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Scandalmonger: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 2, 2000
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Scandalmonger is the 25th book from William Safire, the prolific, feisty New York Times columnist and word wrangler. It's a historic novel set in 1790s New England, when the Founding Fathers were enduring various crises and humiliations as they scurried to become part of the history books. Always a stickler for the truth--as long as it's uttered in the finest of phrases--the author lets us know right from the start that we're "entitled to know what is history and what is twistery." Based on documents and diaries, and complete with an exhaustive section of footnotes separating fact from fiction, Scandalmonger turns out to be a bona fide page-turner. Safire knows what he's doing; he knows he has a lesson to teach. It's a lesson about how early America wasn't much different from Clinton's America--the temptations of mistresses, the power struggles, the ridiculous debates about purity between corrupt men being just as present. If he has one message, it is this: within every powerful politician, there is a dirty-minded second grader trying to get out. Witness this scene between two outraged congressmen who seem intent on "turning the House into a 'gladiators' arena'":
Griswold's stout cane cracked Lyon on the top of the head, then across his back, again and again. More than twenty heavy blows rained down on his victim, who was groping for help in escaping along the floor, blinded by the blood spurting down from his scalp.Meanwhile, the title character, James Callender--who gives the fourth estate an early bad name--"looked around frantically for a weapon."
And there's far more in store: Safire's deeply entertaining novel is divided into five scandals, which take place over a period of 10 years, reaching a high point with the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. As the story goes, Jefferson loved her for years and she bore many children by him. These days all over America, the descendants of that union keep coming forward for television interviews. As Scandalmonger illustrates, the past is always present. --Emily White
From Publishers Weekly
Grammar maven, Pulitzer Prize-winner, novelist (Freedom) and erudite political columnist Safire delivers a sprawling, fact-based if somewhat stiffly written novel that will acquaint readers with several of the nation's first political scandals. In light of the recent White House brouhaha, it's fascinating to learn that in the days of the founding fathers, politicians were just as licentious and newspapermen even more scurrilous than some players in contemporary media. The narrative chronicles the career of James Thomson Callender, a Scottish immigrant pamphleteer whose sensational exposes of the private lives of public men destroyed reputations and altered the course of U.S. history. It is Callender who breaks the story about Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton that forces Hamilton to admit to adultery in order to protect his business reputation. Later, Callender is charged with sedition, for issuing "a statement intended to incite the hatred of the people toward their government leaders." But he is not deterred from subsequently disseminating the story of Thomas Jefferson's liaison with his slave, "Luscious Sally" Hemings, herself the offspring of Jefferson's wife's father and a mulatto slave. Meticulously recreating the stories and dialogue from diaries, newspaper accounts and court transcripts (there are several trials involving libel), Safire delivers nicely rounded portraits of Washington, John Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Callender's own suspicious death closes the tale, a case of real life providing grist for melodrama. Always meticulous with facts, Safire adds an epilogue chronicling the fates of the major characters, followed by more than 50 pages of detailed notes and sources and a bibliography, all of which will be catnip to history buffs. Despite its heft, the novel moves along at a good clip, since Safire's use of short chapters, snippets of dialogue and frequent changes of scene creates narrative momentum. Agent, Lynn Nesbit. (Feb.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
Safire's tale is intriguing: Many of our currently venerated heroes, Adams, Monroe, and Jefferson to name just a few, are all shown to have feet of clay. No one individual or group is singled out. All are guilty of trying to deny or to conform freedom to their particular wants, needs and desires. It is actually scary to think that the truth was at one time not an allowable defense against a charge of sedition in the United States.
Very broad in scope, yet detailed in its examination, this is a fine work by a very fine author. I can only hope Mr. Safire elects to evaluate and explain the evolution of other freedoms we so thoughtlessly take for granted today.