Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Mystery To Me

While most of my reading dwells on history, I do love a good mystery. I got hooked on Agatha Christie ages ago, but ultimately found her stories a bit too similar and her characters too one-dimensional. She did know how to create a great puzzle, though. I periodically pick up my Complete Sherlock Holmes and spend a few evenings perusing his cases. Holmes is an enduring, fascinating character and his most exciting cases are among Conan-Doyle’s best work, even if the author often played down the Holmes stories. Edgar Allan Poe remains a great favorite and I’m sure to re-read some of his more celebrated tales and poems around this time of year. What’s Halloween without a spirited reading of “The Raven?” Much of Poe’s work, of course, lies more in the field of the macabre, or just plain weird, than in traditional mystery, but he did, after all, create the detective story, and Holmes was, in part, modeled on Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. I think the reason I enjoy Dickens is that his plots often play out like mysteries. There’s always more to the back story of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield than meets the eye and we know that all will be revealed eventually. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his long-suffering assistant, Sgt. Lewis, are as memorable as Holmes and Watson, but that is due more to the actors John Thaw and Kevin Whately, who brought them to life on television.

In fact, television has brought new and lasting life to many fictional detectives. Thaw and Whately may lead the pack, but Jeremy Brett nailed Holmes so well that it is unlikely any other actor will be found credible in the role, notwithstanding the iconic Basil Rathbone. Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have been fleshed out on TV far more than they were on paper by the author. David Suchet has largely erased images of Poirot created by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and the unlikely Tony Randall, while Joan Hickson came closest to the original Miss Marple, while breathing a good deal more life into the character than the books gave her. Nonetheless, I’ll always have a soft spot in my head for Margaret Rutherford’s comical take on Miss Marple. For pure enjoyment I turn to John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey,” both in print and on television. Leo McKern placed his lasting imprint on the character during the 14-year run of the Rumpole television series and in his recorded readings of Mortimer’s original stories. Mortimer’s writing is fluid and charming, and he has a unique talent for dry, understated wit, which McKern captured perfectly. These are not great “mysteries” in the strict sense, but great fun and sly observations on life at the bar -- or anywhere else.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Crockett in Context

One of the things that drove me to do a book on David Crockett was my dissatisfaction with earlier works on the Tennessean. Most of them paid disproportionate attention to his brief involvement in the Creek War in 1813, his even shorter time in Texas and death at the Alamo, and his hunting adventures. Although he spent most of his adult life in politics, those years have typically been given short shrift and were superficially presented, confusing and inaccurate. Crockett was typically seen as a clueless bumpkin who did not understand political issues or process, mindlessly stubborn and easily manipulated by Whig politicians. It was as if nothing he did in politics made any sense.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Crockett had a clear understanding of politics and the legislative process. He knew all about deal-making and alliance building, but he showed one trait uncommon to most career politicians -- he put the interests of his constituents above all else, including his political fortunes and the demands of his party. But this could only be seen if the issues Crockett dealt with were understood in the context of his time. He served during the rise of Jacksonian popular democracy, which spread suffrage and opened elected office to more citizens than had been the case under the more elitist Federalists. His contemporaries were Andrew Jackson, the first non-Federalist president, fellow-Tennessean James K. Polk, who became Jackson’s point man in Congress, and Martin Van Buren, founder and organizer of what would become the Democratic Party, Jackson’s second vice president and his hand-picked successor. These anti-Federalist leaders aimed their appeal squarely at the “common man,” long disenfranchised and subjected to the rule of eastern elites since the country’s birth. Their priorities were to eliminate corruption from government, reduce the central government’s power and spending, and legislate for the general good, not special interests. However, once in power, they showed favoritism toward their own cadre of elites and cronies and often acted against the best interests of the common folk in the name of reducing government interference. And they had zero tolerance for anyone in their party who did not move in lock step with them.

Although Crockett agreed with many broad Jacksonian goals in principle, he had never allied with Jackson in Tennessee politics. He began to oppose the president’s policies when he saw that they were often detrimental to his constituents, mostly poor farmers, despite Jackson’s populist rhetoric. Crockett locked horns with Polk over land reform and opposed Jackson’s cruel Indian removal policy as well as his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, which dried up badly needed credit that was essential to small businesses and farmers. Crockett viewed Jackson's assertion of presidential power as a threat to the Constitution and the union. Unlike Jackson and Polk, he favored internal improvements because better transportation facilities aided commerce and benefited business. He understood that only the Federal government could manage the job and that the fears of states’ rights advocates, who opposed any exercise of Federal power, were shortsighted and counter-productive. His opposition made him a pariah among Jacksonians, who prized blind loyalty more than integrity. In each of his four bids for reelection, Jackson’s forces did all they could the unseat Crockett, but he still managed to win two of those contests and, when he lost it was by narrow margins, demonstrating his own appeal and the degree of anti-Jackson sentiment in his district. Crockett’s actions, thus, make perfect sense and should be applauded. He often proclaimed his refusal to buckle to party pressure, insisting that his first duty was to the people “whose servant I am,” a view rarely adhered to -- then or now