The Pulitzer Prize for biography went to "American Lion: Andrew Jackson and the White House" by Jon Meacham, it was announced today. The book, our reviewer Robert Roper explains, "comes most startlingly alive when [Meacham] tells the old, amazing story of the ill-educated rube who invented modern politics." Roper continues:
It is a story of American genius (a genius for perpetuating slavery and for removing Indians from their land, as well as for more honorable things). Not that Jackson was all that ill-educated, actually; he read Shakespeare, Plutarch and the Bible, and François Fénelon was a great favorite -- Fénelon being the 17th century French author of "The Adventures of Telemachus," a treatise on Machiavellian governance. Maybe the point is that he gathered from here and there just what he needed, doing at each unexpected step of the way just what his instincts told him. Nathaniel Hawthorne, like other literary men of the time fascinated by Jackson, recorded a story of Jackson getting into a dispute "about eclipses and the planetary systems generally," and "compelling a whole dinner-party of better-instructed people to knock under to him in an argument." Hawthorne concluded, "Surely, he was the greatest man we ever had; and his native strength, as well of intellect as character, compelled every man to be his tool that came within his reach; and the [more] cunning . . . the individual . . . it served only to make him the sharper tool."
Meacham, who is the editor of Newsweek magazine, has also written for the L.A. Times. In a review of books on Abraham Lincoln, he wrote, illuminatingly, "the story of a man who becomes a monument is more interesting and instructive than the story of a man who was born one."
Andrew Jackson's momentousness was the subject of Meacham's conversation with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" in November of 2008. That clip is after the jump.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Portrait of Andrew Jackson attributed to Thomas Sully.