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Books: The Voices of ’76 A Readers’ Guide to the Revolution

12 minute read
Timothy Foote

This month a parapsychologist and ghostwriter named Hans Holzer (Haunted Hollywood’, The Phantoms of Dixie) is bringing forth a new ectoplasmic epic full of patriots and poltergeists called—what else?—The Spirits of 76. On July 1 a clever adman named Paul Foley will launch a confection entitled Fresh Views of the American Revolution. Foley’s text is snappy but traditional. The fresh views turn out to be 19 brand-new, genuine, oldfashioned, neoprimitive paintings of great historic events lately limned by Artist Oscar de Mejo (the Declaration of Independence scene, for example, presents Jefferson, Franklin and three other delegates who worked on the document overlooked by a vast liberty belle (opposite page), who unfortunately somewhat resembles George Washington in red, white and blue drag).

These are indeed the literary times that try men’s souls. And the end is not yet in sight. For the summer reader and sunshine patriot unwilling to drown in the steady flood of Bicentennial books but still eager to come to grips with his country’s past, TIME offers these suggestions, some old, some new.

Inevitably, the books cited are mainly concerned with the fighting and the men who fought. Readers deeply imbued with the modern notion that wars are per se bad and boring, that wars never settle anything anyway, are advised to check these sentiments at the library door. Then, as now, to be sure, geopolitics, diplomacy, economics, and above all, sheer chance, played a vast role in the affairs of men. But Americans and Englishmen of 200 years ago, unlike men today, lumped all such contingencies under the heading of Providence. They clearly believed that a few brave men, with some help from Providence, might change the course of history. Such a view may now be regarded as a delusion. But it is hard to read about such men today without envying and admiring them for being thus deluded.

REBELS AND REDCOATS by Hugh Rankin and George Scheer. 639 pages. Mentor Books. $2.50. This is the one book to have if you’re having only one. The authors have rifled the diaries, journals, letters and reports of hundreds of participants and woven them into a totally absorbing, seamless war narrative that a novelist might envy. The voices range from Joseph Plumb Martin, an irrepressible private (“The grapeshot and langrage flew merrily”) to General Washington, who was often prey to justifiable private gloom. (All might be well, he reflected in 1776, if his soldiers “would behave with tolerable resolution. But experience, to my extreme affliction, has convinced me that this is rather to be wished than expected.”)

Scheer and Rankin’s historic bridgework is as skilled as their choice of quotations. Recollected events and human voices carry the reader from the first shots (and words) at Lexington in 1775 to a chorus-like finale at Yorktown. Flashes of humor and high spirits lighten the hardships along the way. Washington (on inflation): “A rat in the shape of a horse is not to be found at this time for less than £200.” A very young officer to his wife, after the battle of Princeton: “Oh, my Susan! It was a glorious day and I would not have been absent from it for all the money I ever expect to be worth.”

THE BICENTENNIAL GUIDE TO THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Sol Stember. Vol. I: The War in the North, $12.95 (paperback $4.95); Vols. II and III: The Middle Colonies and The War in the South, $8.95 each (paperback, $3.95). Saturday Review Press—E.P. Dutton. Anyone who wants to stand where the embattled farmers stood and fired that shot heard round the world, or to visit any other place in North America where muskets were fired in anger during the Revolution, should pick up the requisite volume of Stember. Thereafter all it takes is a regular road map and the family Chevrolet. Stember has spent years retracing the course of the war, and he writes about it briskly and sparely, alternating discussions of tactics with directions to the battle sites, brief accounts of what happened there two centuries ago with what each place looks like today. In greenest Vermont. Stember will, for example, send the tourist past a white farmhouse down a rutted dirt road and bring him to a desolate cove on Lake Champlain that has changed little since. Benedict Arnold, then a hero still, burned his ships there after holding back the British fleet in the fall of 1776. In Manhattan, Stember can startle a reader with the intelligence that a field where Washington’s raggedy men knelt to fire is now the corner of Broadway and 116th Street. Volume III is remarkable in following the often neglected fighting that took place late in the war in the Carolinas, pitting Cornwallis and Banastre Tarleton against Daniel Morgan and Washington’s then heir apparent Nathanael Greene.

