I finished reading Frank Brady’s Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall-From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness last week. It’s a very readable biography of the American world chess champion who captured the nation’s attention in the early 1970s with his victory over Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. Many chess experts believe that Fischer and Paul Morphy, about whom I wrote earlier, were two of the greatest chess talents ever to live.
In reading Brady’s account of Fischer’s life, I was struck by similarities between the chess genius and Andrew Jackson. Both displayed the proverbial indomitable will that helped them achieve success, often through fits of anger that I think were calculated to bring about their desired result. Both men also exhibited paranoid thinking.
Jackson grew up in a violent area of the southern frontier and lost his immediate family by his early teen years. No doubt, this environment and these losses had an effect on his attitude toward people. He seems to have held a genuine animosity toward those who attacked his and his wife’s reputation, as well as toward individuals and institutions who threatened his financial security. These, and his political enemies, were the most frequently mentioned conspirators mentioned in his correspondence.
Fischer, on the other hand, grew up in a household with a supportive single mother and sister. He initially exhibited paranoid behavior because of what he perceived as collusion among Soviet players to keep him from succeeding in tournaments. Fischer had good reason to fear a Soviet conspiracy–it was real. Yet, that doesn’t explain why he latched on to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, especially given his own Jewish heritage. Nor does it explain his increasingly erratic behavior that alienated almost everyone in his life.
Lacking a battery of psychological tests to consult, it’s unclear what were the sources of the two men’s anger and paranoia. I’m no Michael Paul Rogin, but my guess is that Jackson was deeply affected by the losses of his childhood and sought security (familial, financial, etc.) as he grew older. Threats to that security brought his wrath. Fischer, I think, suffered from a mental illness. Brady doesn’t go that far in his analysis, but the narcissism, paranoia, obsessive-compulsive behavior, lack of hygiene (in his thirties, nonetheless, not to mention later), and other irrational behaviors also suggest that Fischer was a sick man for a long, long time.
I’m frequently asked why I like Andrew Jackson. My response is that I’m not sure I would have liked Jackson if I knew him, but he, like Fischer, was a fascinating individual. Their complicated personalities make for interesting study.
8 thoughts on “Bobby Fischer and Andrew Jackson: Two Peas in a Pod?”
By model, I’m thinking about theoretical models that we bring to our sources. In economics, we think about the “rational man.” In political science, we think about “self interest.” What attracted me to the field of history is the lack of models. Primary sources are the key, and our understanding of the source’s historical context. We try to understand what these people in the past were really saying, and we try to learn from their struggles, ideas, shortcomings and insights.
It seems to me that Psychohistory presumes that it is historically important to understand a person’s underlying human character and their upbrining. I will admit that some people act so outlandishly, we need more than historical context to understand their behavior. In general, I prefer to study their words and deeds, and let these things speak for themselves.
What do you think?
I think there is something to the model idea in history, particularly biography. For example, Jackson was “The Democrat” for decades, Lincoln is “The Emancipator,” King, Jr., is “The Martyr,” etc.
Do you consider race, class, and/or gender models?
We may be playing at semantics, but your question reminds me of Jeanne Boydston’s swansong essay, Nov. 2008, Gender and History, “Gender as a Question of Historical Analysis.” In short: gender, race, class, sectionalism, etc. matter when they are evident. These societal distinctions are difficult to define out of historical context. When they can be understood, their meanings can change over time, and according to the situation. It all goes back to the source. What is the primary source saying? The fluidity of gender, race and class is particularly evident in Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women. White male overseers in Barbados saw African male and female laborers as “sexless workers” when they were in the fields, as most of them were. That women and men could labor equally in the fields, enabled these overseers to define African people as a different species. What type of “model” would Morgan’s analysis fit within?
When you say that “Jackson was a Democrat” what do you mean? He was a champion of the “common man”? During his tenure, class divisions between the rich and the poor continued to widen. Sometimes I think these labels obfuscate more than they enlighten. What do you think?
Historians in the late 19th-early 20th centuries tended to depict Jackson as the champion of the working class and attributed the rise in voting among white males to the Jacksonian movement. That interpretation still has a strong hold in American culture, although Indian removal has tempered admiration of Jackson.
In mentioning race, class, and gender, I was thinking of the Marxist interpretations of Eugene Genovese in the 1970s-1980s. You could also throw out postmodernism as an interpretive model.
Your reflections give me pause as I think about Andrew Jackson’s role in my own studies. I admit up front that I dislike applying personality analyses to historical figures, although some require it: LBJ (particularly regarding Vietnam) and Richard Nixon come to mind. Also Andrew Johnson in the 19th century. Can Andrew Jackson escape this type of analysis? Should he? He was a “frontier man”, especially since he embraced that identity. He entered Washington City, a cosmopolitan capital with a cultural frontier doggedness. Jackson held the power of a newly voting white male populace to keep him there. What do you think that Daniel Feller might say?
Psychohistory is tricky, which is probably why it has disappeared from historiography classes. All biography is psychohistory, though, I think, even if we don’t want to frame it that way.
I don’t Dan is a fan of Jackson, which probably makes his job interesting at times. He reads the blog, so maybe he’ll chime in with a comment or even write a post about what it’s like to edit Jackson’s papers.
Do you think that Psychohistory is too close to a model-oriented approach? I thought that, generally, historians don’t like models. I’d be in trouble if I had to like the people I study.
What do you mean by model?