Black Jack

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

By any quantitative measurement Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing is a monumental biography. Eleven hundred pages of text describe a life that spanned eighty-eight years, almost half of which were devoted to active service in the United States Army. Frank E. Vandiver spent eighteen years in research and writing about his subject. His bibliography, which runs to twenty-four pages, includes an impressive list of unpublished sources. Vandiver acknowledges by name over one hundred and eighty people who at various stages of the project lent assistance. It is hard to imagine that any scholar will soon attempt to duplicate this effort.

Despite these impressive credentials, Black Jack is on balance a disappointment. It tries too hard to be magisterial. The attempt fails because there is insufficient grist in Pershing’s life to merit a multivolume study. Longevity notwithstanding, Pershing’s fame is anchored almost entirely in two events: the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916-1917 and the United States participation in World War I. The Punitive Expedition, while interesting, was a military failure. It is generally considered today as one of those bizarre episodes that marked American imperialism in the twilight of the Monroe Doctrine. As for World War I, it must be kept in mind that the direct American military contribution to the Allied war effort was slight. American troops were present in force only during the last half year of the fighting. Thus it seems fair to conclude that the basis of Pershing’s fame is highly confined. That Black Jack became a hero to his age reflects more on the needs of that age than it does on Pershing.

All of which is not to say that Pershing is undeserving of serious investigation. The essential point is that the substance of his life does not warrant Vandiver’s extended treatment. It hardly seems necessary to devote the first third of this biography to a career that appeared to be dead-ended in the rank of captain. Yet it is not until page 402 that the reader is told that Pershing’s jump promotion to brigadier general has been confirmed by the Senate. One of the unfortunate results of this expansiveness is that much of the writing is excessive. One suspects that Vandiver has employed conspicuous language to compensate for a lack of inherent significance in Pershing’s early career. In any event, words such as “thrilled,” “zestful,” and “throbbed” abound. “Glee” and “gleeful,” the worst offenders, appear dozens of times. This tendency toward overwriting is most evident in descriptions of Pershing’s private life. One example will suffice to illustrate the problem. The setting is Zamboanga, the Philippines. Pershing’s wife, Frankie, has just surveyed the family’s residence on the military base. Her reaction is described as follows:An obvious advantage teased Frankie’s femininity. The house shrieked for renovation. As her eye swept the maze of rooms, Frankie’s fancies soared—endless changes beckoned. Clearly care had been lavished in creating this dowdy edifice, but additions and remodelings had spoiled an old simplicity. The place now brooded in slovenly pretension.

In addition to a distracting wordiness, the narrative also suffers from misleading generalization. Vandiver writes, for example, that prior to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War Spanish officials were puzzled by the hostility of the United States. Since Spain had...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, November, 1977, p. 1275.

Library Journal. CII, October 1, 1977, p. 2056.

National Review. XXIX, June 10, 1977, p. 673.

New Republic. CLXXVII, July 9, 1977, p. 36.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXI, April 18, 1977, p. 53.

Southwest Review. LXII, Summer, 1977, p. 422.