Jennie: Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren, by Ted Widmer

My first impression of this book is that for its small size, it really does contain a large amount of information. Even still, there wasn’t a vast amount of information on his personal life. There weren’t many casual stories of childhood jokes, romances, or details on his marriage. From the way it was described there wasn’t much of this type of information available though so I’m not sure that another biography would have included it.

A few times Ted Widmer’s tone really infiltrated the text, especially regarding how Van Buren was attacked during his elections and throughout his political career. He gave the impression that Van Buren was the first person to have been slaughtered in papers and election speeches. Maybe it is because I have read these biographies in (mostly) order I can say that each President before him had many of the same (if not worse in some cases) venomous replies and comments made about them.

The amount of political perspective attempted to make up for the lack of personal details so I was able to gather a semi-understanding of one of the more unknown Presidents. So much of Van Buren’s presidency was stained by the rough economy of the time. Second to that issue, slavery was starting to develop into an issue that would no longer be swept under the rug. Van Buren really did try to toe the line of balance, and not always for personal gain. It seems that he truly thought he could bring together the masses on either side of issues. Sometimes he succeeded but on some of the bigger issues he failed.

Probably not the intent, but the most memorable aspect of this couple hundred pages has nothing to do with the presidency in the late 1830s. Instead, it is about modern people, things and events. Confused yet? It’s as if the author thought readers of this book wouldn’t be able to comprehend the past without references of the here and now so the pages are loaded with modern references. Jacki pointed this out in her review, but I thought maybe I could overlook these references. Nope…not at all. In fact I started making a list from the beginning after Jacki prompted me to since her list was made after she finished reading.

Here you go with page number:

Seinfeld (5)
Yahoo Search (19)
Empire State Building (40)
Rush Limbaugh (67)
Monica Lewinsky (78)
Internet (98)
Kmart (99)
Watergate (106)
Vietnam (114)
Stephen Spielberg (121)
Al Gore (136)
John Lennon (14)
Graceland (144)
Disneyland (170)

I even left out some of the references that could semi-justifiably be tied to an event (cause and effect, etc). That is a huge list for such a small book with a subject matter so far in the past. Had many of these been left out I probably would have rated the book higher than I have at this point. It just distracted me from the life of Martin Van Buren too much.

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