Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian
Professor Rogin’s first book, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter, told us much about the liberal mind by reviewing its effort to discredit populism by tying it to McCarthy. In his new book he is writing one kind of psychohistory to reveal, through a lay analysis of Andrew Jackson, the causes, nature, and effects of the vast and ruthless removal of Indians from the eastern United States, and the character and dynamics of Jacksonian Democracy. It is a significant book, but it is not as exciting as you might expect; hence two warnings presented with the intention of encouraging you to push on through until you finish—for it is worth the struggle.
First, it is inexcusably, and in places mind-numbingly, redundant. My therapy proposal is to have Rogin and his editor at Knopf read it aloud to each other. Second, so much heavy and persistent clinical explicitness is no longer necessary—or even particularly helpful—in psychohistory. Rogin does a great deal of heavy breathing, and there are far too many paragraphs in which his hyperventilation reminds one of Playgirl thinking it is necessary to seduce Ms.
All that said, it is an important book, so let us think about it carefully. The first thing is to clarify the difference between contemporary psychohistory and the classic relationship between psychology and history. The kind of psychohistory that is currently in vogue is about seventy-five years old, and involves the formal use of psychological and psychiatric models and theories to explain the actions of individuals and groups. The other relationship goes back at least to Thucydides and involves a process whereby the historian, through his reconstruction and analysis, provides the reader with the sense and the feel of a social and psychological reality—an understanding of the world view entertained by the people in question. Despite appearances to the contrary, the ancient approach is more dialectical and dynamic.
Rogin is a modern practitioner, and hence it is helpful to remind ourselves of some of the benchmarks provided by his predecessors. Less than an hour after opening Fathers and Children, I laid it aside and reread these four items: William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (1925); William Bolitho [Ryall], Twelve Against the Gods (1929); Edmund Wilson’s study of Abraham Lincoln in Patriotic Gore (1962); and the long essay by Edwin G. Burrows and Michael Wallace on “The American Revolution: The Ideology and Psychology of National Liberation,” in Perspectives in American History (1972).
Rogin generously credits Burrows and Wallace with significant help, and mentions Wilson’s tour de force in a footnote. I will return to the former work, but first let us review Rogin’s argument. He opens with the proposition that America began with “acts of force and fraud” against the Indians, and then isolates Jackson as the key figure in the subsequent “Indian destruction.” American historians have generally been guilty of ignoring the First Americans,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.