ATLAS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Maps selection and commentary by Kenneth Nebenzahl, text by Don Higginbotham. 218 pages. Rand McNally. $35. For the armchair strategist who cannot visit the battlefields, or for anyone who simply wonders where all the shooting was, detailed maps drawn at the time are the only satisfactory way to get one’s bearings. In this broad, rich book, Cartography Expert Nebenzahl has collected 54 maps of battle sites and cities, seacoasts and ship-filled harbors, and reproduced them in full color at great size (some map spreads are 15 in. by 20 in.). Beautiful, faithful and detailed, they are offered with all their original 18th century commentary, plus a column of modern explanatory text describing the action step by step.

Many of the maps were drawn on the spot by members of the British corps of engineers, and they have never before been collected in a popular book. By themselves they would be worth the price of the book. But the Atlas also is adorned with handsome pictures and a fine overview text about the source, course and conclusion of the war by Don Higginbotham, the author of The War of American Independence, one of the best histories of the fighting yet written.

THE HOWE BROTHERS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Ira Gruber. 396 pages. North Carolina University Press. $14.95. (Norton Library paperback, $4.45). One of the intriguing mysteries of the American Revolution was why the British failed to win it, militarily at least, during the more than two years before the French joined the war on behalf of the rebellious colonies. Most of the confusion enshrouds the failures of the two brothers. Sir William and Lord Richard Howe, who commanded the overwhelming British land and sea forces in North America during that time. Why did Richard’s fleet fail to adequately blockade American ports? How could William have let the hapless rebel army escape again and again, on Long Island, Manhattan and in New Jersey? Why did he turn his back on Burgoyne’s thrust down the Hudson, in order to take Philadelphia?

The brothers were fond of America and had opposed the war. Gruber more or less convincingly concludes that they deliberately overturned British policy, instead waged a lenient war in which the British Army would appear unbeatable but at the same time would encourage reconciliation by not crushing or humiliating the colonists. Most of the book’s interest, though, lies in Gruber’s account of how a transatlantic war was conducted and his inquiry into the character of the Howes. William was able but pleasure-loving, Richard somber and dedicated. They were variously influenced by London politics and delusions about the strength of American Loyalists, not to mention the charms of Elizabeth Loring, whose boudoir mightily distracted William.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, MAN AND MONUMENT by Marcus Cunliffe. 192 pages. Mentor Books. $1.25. THE WORLD OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Richard M. Ketchum. 276 pages. American Heritage. $35. One of the best possible byproducts of the present frenzy of Bicententiousness might be the rediscovery of George Washington. For years everyone has agreed that the war could hardly have been won without him, or a stable republic established afterward. But he has been so enshrouded in Fourth of July rhetoric and almost insupportable reverence that his countrymen now tend to think of him variously as some sort of stately enigma with false teeth, or a marble bust, or an uninteresting, not especially bright though incorruptible man, very much like the late Dwight D. Eisenhower. Either of these books will disabuse a reader of such notions.

Ketchum’s is large and lavish, a biography of the man and the times he lived through and shaped, augmented by picture essays (assembled entirely from 18th century maps, pictures and documents) on everything from plantation furnishings to a gallery of wartime aides and adversaries, the Constitutional Convention and the first plans for the nation’s capital on the Potomac. Ketchum’s text is everything that a popular biography should be—a fine, fond synthesis of what has already been written on the man, gracefully presented.

Cunliffe’s book, though it was written nearly 20 years ago, may still be the best work to begin with. For he confronts the Washington problem head on, not so much telling a life as examining it in an attempt to distinguish the original human shape from the contours of the final monument that patriotic 19th century historians helped erect. Cunliffe’s conclusion is that the man and the monument merged even within Washington’s lifetime. What we have left must simply pass for the real thing.

