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My American Revolution

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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A few weeks ago, while reading Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave, I downloaded the free portion of Robert Sullivan’s new book, My American Revolution and started it. Sam Roberts’ Sunday NYT review appeared a couple of days later, confirming that I made a good choice. Once I finished the Rankin novel, I returned to it.

But not for long. As I explained in my post on Matt Dellinger’s Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, that’s the book I really wanted to read, and so I did. Then I stumbled on two more books, thanks to various end-of-year book lists, and read them too. (See here and here.) Finally, while proctoring a final exam on Wednesday morning, I got absorbed in My American Revolution.

What’s it about? I’ll quote from Roberts’ review.

Sullivan has written a provocative Baedeker for a landscape of loss, Gen. George Washington’s route from Brooklyn to “the very first Middle America” and back — the states that, Richard Brookhiser once said, can be traversed by jet plane on the New York-Washington shuttle in 20 minutes, but where the American Revolution raged for much of its seven years.

We may never learn for certain what Sullivan himself is revolting against, but it’s a good bet that convention and linearity are among his targets. He approaches them with gusto, not only chronicling re-enactments of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” but embarking on his own 33-mile march to Morristown, N.J., in the Continental Army’s footsteps and engaging a retinue of game wingmen in replicating Washington’s triumphal return to New York by barge from Elizabeth.

[snip]

Sullivan’s travels (a map would have been helpful) are recounted in appetizing bite-size morsels, often delivered with knowing asides to his reading audience and accompanied by extended footnotes. No pebble is left unturned. In his note on sources regarding John Honeyman, who may or may not have been a Colonial spy, Sullivan volunteers that Honeyman’s New Jersey house was near the home of George Harsh, whose exploits as a World War II prisoner of war partly inspired the film “The Great Escape” — as well as a riveting half-page biography by Sullivan.

Rarely are an author’s self-­deprecating and sometimes sheepish introspections (on his aching back, say) and virtually irrelevant digressions (a painting of Gowanus Bay, we’re told, is available on the Web site of the state library of Tasmania) so beguiling. Nor are most families of a boots-on-the-ground observer so forbearing. During one escapade, his daughter stands guard in the music room of a school in Brooklyn while the author positions himself in the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey with a Boy Scout mirror to replicate a Revolutionary scout’s alarm. “Looking out the window at a distant hill where your father was signaling from a Revolutionary War vantage point and not seeing the signal,” Sullivan allows, “is not the kind of thing that wins you respect among your middle school peers.”

Roberts concludes, “What a trip!”

It’s too bad I didn’t have this book 25 years ago, when we lived in Princeton for a year. We made regular weekend drives to nearby New Jersey’s Washington Crossing State Park, and would have been far better informed with Sullivan as our guide. Not to mention having him along in Princeton itself, or Trenton, or Quaker Bridge Mall, all of which are part of his story.

Like Sullivan, we traveled from Princeton to Morristown. But Sullivan did it on foot, in winter, trying to follow as best he could the route of Washington and his troops, arriving at the site where they would spend a historically cold winter, not far from where his parents were living. We drove. And we were oblivious to the history of the route. We just wanted to get to the US Golf Association Museum (“home to an extensive collection of artifacts from the great players of the past to current stars like Annika Sorenstam and Tiger Woods”). Or I did. The rest of the family may not have shared my enthusiasm.

After the museum, we walked around Morristown, saw some historical markers. And we wanted to stop in at Morristown National Historic Park. Maybe we did. I don’t even remember. But I know the sun was going down, we were getting cold, it was late, and we were out of time. According to the website, “Morristown National Historical Park commemorates the sites of General Washington and the Continental army’s winter encampment of December 1779 to June 1780, where they survived through what would be the coldest winter on record.”

Roberts mentions the “bite-size morsels” that make up the book. At first, I found this a bit of a distraction, as Sullivan jumped around between short historical treatments and recountings of his own travels. Eventually, I got into the rhythm of it. I especially enjoyed the later sections of the book, in which Sullivan discusses the Battle of Brooklyn (which preceded the Delaware crossing, Battle of Princeton, march to Morristown, and Morristown winter, the book’s chronology not matching the war’s).

Sullivan’s exploration of New York’s harbor is fascinating. Between his water journeys from Brooklyn to Manhattan (retracing Washington’s evacuation) and from Elizabeth to Wall Street (again paralleling Washington, on his way to New York for his presidential inauguration), we learn that setting out into the harbor isn’t so easy. There’s limited water access, and there’s a presumption that if you’re sailing around the harbor in a small vessel, you’re up to no good. Sullivan’s insights into contemporary New York and New Jersey are as enjoyable as the historical passages.

I just remembered that what tipped me off to the book was a short review in the New Yorker in late October, which describes it as “historically fascinating and deeply personal.” Good book, especially if you have an interest in the history and geography of the region.

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