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June 2024
1min read

In The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore , edited by Alan Axelrod and Harry Oster (Penguin, 527 pages, $18.00 [paperback]), in keeping with the protean nature of the field, one can read about everything from genuine folk customs (some African-Americans believe “a dream of paring one’s nails portends disappointment”) to justly forgotten popular fads (the “little moron” jokes of the 1930s). There are also a great many entries on folklore writers and scholars, on musicians and artists whose work includes folk elements, and even on such figures as Babe Ruth and Gen. George S. Patton, who seem to have been included because stories are often told about them.

The story of how Francis Scott Key wrote his exultant poem upon seeing Old Glory over Fort McHenry after a night bombardment in 1814, and how the resultant song attained its solemn and official status, is told in The Flag, the Poet, and the Song: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner , by Irvin Molotsky (Dutton, 240 pages, $24.95; Plume Books [paperback], $12.99). Molotsky does an able job, his only misstep being a bizarrely long and irrelevant digression on the present-day controversy over flag burning.

George Washington had no sons, and Thomas Jefferson none he would admit to. Presidents Madison, Monroe, and Jackson also lacked male offspring. By default, then, the Adams family benefited most from the atavistic attachment to hereditary succession that democracies around the world have always shown. Like a succession of photocopies, the Adamses’ sharpness faded a bit with every generation: John a brilliant revolutionary, diplomat, and statesman; John Quincy a moderately successful diplomat and statesman; Charles Francis a diplomat and writer; Henry a writer. In America’s First Dynasty (Free Press, 234 pages, $25.00), Richard Brookhiser explores the careers of these four men without neglecting the darker aspects of their family’s character. Whatever the personal struggles of later dynasties like the Kennedys and Bushes, it would be an exaggeration to say of them, as Brookhiser writes of the Adamses, that “alcohol laid waste two-thirds of the second and third generations.”

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