Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jackson: The Iron-Willed Commander, by Paul Vickery (The Generals)


A biography of the controversial Andrew Jackson.  As you might expect from a book in a series called The Generals, the author focuses primarily on Jackson's military adventures, particularly his encounters with the Creeks, the Seminoles, and the British.

Allow me to start off by saying that I know nothing about Andrew Jackson beyond what I read about him in a Cracked article (here's another one, though for those new to Cracked, a heads up: much profanity is contained therein).  Now, having read this book, I know more--why Jackson is called 'Old Hickory', that he really for real loved his wife, that apparently you can bully illness into submission using the power of the will, and that if you were fighting against Jackson, you were pretty much hosed.  This goes for his opponents in military engagements and the ones he dueled.  Apparently, he dueled a lot.

I definitely enjoyed learning more about this guy.  He sounds incredibly unpleasant and terrifying and yet completely and totally necessary to the future of the United States.  The author treats him as a man with many shortcomings and with more than a few objectionable ideas, but whose sharp edges and unbending will carried the day when his country needed him. In that sense, his biography reads a bit like a classic Western--a strange and possibly dangerous man emerges onto the national military scene.  He has a chequered past and a nasty temper. But when the country faces difficult situations, a dangerous man is precisely what is needed.  While we may bemoan some of the things he did, there is no denying that, had he not done them, the United States, if it even existed, would be a very different place indeed.

In particular, Jackson's conflict and negotiations with--and treatment of--the native population of the South was, in hindsight (and probably even in then-sight), harsh and unjust.  However, as with many similar issues (most notably the elephant of slavery that haunts the rooms of every founding-era 'hero'), he was a product of his times and was most certainly not alone in his attitudes and ideas.  Not that the cultural and political backdrop of his actions absolves him of responsibility therefor.  Like every man, woman, or child since the dawn of time, Jackson was responsible for his actions and must answer for those actions to his Creator.

You will note that my review thus far has focused solely on the content of the book--the factual, historical details of Jackson's life.  The substance, if you will.  I will now comment on the form: It's not very good.  Leaving aside the editing errors and typos (including one in the editor's Note--ouch!), the author has a habit of awkwardly structuring his sentences, giving away the punch line in the opening phrase before providing buildup or explaining the context.  This tendency also works itself out in his paragraphs: one sentence will sum up an entire episode in a conclusory way, and then next will begin to expound on the episode from the beginning, as if the opening sentence did not exist.  He tells us things before telling us why we should care.  It is, perhaps, difficult to explain what I mean.  However, it made for rather jarring--and occasionally confusing--reading.

Not that the writing was all bad:  the Prologue, which sets the stage by describing Jackson's first inauguration (including the unrestrained ardor and enthusiasm of the attendees and the scathing remarks of detractors and critics), was by far the best section of the book.  I found myself intrigued by this 'man of the people', and I was excited to learn more about who he was and how he got to the White House. The Prologue made me want to read the book.  So, well done there.

The author was also admirably restrained in his portrayal of Jackson's religious life.  Although this series is not explicitly 'religious' in focus, it is published by Thomas Nelson, and I was worried it would be yet another sparkling account of how obviously every founding-era leader was a devout evangelical Christian (despite the fact that there is ample evidence that this is not the case).  While this book probably focuses more on Jackson's religious life than another biographer might, the tone is significantly more objective than I expected.  He does not paint Jackson as a Man of Faith.  Instead, he is portrayed as an incredibly tough individual who also had a religious life of sorts and we don't really know what that looked like for him.  Which was a wise choice--casting this iron-willed duel veteran as a deeply religious man would be a tough sell.

At the end of the day, I did enjoy the book to some degree, but it was the content, not the writing, that I enjoyed.  The credit thus belongs less to the author than to Jackson himself, whose adventures could invigorate even the shoddiest writing.  There are probably better biographies out there--though, at just over 200 pages, there may not be shorter biographies.  So, you know, there's that.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

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