meant to be seen on the big screen, but I don't think that would have changed my opinion that much. I had the same problem with this movie as with Batman Begins, that it's very beautiful looking but it just flatlines. It feels like there is no arc or real drive propelling it. The movie starts off with a big action set piece with lots of things blowing up and the same level just keeps happening at a steady rate throughout the movie. It doesn't feel like there's any difference in anything anywhere. And there's too many villains, this sort of vague mishmash of representational ethnic bad guy gangs of Gotham City with the Joker and with Harvey Dent as well. It's kind of like if Batman is fighting everyone he's fighting no one, just this anonymous mass (by the way, Heath Ledger's performance was the only thing about this movie that wasn't overrated--he was as good as advertised). It felt like there wasn't any personal conflict for Batman, just this generic "I am fighting evil." They could have done a lot more with his relationship with Dent. Plus the level of destruction gets kind of silly--I mean, what's Gotham like at the end of the movie? Berlin in 1945? And the score did nothing for me. It did, though, contain what has to be the year's best unintentionally funny line: "Gotham City deserves a hero with a face."
Iron Man I admit that part of the problem I had with The Dark Knight was that I saw it right after this movie, which I thought was fantastic. Now I understand that doing an origin story is much easier than following up because there's a roadmap to follow and the sense of purpose is very obvious. But it was well-paced and specific, with a story that built. The characters were doing things for a reason, the villains had a specific plan, personal moments showed conflict. I really enjoyed it. And the score rocked.
Next thing you know I'll actually get to a movie in a theater.
I have never known a writer who wasn't a reader and I doubt that anyone can write without being influenced by his or her writing. You are what you read, you might say. Fred Kaplan's Lincoln: Biography of a Writer could, then, just as easily be called Lincoln: Biography of a Reader.
We all have heard the stories about young Abe Lincoln reading by firelight, but little about what he actually read, or under what circumstances he was reading. His father was illiterate, a hardscrabble farmer who made just enough to get by. This wasn't terribly unusual, of course. Many people couldn't read; others read well enough just to read the Bible. Many felt that there was little need for reading beyond studying the Bible. Memorization was big--those who couldn't actually read could recite long Biblical passages (they also could recite Shakespeare, a surprising--or perhaps not--frontier favorite). Lincoln was able to go to a couple of primary schools as his family moved around, and quickly realized that education--especially reading--was the ticket out of the life of hard labor and just getting-by that his father lived. He read everything he could, which wasn't that much--the family had a Bible and a primer called the Dilworth Speller, a reading anthology for children that included Aesop's Fables. His mother died when he was a young boy and his father remarried a woman who brought into the Lincoln home (along with a few of her own children) a small library that included a spelling book, a book on elocution, Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and the Arabian Nights. The latter two especially were the kind of adventure stories that make imaginative children turn into storytellers themselves, and Lincoln became known amongst his peers as a teller of tales (as he grew older, he developed a lifelong reputation as a teller of the 19th c. version of naughty stories. Bawdy Abe. I don't think that was in my sixth grade social studies book). Later he fell in love with poetry, especially Burns, Byron, and Shakespeare; although as an adult he would have many opportunities to see performances of Shakespeare, he never enjoyed those as much as just reading the plays. He never read much fiction beyond those, preferring histories, essays, and biographies (he was a president who made good use of the Library of Congress).
Kaplan spends a good portion of the book going over these different books that Lincoln read, and then as Lincoln grew older and went out into the world, parses his speeches and various public writings to show how and where they affected his writing. Burns's appreciation of common speech and dialect showed in Lincoln's use of personal stories, self-deprecating comments, jokes and stories told in a style that would have been familiar to anyone with the barest of educations--the kind of people he gew up with. The influence of Shakespeare, Byron and other poets, some popular then but now forgotten, is apparent in his sense of meter, shape, and most of all, care in choice of words. Lincoln was a bit of amateur poet--not great, but reasonably skilled. However, his best poetry was found in his prose; in a study of a speech Lincoln gave to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, Kaplan shows how one paragraph can be taken apart and reconstructed as a poem.
