A really good volume of history provides the reader with a keen sense of perspective and a genuine appreciation for the past. This is exactly what David S. Reynolds does in Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, which authoritatively describes the early to middle part of the American 19th century and makes clear how important this period was to the nation's growth in sociocultural, industrial and political terms. The first third of Reynolds' book is compellingly crafted, offering an incisive examination of the so-called Era of Good Feelings (early 1800s, post-Founding Fathers), leading into the administration of Andrew Jackson (1829 - 1837).
Reynolds delivers a fascinating profile of John Quincy Adams, Jackson's predecessor, who was a genius but didn't play politics very well. Other important statesmen of the time - Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun - get their due, but best of all are the author's insights into Old Hickory, exchanging the stereotyped perception of a rough - hewn rube for an admiring respect. Jackson, his obvious administrative blunders aside, was unafraid to wield power, showed what a president could do with a veto and oversaw the foundational development of a burgeoning empire. Jackson's reign had warts - including his ruthless pragmatism in relocating Native American populations - but his impact on infrastructure (never underestimate the importance of a paved road in a frontier land), westward migration, commerce, banking and the general assertion of the U.S. into the international sphere was huge.
Reynolds grapples with art, literature, religion, philosophy, even the theater of the day in subsequent chapters, which help to characterize the distinctively emerging individualist and outspoken American spirit. Reynolds pushes his narrative forward past the Jackson years in an effort to provide some continuity and context to key national trends and events. His coverage stops short of the Civil War, when the long-overdue and critical encounters with festering sectionalism and the slavery question are finally met head-on. The marvel here is how Reynolds tackles textbook material with a great deal of stylish and involving writing.
Martin Brady is a Nashville-based writer.