Wednesday, July 9, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt one)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

That is only one of the reasons that Martin Van Buren eludes us today. He has been escaping pursuers since they began chasing him, which may explain why “the Fox” was one of his many nicknames. Has any other president held so many? The Red Fox of Kinderhook. The Little Magician. The Enchanter. The Careful Dutchman. The Great Manager. The Master Spirit. The American Talleyrand. King Martin. Matty Van.

The surfeit of sobriquets suggests both a familiarity with Van Buren and an ultimate failure to catch him. The names cancel each other out, they disagree with each other, and they suggest an inscrutability that still hangs like Spanish moss around him. Truly, there was something vulpine about the Fox. He eludes easy classification by the phrenologists of the historical profession, who measure the bumps and gouges of presidents to determine their lasting significance (at last glance, he ranked twenty-first out of forty-three). He eludes us because he apparently destroyed those parts of his correspondence that would have revealed his innermost secrets. He eludes us because his loyal confederates divulged precious little of their private thinking about him.

But mostly he eludes us because no one is looking for him anymore. He’s a lost president, floating in purgatory between Jackson and the Civil War, unremembered by most, and doomed to occupy the least heroic categories designed by historians (he has a lock on “average”). Weirdly, he was placed on a pedestal by Ezra Pound, the architect of lost causes. But that’s hardly a case for immortality in our amnesiac culture. On the extremely rare occasions when his image is presented before modern Americans, it is either disappointing (the cad-president in Amistad who turns a deaf ear to the African plea for freedom) or farcical (on Seinfeld, the idol of a secret society in New York, “the Van Buren Boys,” whom Kramer discovers when he accidentally sticks eight fingers in the air—the invocation for all loyalists to the eighth president).

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