by Jon Meacham
Random House, 512 pp. (bear in mind this includes substantially over 100 pages devoted to bibliography, footnotes, index, etc.)
Review by Kate Kasserman
My initial question upon confronting a book about Andrew Jackson was: but where do you even start?
This is not simply because of the oceans of ink that have already been spilled upon the man, but also the nature of the man himself. Sometimes I want to hang Andy for crimes against humanity. And sometimes I want to take his clothes off with my teeth – rrowr. I can defend either view. And, over the course of the past couple centuries, plenty of authors and historians have done so.
What is unquestionable is that he left a significant footprint behind him, and, as Meacham and many others point out, that some of his contradictions mirror not only those of the America of his time but also today. Like obscenity, this defies definition, but we know it when we see it.
So: what has Jon Meacham made us see?
American Lion is probably best regarded as the mother of all magazine articles (Meacham is the editor of Newsweek, so this labored conclusion of mine would have been simplified by a little basic research in advance along the lines of reading the back cover). It is a comprehensive handling neither of Jackson’s life nor of the issues he confronted. It does, however, offer a workable and readable overview for a general audience. By readable, I mean not just that the prose is largely transparent, but that there’s plenty of tension and narrative pull, even if some of this is a little contrived. I mean, okay, I know how it’s going to end (spoiler alert!): Jackson dies, right? But I cared about the ride, and I discovered a few new nuances to a story I already knew pretty well (more on those in a moment).
Gentlepeeps, I must confess that the first few chapters made me worry; but then I am happy to report that I had to eat my words to some extent. My error as a reader was looking for scholarly research, when the standard I should have been using was journalistic research: no less rigorous, but simply different in character.
For example, there is a lot more controversy over Jackson’s birthplace than we hear about in American Lion, and it is not limited to North vs. South Carolina (by Jackson’s own words at various points in his life, he may very well have been born on the boat coming over from Ireland; and he may have been significantly older than he claimed as well).
Fundamentally, however, this is a minor issue, even if a loaded one, and you know what? The hell with it. If Meacham had set out to write a scholarly or definitive book on Jackson, yeah, he’d have to wrestle with this bugbear, among many others. But for a working general understanding of the man and his life, getting bogged down in the details of all its myriad questions would be both unnecessary and duller than a William Henry Harrison inaugural address (except to Jackson nerds, who already have enough literature to keep them occupied).
My other concern was some pretty reductive psychological analysis and scene-setting. Meacham outlines fundamental aspects of Jackson’s personality as a product of his dependent status and orphanhood; okay, granted, and Alexander the Great had mother issues. Discuss. Or, for another, we are informed of the singular relevance that Jackson during his childhood spent half of every Sunday in church. Y-e-s, I rather suppose he did. It was the late eighteenth-century American frontier. They were not playing with their Wiis. And not all of those folks ended up going all Old Testament on the national scene.
However, as the book progressed, Meacham’s net widened to include the meat of his research, previously unpublished letters from Jackson’s circle. Here, the working-handle/snapshot technique of characterizing people worked significantly better for me, and I relished a great deal of it. Rather than Oprah-ing the supporting cast, Meacham finds telling and occasionally delicious quotes from them. John Quincy Adams (whose bitchiness reminds me a lot of his dad, except, ahem, smarter) is particularly fun. Yes, I just called JQA fun. FIRST!
And, I reencountered part of why I keep having to pluck Jackson’s buttons out of my mouth. Because while it’s interesting to hear what other people have to say (oh God, like the loathsome and utterly worthless Margaret Eaton, as to whom – really, the hell with her and the personality disorder she rode in on), the person whose words I was hanging on was: Andy, Andy, Andy! When he takes the stage and speaks for himself, it’s like a cannon-shot in the gut. Still. After all these years. Even when I hate what he’s saying.
Jackson was not well educated nor any kind of deep thinker, but he was by no means stupid, and his ascendancy was not the simple result of force of personality (although this was considerable) or low animal cunning. His intellectual resources seem to have been devoted not so much to what he was going to do or why he was going to do it (both of which were, apparently, manifest and unarguable to him), but how.
That’s great when you like what he’s doing – horrifying when you don’t. And it’s why I don’t believe anyone will ever get at the philosophical tensions and inconsistencies in Jackson’s policy and behavior. He didn’t resolve them. I don’t believe he felt the slightest need to. I don’t think he would have recognized them if they perched on his head and started playing the cymbals.
American Lion, perhaps understandably, indulges itself in a few sententious morally correct statements on some of Jackson’s repugnant acts and opinions (Indian policy; slavery) and his questionable or possibly idiotic ones (die, Bank, die!; choosing the contemptible Mrs. Eaton over his own family), but appropriately does not try to absolve Jackson of responsibility for them (which would be pretty damned hard to do, anyway).
Although, as mentioned, some of the Jackson-circle correspondence is new (and interesting), this is not a book that pushes either a definitive or a novel interpretation of Jackson. And while a pretty big hunk of page-age is devoted to the Margaret Eaton affair in all its dismal glory, neither is American Lion focused on a single episode in Jackson’s life, even if, as the subtitle promises, the bulk of the discussion is on the White House years. American Lion is an overview, zooming in on certain moments (more than events) either for flavor or for a broad understanding, both of which are valuable in and of themselves.