Beach Books

Our Revolution: Up Close and Personal

The Beachcomber
By DAVID FOSTER | Jul 08, 2013

Faithful readers will recall that I often celebrate the Fourth by reviewing something about the American Revolution, usually the latest contribution of David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Jack Rakove or others who write popular and reasonably scholarly history. I was highly tempted to follow my tradition this year by sharing Nathaniel Philbrick’s recent and highly readable Bunker Hill: The City, The Siege and the Revolution, had I not earlier come across something wildly different in the form of Robert Sullivan’s delightful My American Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, Kindle $11.04), a rambling and often humorous account of the author’s very personal discovery of the pivotal role of New York City and New Jersey in our Nation’s struggle for independence.

Most of us think of the Revolution in terms of Lexington and Concord and, of course, Bunker Hill to get things started in 1775; Washington’s crossing the Delaware at some point; a tough winter at Valley Forge; a side trip to upstate New York for Burgoyne’s stunning defeat at Saratoga; and then the glorious victory at Yorktown at the far end of the Chesapeake Bay in 1781. Sullivan corrects this narrow view by taking us to the top of the Empire State Building, from where we can see virtually everything else that happened in the intervening six years, and right down to Washington’s inauguration under the new Constitution in 1789. This is a book to make New Yorkers and Jersey-ites proud, and maybe induce them to look anew at what lies just beneath their asphalt or barely visible amidst their modern clutter.

Sullivan’s method is hands-on and personal. He crosses the Delaware with the annual re-enactors; he hikes in frigid weather from the battlefield at Princeton to Washington’s winter quarters at Morristown; he crosses the East River where Washington’s rag-tag army barely escaped annihilation after the disastrous defeats at Long Island and Brooklyn; he talks with scholars, local history buffs and people who simply wondered about that rusty, historical plaque at the corner; and finally, triumphantly, he sends a signal –by mirror – from Washington’s camp in the Watchung Mountains to his daughter in Brooklyn. His style is rambling and non-chronological, filled with side trips and contemporary allusions, punctuated with long (and mostly fascinating) footnotes of arcane lore.

Sullivan’s experience, and the one he invites you to share, is visual. He looks at New York Harbor and sees the forest of masts of the huge British expeditionary fleet; he looks again and sees the prison ship where over 11,000 American prisoners died. He looks at the busy streets of Brooklyn and sees the sacrifice of 400 Marylanders who held the line for the Continental Army’s narrow escape. He looks at the Jersey suburbs and sees the hundreds of raids, skirmishes and casual violence that kept the region in constant turmoil. As he sums it up, “I could see it all, in other words – the history of the war in the view of the land … It was a moment of topographic retrospect, an epiphany of place through which the past looked different.”

Because My American Revolution is an invitation to feel history rather than a typical linear account, its apparent lack of organization can be a bit off-putting – especially, I would guess, to anyone without a fairly clear prior understanding of the period. I would recommend David McCullough’s 1776 to fill that gap. Also, a few maps would have been welcome, although a standard tourist map of New York City and New Jersey is just about enough. (I have noted, with regret, that maps have become one of the unfortunate casualties of the current demand for economy in printing costs.)

Sullivan was born in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn. He has become established as an audacious observer of the city’s life that most of us don’t really notice (see his well-reviewed Rats and Meadowlands), and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, New York and New York Times. His manner is that of the friendly and engaging guy you run into at the corner bodega who is suddenly talking your ear off about something that happened just down the street 237 years ago – and making you listen, and maybe even agreeing to meet him next Saturday for more poking into the past.

In a time when followers of every political persuasion stridently claim to further the cause of the original Patriots, this often very funny book, filled with engaging insights and hilarious misadventures, is a wonderfully mind-clearing companion. A dust-jacket blurb hails it one of the “indispensable books about New York.” I would edit that to an indispensable book about claiming a vital time and place as your very own.

David Foster, a longtime Beachcomber book reviewer, died soon after finishing his annual July Fourth book review. A lifelong student of American history, he brought to the attention of our readers dozens of books about our heritage. He will be greatly missed.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.