Jon Meacham’s new blockbuster—Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power—landed on The Scrapbook’s desk with a thud last week, and we do mean thud: At 762 pages of text, plus a special 16-page color illustration section, as well as black-and-white pictures and 30 introductory pages, it can serve as doorstopper, footstool, or ship’s ballast.
But holding it in our hands—no easy task, we finally had to lower it onto our lap—we were reminded of F. R. Leavis’s famous remark about the Sitwells belonging to the history of publicity, not literature. For Jon Meacham, having run Newsweek into the ground and cohosted a short-lived PBS program, seems to be pursuing the great American tradition of failing upward. Now that Stephen E. Ambrose is dead, and David McCul-lough has retired from the field, we would guess that Jon Meacham is challenging Doris Kearns Goodwin in the pop history sweepstakes.
Skeptical? You need only examine Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power from the outside to see what we mean. The Scrapbook is a connoisseur of dust jacket blurbs, and perusing Thomas Jefferson’s front and rear covers, it’s evident that Meacham is a serious competitor. All the usual suspects are present—Michael Beschloss (“Meacham’s best book yet”), Walter Isaacson (“A true triumph”), even Doris Kearns Goodwin herself (“This terrific book . . . ”)—and Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize is advertised not once but three times. The copywriters at Random House, where Meacham is “executive editor and executive vice president,” wisely shift into overdrive to describe the boss’s work: A “magnificent biography . . . brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times.”
At which point The Scrapbook’s appetite was whetted, and we eagerly turned to the Author’s Note and -Acknowledgments (pp. 507-14), where the ideal specimens of pomposity and professional logrolling are usually found. Once again, we were not disappointed: “I did not set out to write a full life and times of Jefferson. . . . This book is a portrait, rather, of the man and of the world in which he lived.” Or this gem: “This project began with a delightful lunch in Princeton”—which, of course, raises the question of whether the lunch’s location would be mentioned if it had occurred in, say, Hoboken. Among the “selfless readers, advisers, interlocutors and editors” may be found Walter Isaacson (again!), Ron Chernow, Joseph J. Ellis, Sean Wilentz, David McCullough, Robert A. Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin (again!) and “the late Christopher Hitchens.” A veritable who’s who of blockbuster/pop history. And this curious, but suitably self-conscious, observation: “I agree with Christopher Buckley’s view that Amanda Urban [his literary agent] will be my first call if I ever fall into the hands of the Taliban.”
Which leads The Scrapbook, in the end, into speculative mode. First, having coughed up previous blockbusters, on Churchill and FDR, on Andrew Jackson, and on God and the Founders, what is Meacham’s likely next target? The Scrapbook guesses Abraham Lincoln—a crowded field, but lucrative—or Martin Luther King, perhaps John Kennedy or Billy Graham. And second, most important from a marketing strategy: Which comes first, Fresh Air or Charlie Rose?