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The Crimson Bookshelf

BABIES WITHOUT TAILS, by Walter Duranty. Modern Age Books, Inc. New York. 168 pp. $.25.


THE American Frontiersman had a faculty which amounted to a genius for manufacturing sobriquets which not only stuck, but fitted. When, therefore, an obscure Tennessee General defied the Secretary of War, when he secured twenty days' rations for his 2070 men from an unfriendly colleague, when he dug a thousand dollars out of his own pocket to care for the sick, and when, turning over his own horses to the medical department, he herded his disheartened regiment all the way from Natchez to Nashville,--it was certainly time for a new nickname. He's "tough," exclaimed an admiring voice from the ranks. "Tough as hickory," observed another, naming the toughest thing he knew. That was in March, 1813. Andrew Jackson has been "Old Hickory" ever since.

Biographers, plying their little hatchets, would be the first to confess that this affectionate title possessed no small degree of accuracy. How, for example, is one to explain succinctly the character of a man who would in one moment defy a whole city, as Jackson did when he placed New Orleans under martial law, and who would in the next submit meekly to the sentence of Judge Dominick Ball, one of the major victims of that defiance? How is one to harmonize the picture of the man who caused the imprisonment of a Spanish commissioner in the common goal, with that of him who played tweedledum to Don Jose Callava's tweedledee in Florida's ridiculous prestige brawl of 1820? When these samples, with countless of their kind, are added to the confused problem of Jackson's birthplace, his marriage, his treatment of the Creeks. et al., it is easy to understand why Parton, Summer, and Bassett failed to do their, subject justice, as Mr. James modestly suggests.

Mr. James need display no false modesty; he has not failed. A tall striding man in mussed uniform and muddy boots" dominates these four hundred odd pages. Across the gulf of a century he has been transplanted from Tennessee to typemetal. And for the first time he thrives again, bawling orders to John Coffee, fidus Achates; shaking his flat under the brandy noses of a country jury; writing Rachel "Kiss my two sons," and in the next breath ordering the execution of Ambrister.

Mr. James's success is due to his scientific elimination of the faulty avenues of approach, and to the peculiar skill with which he follows his own. The Jackson of Summer was a man who played a role in political movements; Bassett sought vainly to imbue life into notes which scarcely left his library cubicle; Parton's was the unmodified hero of local tradition. Taking cue from his Pulitzer prize "Raven" of 1929, Mr. James meticulously introduces the reader to the individuals with whom Jackson came into contact, and allows "Old Hickory" to evolve his own character through the medium of direct quotation and factual narration.

If most satisfying, this is also the most difficult method. But the character artist of the "Raven" has lost none of his salty skill. John Quincy Adams is the "thin-lipped, perspiring New Englander, who had spent a third of his life abroad"; James Monroe "The raw-boned, six-foot President . . . a shy man, an able lieutenant, though a mediocre chief." There is young "Capt. Fort, speaking freely and a trifle importantly"; and plump little Rachel, "a frontier woman, clinging to the fragile images of a bygone day that had witnessed her last touch with happiness." Mr. James sketches these and a hundred more with sure, positive strokes. When Andrew Jackson speaks on these pages, he is talking to real people whom the reader knows, he confronts problems which the reader understands. In short, he lives.

Any review of this work would be incomplete without mention of the numerous maps and photographs which supplement the text. Probably the best of these is the reproduction of a rare Debucourt engraving of the battle at Rodriguez canal. Lengthy annotation and bibliography give further notice that Mr. James is no man to leave a good work unburnished. This present volume carries Jackson through his border-captain days up to 1821. A second and concluding volume is in preparation.

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