Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review - American Lion

I have to admit, I read American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008) because I had seen so much of Jon Meacham (of Newsweek) during the presidential campaign. It's not that I'm not interested in Andrew Jackson, or in that period of American history, it's just that these things weren't particularly high on the priority list.

And this review may seem less than satisfactory, as I have little to say about the book, mainly because I don't have a huge basis for comparison. When Meacham asserts that Jackson created the modern American political party, I can't really agree or disagree. His take on events, for all I know, is exactly the correct one. I am left to take the matter of this book as a book, as a narrative, on how well it hangs together. And, for me, it came up somewhat short.

The book seems to be meticulously researched, as Meacham had access to a number of letters that have, apparently, never been drawn upon before. As well, Meacham is clear on what he is and is not writing. There is a relatively brief segment about Jackson's early life, too sketchy to be insightful, but the bulk of the text concerns Jackson's presidency.

It's hard to get a handle on exactly what this biography is; is it psychobiography, as we see Jackson surround himself with the family he never had? Is it a political biography, as we see the figures of Clay and Calhoun swirl about in repeated attempts to undermine Jackson? Is it a historical biography, as we are taken back into the world of the 1820s and '30s?

It's all of those things, I suppose, and has its virtues in all these departments. You will gain insight into the president, you will watch the various intrigues, you will get a sense of the times. There's nothing wrong with any of this, and I'm glad I read the book, but it really didn't fully coalesce for me. I had the feeling that much of it was useful only if I already had a good idea of this presidency in this time, and, if I did, there would be little reason to add this book to the list. In other words, it's not complete enough to serve as an introductory biography, and I didn't get the feeling that it added anything novel to what is already known about Jackson (I will grant that my lack of knowledge prevents me from fully evaluating this last point).

I was left wanting more, but I was not so fascinated by the man or his time in office that I charged to the nearest library or bookstore to find out. I may revisit Andrew Jackson in the future; unfortunately, American Lion, while good, does not compel me to do so.

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