That was my favorite part of a book which has no shortage of wonders. It's not strictly a biography, but it does of course go through Lincoln's life, explaining important things here and there. It touches on his legal career and personal life, though it doesn't dissect them too much--there are enough books that do that (I looked at the bibliography, and really, you could spend the rest of your life reading books about Lincoln). I confess, that I have always stubbornly resisted reading any of those. The commonality of the Civil War and Lincoln made me avoid them--too many people were into them, so of course I couldn't be (I am very annoying in this way). This means that I in turn could fill pages with the things about Lincoln I learned in this book that I didn't know that are no doubt basic to many others, and which made me feel terribly guilty for being so neglectful of his life, because there are many things to like (example--I didn't know he was such an animal lover. One of the first essays he wrote in school was an argument for kinder treatment of animals. As one of those irritating people who is always weeping over every stray kitten, neglected dog, or hungry bunny in the world, you can imagine how quickly this sold me on President #16). In the coming year, expect a rash of Lincoln reading from me as I try to catch up, I am afraid.
We live in a time where writing is both more and less important than it was in Lincoln's day. Visual forms of communication abound, but with the rise of the Internet people now seem to be writing as much as any of those 18th century figures who seemed to write letters all day. Now, though, it's done in emails, blogs, text messages, etc. The difference though, is that the more people write in this way, the less they seem to care about how they write. People just write and write and write but don't care about the exact words they use or how they put together a sentence, a paragraph, a letter. And when people read, this is what they read, more than a carefully constructed novel, story, or essay. The more people read the dashed off, careless words, the more likely they are to write that way themselves. You are what you read. Sometimes when I work on a project for students that involves teaching them how to write an essay, or how to critically read a piece of fiction, I find myself silently thinking why? why does it matter? How many of them will care? How many of them will grow up and read something beyond a memo at work that is just a series of bullet points? How many of them will write anything beyond that themselves? And how many of them will not feel they are missing anything? I wonder if it doesn't make sense to throw out all those lessons on "how does the author illustrate character" or "how does the author's word choice show his/her point of view?" It feels sometimes like we should just be concentrating on teaching them how to read directions or follow written instructions. Maybe that's enough.
But in my heart I know it's not. And maybe for every ten thousand kids who care for nothing beyond following those instructions or understanding that memo, there will be one who sees more, who wants more, who sees beauty in the right words put together in a precise way, not unlike Lincoln. And from that, greatness can be found. Words have meaning, words matter, I believe this, I do.
Two of a kind.
"We were the only ones who had that experience of being Beatles. No one else knows what that's like."--Ringo Starr
World leader is a similarly exclusive club. And while leaders of nations might not always get along--adversary is just as natural a state for these types as colleague--they are the only ones who know what it is like to be one of that club: the first to be blamed, the first to be scorned, the first in line to be assassinated, the last one to make the final decision. They're all linked by that.
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, though, were more than just men with similar jobs thrown together to defeat a common enemy. In Franklin and Winston, Jon Meacham writes that the two forged an unusually close friendship, and that that friendship played a crucial role in their defeat of the Axis powers in World War II.
(Yes, I know I just read another book by Meacham. I hate doing these two back to back like this; it makes me feel like some kind of weird literary fangirl. But sometimes interest in two different topics and the foibles of the NYPL reserve system bring together this kind of unhappy pairing.)
Roosevelt and Churchill had previously met in 1918 at a dinner in London while both were navy officials in their nations' governments. Neither thought much of each other at the time, and neither remembered the meeting particularly well. But in 1939, when Churchill became Prime Minister, he needed Roosevelt desperately; Britain was pretty much fighting Hitler alone and Churchilll knew that in order to survive, the US would have to come into the war somehow, despite the reluctance of an American public not anxious to get involved in a European war. Luckily for Churchill, Roosevelt was not an isolationist so the battle wasn't so much over if but when and how the US would help or come into the war on Britain's side. Even better, once they began to make contact with each other, they discovered they shared many of the same ideas about how to accomplish their common goal...more or less.
Luckily for everyone, I won't rehash Churchill and Roosevelt's maneuvers during World War II for you. There are plenty of people who can do a much better job of that than me, including Meacham in this book. The main question posed in this book, it would seem then, is whether the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt became so personally close made it easier to win the war.
It's a good question--obviously it's difficult to work with people you really dislike, but it's often just as easy to work with people whom you regard as neutral as it is to work with friends; in fact sometimes it's difficult to work with friends. Doing business with a friend is a good way to destroy a friendship, many will tell you. Obligations to others in both of your inner circles can sabotage the ability to work together; things you like about each other when just hanging out can turn into irritants when trying to put together a project. Knowing too much about each other can get in the way.
But friendship can certainly help, too--Meacham points out that the trust Churchill and Roosevelt had in each other allowed them to push through quickly decisions that might have taken too long if they had had to wend their way through other advisors and committees. So maybe we can't just generalize "friendship made victory possible," but rather look at the nature or balance of power in this particular friendship.