However that may be, Washington was clearly a man of passion who was deeply disappointed in love, a tireless leader subject to profound fits of despair, a father figure who adored children but never had any of his own. He possessed extraordinary skill at getting what he wanted by wanting only what seemed good for the country. Like nearly every Washington biographer, Cunliffe compares the man’s virtues to those of ancient Rome: “As for ambition—gloria —it is conceived as a civic impulse, not a private torment … Washington’s desire to be well thought of is a classical desire not in the least akin to the populist, other-directed anxiousness that renders prominent men of the present day so susceptible to the idea of public opinion.”

THE FACES OF LIBERTY by James Thomas Flexner and Linda Bantel Samter. 310 pages. Clarkson Potter. $15.95. This book is a not entirely attractive menage a trois involving an art show (put between hard covers), the Dictionary of National Biography and a PEOPLE magazine approach to Revolutionary history. George Washington Biographer Thomas Flexner opens the show with some pithy talk about the emerging American man and ends by discussing early American painters, including notes on how John Singleton Copley saved money on costumes for his female portraits by putting a number of Yankee ladies into the same pose and dress, both copied from a 15-year-old London illustration (see pictures, previous column). There follow more than a hundred full-page portraits of colonial gentry, and of Revolutionary celebrities from (of course) Washington to John Adams and Aaron Burr, as well as portraits of some of the American painters for whom they sat. Each personality has a facing page of biography. The faces often encourage long and fascinated scrutiny. The biographies, though they are mostly fashioned of pure cardboard, help a good deal to familiarize the reader with the names and numbers of some of the lesser rebel players in the War of Independence.

THE PICTURE BOOK OF THE REVOLUTION’S PRIVATEERS by C. Keith Wilbur. 96 pages. Stackpole Books. $5.95. There has never been so perfect a wedding between greed and patriotism as the Revolutionary privateer—i.e., legalized pirate. During the war a total of 2,000 privately armed vessels carrying 18,000 cannons sailed against England as destroyers of commerce. They captured 16 British warships and close to 3,000 merchant vessels and earned their owners and crew — on a modest investment — something like $50 million. (Fitting them out also diverted men and material from the tiny, infant Continental Navy to such an extent that it barely survived to the end of the war.) Author Wilbur does not dwell on privateers as the Yankee glamour stocks of the 1770s, however. Instead, with rough but serviceably detailed drawings and clear descriptive captions he shows and tells exactly how privateering ships were built, launched, sailed and fought, what equipment they had aboard and what it was used for. From signals to gammoning, from prize sharing to planking and dubbing (curving hull planks with an adz), from surgical tools (to draw out the end of an artery for tying) to knifelike candle holders, which could be stuck into a beam at will, to steering formulas for intercepting an enemy to windward, Wilbur’s nautical encyclopedia is a working wonder not to be missed by anyone who cares about the sea.

With a little help from Providence, reading about the Revolution, once embarked upon, easily grows into a happy compulsion and, at present hardback prices, an expensive hobby. While a number of recent minor classics, also available between hard covers, have been reprinted in handy paperback for the Bicentennial, more should be.

Among them: Samuel Eliot Morison’s life of John Paul Jones, Piers Mackesy’s The War for America, which brilliantly looks at the American Revolution as part of a global war, and William Willcox’s Portrait of a General. The latter, which lays bare the inner life and career of Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief who replaced Howe, is one of those rare blends of scholarship and art that can be admiringly read by anyone, yet deserves to be called a masterpiece. As to historical fiction, there is little of quality to be seen.

But Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel and Rabble in Arms have just been reissued by Doubleday along with two other Roberts titles in a paperback package. For only $9.95, anyone unfortunate enough not to have read these two books can inexpensively watch the old master do for Benedict Arnold’s march to Quebec, defense of Champlain and unruly performance at Saratoga approximately what Homer did for Achilles on the Plains of Troy. ∙TIMOTHY FOOTE

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