lunes, 20 de agosto de 2012

American Scoundrel by Thomas Keneally

The title of Thomas Keneally’s American Scoundrel leaves little to the imagination. The only unknown is to whom the label might be attached. Before we begin the title tells us that the declared subject, one Daniel Sickles, is charged, sentenced and already committed. The fact that in reality he was charged but also acquitted leaves enough space of doubt to generate sufficient interest to prompt a reading.

Daniel Sickles, in short, was a cad and a bounder, but perhaps might not have appeared so by the standards of contemporary mores. An inhabitant of high society in mid-nineteenth century USA, he managed to achieve fame, notoriety, wealth, military success, national stardom and much else, apart form the Presidency, itself. He lost a leg at the battle of Gettysburg, a leg that had fame of its own, celebrity sufficient to find a place in a museum cabinet. It was an exhibit that the be-crutched Sickles liked to visit with his guests. “I’d like to show you my leg,” he would whisper to his female acquaintances, a phrase that from anyone else would not be suggesting a ride in a carriage.

Daniel Sickles was a member of the social and political elite of New York and Washington society. He was a member of Tammany Hall, and so had some pretty influential and powerful friends. He was a Democrat who leaned both ways on the issue of slavery until the split finally came, when he declared decisively for the Union. He became an officer in the army and commanded a unit at the Battle of Gettysburg. By chance, planning, talent or incompetence, depending on whose version of history is trusted, he led a decisive move in the battle. He also lost a leg. As a result, Dan Sickles became something of a famed hero as well as an infamous manipulator, his supporters worshipful, his detractors derisive.

His reputation derived from before the war. He had married Teresa, a beauty of Italian descent several years younger than himself. In what was at the time perfectly acceptable and even honourable behaviour, he continued to visit prostitutes - and even take them as travelling companions - while he expected a faithful and devoted wife to care for house and home and also provide for all his surplus needs. When Dan’s wife sought her own physical solace via an affair, Dan shot the fellow, out in the open in Washington’s Lafayette Square.

Along with descriptions of Gettysburg’s battle, Dan’s trial for murder forms a second major part of the book. Basically, Dan toughed it out on the basis that his wife was his property and her lover had violated that property. He was acquitted. He also, it must be recalled, had some significant friends. Thomas Keneally’s treatment of the case and its associated issues makes the book worth reading if, at times, tending to the prolix.

Overall, we appreciate that Dan was gifted with longevity and was an obviously powerful character. Equally, Teresa’s beauty, her passion, her lamentable marriage and her eventual withering demise from tuberculosis present a vivid and rather endearing picture. But then by the end we also feel that we have never really got to know either of them. American Scoundrel is a very good book, but one feels that its subject might have demanded better.

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