Third Tuesday of the month, 5:00 p.m., in the homes of its members. Co-Chairmen Jack Cobau (313-885-1650) and David Morrow (313-640-9756). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of our current book list or see below. All SMC members are welcome to join our discussion, whether or not you have read the book.
September Readers’ Report
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
by Jon Meacham
Jon Meacham is one of America’s preeminent presidential historians and biographers. He is a contributing writer to The New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor to Time magazine, and a former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek. He has published or edited eight books and won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Meacham is currently a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.
American Lion has been described as the definitive biography of a larger-than-life president who defied norms, divided a nation, and changed Washington forever. In his prologue, Meacham cautions readers “This book is not a history of the Age of Jackson but a portrait of the man and of his complex relationships with the intimate circle that surrounded him as he transformed the presidency.”
Jackson grew up as a poor orphan in the Carolinas but relocated to Tennessee in 1788 and became a lawyer, a judge, a soldier, a politician, and a wealthy, slaveholding planter. He fought duels, made friends, and with his charismatic personality, inspired great loyalty. Meacham states: “By projecting personal strength, Jackson created a persona of power, and it was this aura, perhaps more than any particular gift of insight, judgment, or rhetoric, that propelled him forward throughout his life.” He became a national hero after leading the US victory over a larger British force at New Orleans in the War of 1812. Jackson was known for protecting his men, and they called him “Old Hickory.” He ran for President in 1824 and won a plurality but not a majority of the popular or electoral votes, thus sending the election to the House, who chose John Quincy Adams over the outsider from the frontier. Jackson’s supporters founded the Democratic Party, and he ran again in 1828, defeating Adams in a landslide.
When he began work on American Lion, Meacham knew that there were already two three-volume biographies of Jackson as well as numerous other books on his presidency. Meacham’s research turned up unpublished letters and papers from Jackson family and friends and he concentrated on those. The resulting description of Jackson’s time in the White House features the Petticoat Affair, a scandal tame by today’s standards. During the campaign, his opponent alleged that Jackson had married his wife Rachel before her divorce had been finalized. Tongues continued to wag after Jackson appointed John Eaton as Secretary of War. Rumors about the questionable character of Eaton’s wife Margaret and her abrasive personality led to her being ostracized by the other cabinet wives, led by the wife of John C Calhoun, Jackson’s Vice-President. What should have been a minor matter became a cause seized upon by Jackson’s opponents, becoming a national issue.
Meacham also discusses more substantive issues faced by Jackson, including the threat of nullification of federal laws and possible succession by South Carolina, Jackson’s objection to the Second Bank of the United States, and his backing of the forced removal of American Indian tribes and hostility toward the abolition of slavery. Jackson served two terms and became one of our best-known presidents. He expanded the power of the executive branch by expanding the use of the veto and appealing directly to the people to influence Congress. Although many of the Readers felt that too much of the book was devoted to the Petticoat Affair and Jackson’s influential “kitchen cabinet” of family and friends, most found the book well-researched, well-written. and interesting. We would recommend the volume to those who already have some familiarity with the Age of Jackson. We discussed comparisons to the current scene in Washington without reaching any conclusions.
Join us on October 16th at 5 pm for our discussion of Lincoln in the Bardo, the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by George Saunders. We will meet at the home of Fred Whitehouse, 1265 Blairmoor Ct, Grosse Pointe Woods. RSVP to (313) 884-1324.
July Readers’ Report
COLD COMFORT FARM, by Stella Gibbons
“Quite simply one of the funniest satirical novels of the last century” – Nancy Pearl, NPR’s MORNING EDITION, or the deliriously entertaining COLD COMFORT FARM is “very probably the funniest book ever written”, so says The Sunday Times, London, and the 100 best novels: #57 – Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932) per The Guardian. The book even inspired Mellon family heiress Cordelia Scaife May to name her home “Cold Comfort,” and to name her philanthropic foundation Colcom Foundation.
Set primarily in Sussex, England, circa 1930s, Cold Comfort Farm is a parody of late eighteenth/early nineteenth century agricultural literature, such as novels by D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. The main character, Flora Poste, is reminiscent of Jane Austen and Bronte heroines in many regards. Orphaned and broke at nineteen, she decides to live with relatives she has never met on a farm in Sussex. She discovers the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm are in a bad state as the farm is supposedly cursed and tightly controlled by the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, who never leaves her room. There is a general sense of depression and gloom, the very farm appear-ing like “a beast about to spring.”
Abhorring messes similar to Jane Austen’s Emma, Flora takes on the challenge to tidy up Cold Comfort Farm and everyone on it. The Starkadders believe they must never leave the farm or Aunt Ada Doom will have one of her fits of madness, but Flora can see the madness as a little too convenient. This madness supposedly is the result of something Aunt Ada saw in the woodshed when she was a child. Flora tackles each family member individually, despite Aunt Ada’s distress: she changes her cousin Elfine from an artsy woodland sprite into a lady eligible for marriage to the wealthy man she loves; she helps her cousin Seth find a career in the talkies, his passion, through her Hollywood producer friend; she encourages religiously fanatic Uncle Amos to go on a preaching tour, getting him off the farm so her cousin Reuben can take it over as this is his greatest wish; and she sends her depressing Aunt Judith into therapy and off to explore European churches. Flora’s biggest problem is Aunt Ada Doom, but the farm will never really be tidy as long as she is brooding in her room. Flora spends a day with her, managing to convince her there is a lot more fun to be had for a lady of wealth than being cooped up in a bedroom. Aunt Ada agrees and flies off to Paris on Elfine’s wedding day. After all Flora’s meddling has come to fruition and the farm is tidied up, Flora seeks her own happy ending. Like a fairy tale, Charles, the man she loves, comes to pick her up in his airplane and they declare life-long love toward one another as they return to London.
There are a number of subplots that also take place. A writer staying in the nearest town, Mr. Mybug, develops a crush on Flora, but as he’s rather fat and she doesn’t care much for intellectuals, she does her best to avoid him. Fortunately, he meets one of the Starkadder women and marries her instead. The hired girl, Meriam, is another major subplot. She gets pregnant every spring when the “sukebind” blooms and has just had her fourth child by an unknown man. Flora teaches her about birth control which Meriam thinks is flying in the face of nature, but which her mother, Mrs. Beetle, condones. Meriam ends up marrying one of the farm-hands.
The novel is best enjoyed by understanding it as a parody on rural literature and character archetypes as the story builds on a conventional structure toward a satisfying ending.
Our group, which gave the book a 4.3 rating out of 5, and had a good time laughing throughout the entire discussion.
Join us on September 18th at 5 pm for our discussion of AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON in the WHITE HOUSE the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction work by Jon Meacham. We will meet at the home of Joe Schneider, 76 Lochmoor Road, Grosse Pointe Shores. RSVP (313) 882-6156
Grosse Pointe Senior Men’s Club Readers 2018 Book List
Have questions or need directions or copies of the books? Call either:
David Morrow: 313-640-9756 or Jack Cobau: 313-885-1650