Churchill comes across as that little boy a teacher might find in his or her class who is a braggart, pushy, a leader, bright, well-informed, overly chatty, and capable of unexpected, sudden kindnesses. The one you love the most, have the highest hopes for, but who also drives you a little crazy. He was charming, a bit of a showman, and although confident, he had a need to be loved by everyone. His parents had been at best neglectful of him; at worst, downright disdainful (one contemporary of the elder Churchills said that even by the standards of absent Victorian parents, they were pretty bad). This can make people react in different ways. Some children would grow up to be wary and distrustful. Winston, ever imaginative and optimistic, somehow grew up still idolizing his parents and hoping for their love. He also developed an extremely helpful ability to both reconstruct any story with a happy spin and an endless willingness to forgive. A colleague noted that you could have a screaming argument with Churchill one night and he would greet you the next morning as if no cross words had ever been exchanged. Rather than make him a pushover, this enabled him to stand his ground and in many cases get his way; in times of crisis, shutting people out or carrying personal grudges wouldn't have advanced his cause.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, had grown up in an environment where he was endlessly adored, and therefore, never unsure of love, learned to return it carefully in order to gain power. It seemed he always managed to hold back part of himself as a caution, and as a charm to be held out to those who wanted more--like Churchill.
So there is the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship--two men, both similarly able to command the stage and command others, but one willing to give himself over endlessly and the other willing to give just enough to keep the other interested (though Churchill undoubtedly would have spun it that they were more equal). It's an oversimplification, no doubt, to say this, that Churchill was more personable, more open, more willing to give of himself while Roosevelt was cooler; when Stalin entered the picture, Roosevelt effortlessly sold out Churchill, making fun of him, excluding him, all part of what he considered to be the only way to win Stalin over. It's hard to imagine Churchill doing the same thing. But Roosevelt did manage to get Stalin to cooperate for a while, at least when he was most needed. Of course Roosevelt could also overrate his own ability to win over and control someone, telling people that Stalin was like a friend and someone he could trust, which is somewhat like saying I can trust that cobra not to attack me because I just fed it a rabbit. Then again, Roosevelt also overrated Chiang Kai-Shek and his ability to lead China, too. Roosevelt was confident, if nothing else, but not stupid confident; he could see when he was wrong and before he died, he had come around to Churchill's assessment of Stalin as untrustworthy. By then it didn't matter, though--they had gotten what they needed out of Stalin to win the war, and Churchill, though perhaps easily viewed as the junior partner in the relationship, got what he wanted when he set out on his courtship of Roosevelt: the survival of England, of Europe, and the defeat of fascism. This of course is due just as much to the rise of the US and decline of the British empire (something Churchill didn't willingly enjoy seeing) as Churchill's willingness to give in on the small things. But a man who was more stubborn or egotistical (not that Churchill was a minor leaguer in those areas) might not have been willing to give in, would have had to always win, would have seen Roosevelt more as a rival for the prize of savior than as a partner. Indeed, maybe if Churchill hadn't liked Roosevelt so much personally, ego might have gotten in the way. But he did. Friendship did matter.
Both men were prolific letter writers, which is helpful in understanding their personal closeness. Churchill, though, was a prolific writer of everything, which means that an author has to be careful not to let the man himself control the narrative (as Churchill famously said, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."). But Meacham had access to plenty of material by others who were there at the time; interviews with Churchill's daughter Mary were particularly interesting and helpful at putting a more neutral spin on things (as always, I became interested in some of the supporting characters in the story, such as Robert Sherwood, the playwright/screenwriter who became Roosevelt's speechwriter, and Nancy Astor, who only makes a cameo here, but was a great foil for Churchill--she was the one who said to him, "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea," to which Churchill replied, "Madame, if I were your husband I'd drink it." Ah, the 1930s, when everyone seemed a little more clever...). If Churchill comes off as the more vivid, lively person here, it is really because he mostly was in real life. Not that Roosevelt was a shrinking violet, it's jsut that when it comes to big people striding on the world stage, Churchill took up an awful lot of the spotlight. Nor does that make Roosevelt uninteresting--we hear a little less from him, but that made me more curious. Opinion about Roosevelt is ever gyrating--most people rate him as one of the best presidents, but he had many detractors during his actual time in office. Look at what you see in newspapers now--some people writing about FDR as the savior of America during the Depression, others that his policies were a disaster only saved by other events. The subject bears more investigation. Meacham's book is a really fun read, and a good introduction to the main players (and he does make it clear that that is all it is intended to be), but it left me wanting more--which is good, and was the intention, as I said.
