Saturday, September 29, 2012

American Lion

Andrew Jackson in the White House
John Meacham

Andrew Jackson was one of the more interesting tenants of the White House. For starters, he was the first 'non-aristocrat' to hold the office of president. Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Adams, were all well educated, landed gentry. 

Jackson's father died the year he was born; his mother when he was about ten. He and his two brothers served as couriers during the Revolution and were captured by the British at one point. After his mother's death, he was passed to various uninterested relatives and finally took up the study of law in his late teens. He embarked on a military career and became the hero of the War of 1812 when he defeated the British in the battle of New Orleans. 

Later, his law practice prospered, and he became a land owner and slave holder in Tennessee, but he never lost the rough edges. He was quick to anger and take physical action but he also became known as a man who stood up for those who served with him - hence the nickname 'Old Hickory' - solid as a hickory tree. He served in the House and Senate variously, representing Tennessee, before his election to the presidency.

The book is interesting in its exploration of the forces that shaped him. A vendetta against his wife during the campaign may have contributed to her early death after he was elected but prior to his assumption of office. He never fully recovered and relied heavily on his niece and her family during his eight year tenure. The fact that he was looked down upon socially didn't help.

Jackson closed the National Bank in Philadelphia - which was run by Nicholas Biddle. His reason - Biddle was using the funds to support his political favorites. Was He? Probably. I feel the book is remiss in not expostulating on that. 

He was volatile and his loyalty often led him to take a course that was against his best interest, but he averted the secession of S. Carolina over a tariff (plus the slavery) question thirty years before the Civil War through his threat of a military action. Knowing his temperament, the leaders of the secession movement - Clay and Calhoun - did not doubt his determination - and backed down. It was during his administration that the modern day two-party system evolved, with his founding of the Democratic party. There were two assassination attempts on his life - the very first on a president. In the second one, he actually fought back with his cane.

His reputation has suffered greatly because of his treatment of the Indians native to the region and the Seminoles of Florida, with whom he was constantly at odds. It was he who instigated the infamous 'Trail of Tears' that removed the resident tribes to areas west of the Mississippi - with high casualties along the way. If not for this, his place in the pantheon of 'greats' would be much higher.

Upon reading this over, it sounds like a review of Andrew Jackson rather than the book. If so - that's good. I knew absolutely nothing about the man before, even thinking that his nickname was 'Stonewall Jackson'. (Nope). American Lion is well researched, perceptive and interesting and - thanks to it - I now 'know' Andrew Jackson…

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

I was bemused when I read the title of this book. Am I the only person old enough to remember the move 'Lifeboat' (1944, directed by Alfred Hitchcock; adapted from a story by John Steinbeck)? Look it up on Wikipedia. Note this line: "The film … follows the lifeboat inhabitants as they attempt to organize their rations, set a course for Bermuda and coexist as they try to survive. The characters start out being good-natured, cooperative, and optimistic about rescue. However, they descend into desperation, dehydration, and frustration with each other." Exactly the course of events in this book. 

I read on. In the book, rescue is followed by a trial of the principal character and two others for murder. That differs from the movie.  There is a hint of a backstory which I thought sounded more interesting than the story I was reading. The novel has been praised for the quality of the writing and several critics have spoken of not being able to 'put it down'. It seemed disconnected to me. My assessment is certainly influenced by having seen the movie but I did not find this 'Lifeboat' at all compelling.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie

Unless one has studied Russian history, all many of us know about Catherine is that she was a powerful ruler with  a prodigious libido. This book brings her to life - and it's a real page turner!

She came to Russia at the age of 14 and was promptly married to the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter. The purpose was to beget an heir to the throne - promptly. That did not materialize. Peter, who was a real piece of work, did not touch his bride for 17 years. Those years were a period during which she was subjected to much humiliation and disrespect by her strange, child-like husband and his mother, the Empress Elizabeth. Catherine finally was seduced by a courtier and produced a son, Paul - who promptly was accepted as heir to the throne. Elizabeth, happy with an heir at last, then channeled her energy into jealousy of the young couple and especially of Catherine.

When Elizabeth died, the unpopular Peter III ruled very briefly before forces loyal to Catherine rebelled and crowned Catherine as empress. Shortly thereafter, Peter was killed, apparently by overzealous supporters of the new empress. Massie seems to absolve her of any involvement.

Catherine was great. She was highly intelligent and during her long years left to herself, she had read voluminously and made contact with Voltaire, Diderot and many western philosophers and men of letters. Influenced by their culture, she brought Russia into contact with the rest of Europe during a period called The Enlightenment. She was responsible for collecting the fabulous art in Russian museums. She cared about her people and attempted to reform the serfdom system. In this, she was circumvented by the nobility who considered the serfs their property. Practicality induced her to drop the issue or lose her supporters (her 'base' so to speak). Through successful wars and alliances, she vastly increased the land holding of Russia and made it a power to be reckoned with.
Footnote: The serfs of Russia were freed two years before our slaves were freed.

Catherine did have several children by different lovers - or 'favorites' as they were called, a practice almost universal in all the ruling houses of Europe and England, most of whom were male. It always has amused me to reflect that, given the pyramid effect of genealogy, we all are descended from royalty! Think about it....

Monday, January 9, 2012

Ruminations on A Painted House by John Grisham

Did you ever read this book? It's quite unlike Grisham's usual work. I read it some years ago and it made quite an impression. So much so that I wonder now if I actually saw it adapted for TV - or am remembering the vivid picture he painted.

It's based on his youth but I found that hard to believe - it's so evocative of what we know about The Depression years. Grisham was born in 1955. Then I remembered an account of a Thanksgiving my husband, Dwight, spent when he was stationed in Texas during the Korean War. It was about 1951.

The men had a four day pass and, of course, no money or time to get home. A fellow airman lived in Oklahoma and invited Dwight and two others to come home with him for the holiday. They accepted gratefully.

"Home" was a one room house. Curtains partitioned it to make 'rooms'. The foursome were warmly received and the family shared their Thanksgiving dinner with their guests.

Remembering this - it was 1951 - it becomes quite believable that Grisham had the childhood he wrote about in Arkansas.