You may (or may not) notice that I use phrases and words like "comes across" and "seems" a lot when describing Churchill and Roosevelt and that is because of the always puzzling nature of reading books like this. No matter how many sources Meacham consulted while writing his book, inevitably some were missed, or left out, so his assessment is filtered through what he found, what he chose, filtered through him. It is subjective. And a person's own words--memoir, autobiography--are no better, in fact often worse (witness Churchill's willingness to control history noted above). So it seems that in order to know something you must endlessly read and read and read and hope someday you have found enough to understand the truth, but that's still never a sure thing. Sometimes I despair of ever knowing anything.
He was money.
I had never had any real interest in Andrew Jackson's presidency. Which is exactly why when I saw that a new biography of Jackson was out, I sighed, and conceded that it was about time I learned something President Number Seven.
Jon Meacham's American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House is indeed exactly that; although Jackson was sixty-two when he was became president in 1829, Meacham dispatches with the first sixty-one years of his life in about fifty pages--and that includes a pre-inauguration preface. Orphaned at an early age, Jackson was a lawyer who had become famous for his exploits as a war hero; the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, in which he led US forces to victory, was celebrated regularly throughout his life.
Jackson was nominated for president in 1824 and in a four-man contest, won the most popular votes (although not a majority). The Electoral College split between the four candidates and the election went to the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams was selected. The Electoral College--and Congress--became one of many institutions that Jackson heartily disliked. He felt that Henry Clay, one of the other candidates had had his supporters in the House go to Adams in exchange for Adams giving him the post of Secretary of State, as well as future support for his own turn at president.
Jackson did win the presidency from Adams in a personally bloody battle, in which much mud was flung. A lot of the invective directed at Jackson was related to the fact that he and his wife Rachel had married before her divorce from her first husband was final. Everything had long been legally cleaned up but it was hurtful nonetheless. Rachel died after the election but before Jackson got to the White House; Jackson felt that the strain she had been under during the campaign contributed to her death.
When Jackson did become president, he tried to make the executive branch as strong as possible--he issued more vetoes in his two terms than the other six presidents combined. Jackson felt that the president was the voice of the people and that any other national institution was just in the way of the president executing the will of the people who had chosen him. Needless to say, he was not a fan of the Electoral College concept. Nor Congress. Nor a national bank. Nor states' governments. To quote the man himself:
"The mass of the people have more to fear from combinations of the wealthy and professional classes--from an aristocracy which through the influence of riches and talents, insidiously employed, sometimes succeeds in preventing political institutions, however well-adjusted from securing the freedom of the citizen...The President has felt it his duty to exert the power with which the confidence of his countrymen has clothed him in attempting to purge the government of all sinister influences which have been incorporated with its administration."
In many ways, Jackson seemed to regard the president as being like a king, answerable to no one--except the people, that was the main difference. The problem with that, of course, is that Jackson was not going to be the last president ever, so what if a president, empowered in the way Jackson thought he should be, did not have the people's best interests at heart? Or thought he did but was just really misguided...or stupid? It's not like the electorate doesn't make mistakes. American voters aren't always bright, nor, more aptly, clairvoyant. The whole reason the framers of the Constitution gave power to three branches of government was to make sure that one idiot wasn't running wild, doing idiotic things (well, that's how it's supposed to work). Checks and balances, and all that. Jackson may have been sincere in his belief that he was the best person to execute the people's will, but just because you believe something doesn't mean it is true. Should I believe that any president speaks for me? Meacham writes:
"American politics is organic, power fluid. One era's unquestioned good is another's certain evil. the president and the people of a given moment are not always right, but Jackson believed that "the intelligence and wisdom of our countrymen" would provide "relief and deliverance" from the "difficulties which surround us and the dangers which threaten our institutions--in every era."
But are the people--if one person can even try to speak for some nebulous mass called the people--that intelligent and wise? I worked on a customer service line for a while and dealt with people from all over the country. Intelligent and wise were not words that often came up when we finished a call. Indeed, Jackson was a strong advocate of the removal of native peoples (he was constantly convinced that the various tribes were in cahoots with European powers) as well as slavery. He was hardly alone in those beliefs in his time period, but that era's perceived good is now regarded as an evil. Having one person with all the power try to interpret the will of the people will inevitably leave out the will of many. Congress and the Supreme Court may not be everyone's favorite groups of people, nor the cleverest, but at least they're bumps in the road to what could become folly. Or at least that was the intent. It was a good plan. Sigh. Am I making sense? Did I mention I've been sick all day?
The main battles of Jackson's presidency were against the National Bank (I always get very bored when the National Bank comes up) and South Carolina's fight for nullification, or the right to disregard federal laws. Despite his acceptance of slavery, Jackson was adamantly pro-Union, and saw that slavery was a divisive issue that threatened the unity of the nation. When you read Meacham's account of the dispute between South Carolina and the federal government (with the other slave states closely watching), you become aware of how close the US came to Civil War decades before it actually happened. And while it was would have been nice if it had never happened, if it had actually occurred in the early 1830s, the nation might not have been strong enough to withstand it. Jackson's victory in this battle perhaps only postponed the inevitable, but the time bought may have led to the better outcome (hey, I never said he was wrong about everything, just that his concept of the presidency might have been a recipe for future disaster).
Meacham's book makes it clear what a very small place the United States was at that time. It was a place where the president could go out for walks or rides with a friend every day, and on a rainy afternoon, stop in at a tavern and hang out there for a while until the bad weather passed. It was also a place where gossip and society could change the course of history.
The most astonishing part of Meacham's book is his account of the trouble caused by Peggy Eaton, the wife of Major John Eaton, Jackson's old friend from Tennessee and Secretary of War in his first term. Mrs. Eaton was, shall we say, a woman of shaky reputation (and, it appears, not at all apologetic for having lived her life as she pleased. In a way, you want to cheer her). When Mrs. Calhoun, the wife of Vice-President John C. Calhoun decided to socially snub Mrs. Eaton, Washington became sharply divided into pro and anti Eaton camps. The anti-side consisted of not just society women appalled at Mrs. Eaton's questionable background, but those against Jackson in general. The pro side was led by Jackson, eternally loyal to his old friend Eaton, as well as Jackson's most adamant supporters. To Jackson's dismay, Emily Donelson, the wife of his beloved nephew Andrew Donelson, and the de facto hostess at the White House, chose not to receive Mrs. Eaton. The divide over the affair became so great that at one point Jackson sent the Donelsons back to Tennessee, something which made no one happy (Jackson, without a wife and any other family, was terribly lonely without his nephew and their young family).
The problem was solved when the whole cabinet, including Eaton was persuaded to resign, and the Eatons went back to Tennessee (Mrs. Eaton, by the way, long outlived her husband and at age fifty-nine married her nineteen year old Italian dancing master, who then ran off with her granddaughter. Oh well.). The way this affected history was that by the time it was over, Calhoun's presidential hopes were essentially destroyed (his involvement in the nullification affair, as a South Carolinian, didn't help either). Martin Van Buren, Jackson's secretary of state, was a widower. He could stand by Jackson and be pro-Eaton without having to entertain in Washington society and worry about the question of "receiving" or "not receiving" the Eatons. He didn't have to answer to a wife who might have been ostracized by the "right people" if he chose to support Jackson and the Eatons. Van Buren was the one who suggested having the whole cabinet resign, and eventually maneuvered himself into place as Jackson's second-term vice-president. The grateful Jackson vigorously supported his eventual election to president. It's hard to speculate how the course of the nation may have changed with a Calhoun presidency versus a Van Buren one, but you have to wonder...well, sort of...it's hard to even think of how the nation was affected by Van Buren. Oh dear, more reading to do...
Meacham writes in a quiet, graceful way, like that professor who was very soft-spoken but who you found yourself leaning in to listen to so you wouldn't miss a word. He makes his case for Jackson's importance and the importance of his era, something which people like me are likely to ignore while thinking about other things from that time period, like the inventions of the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of American literature. Jackson comes across as an extremely nice, gracious man, hardly the ruffian of Old Hickory legend. However, for me he remained a distant figure, not even the one standing at center stage in his own biography. By far the most vivid figure in the book for me was Emily Donelson. This is most likely due to the amount of letters she left behind, but the accounts of her, both her own and in others' words, reveal a self-possessed, clever young woman who was Jackson's equal as a politician; negotiating 19th century society was no less treacherous than 19th century politics. When her eventual fate was revealed, I gasped aloud, so alive had she become to me, more like a character in a novel than a minor presidential relative. The other fascinating person in the book was the oh so sly and slippery Van Buren. As noted above, I can't even begin to comment on whether he was a good president, but he certainly knew how to be the last man standing.
This was a very good book, and a lot can be learned from it. I do recommend it, very much so, in fact. But although Meacham makes Jackson's case well, I don't have a real urge to rush out and read more about Jackson. Give me 1832 and I'd rather read about so many other things going on at that time. Science and inventions and how people lived, shoes and ships and ceiling wax and all that. It is a time period where I am captivated by the details rather than the great man. Sometimes the action at centerstage isn't as interesting as the background.