Tuesday, August 10, 2010

American Creation

So, I fully realize that this will not be one of the most popular posts on this blog; but I am an unabashed history buff, so bear with me. 

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the RepublicMy most recent read was American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis.  Of course Ellis is the famous historian and author of Founding Brothers.  I haven't read Founding Brothers, but I may put it on the list for a much later read.  American Creation follows the major events of the American Revolution period (defined as the years of 1775-1803).  Thus the book is not what anyone would call exhaustive.  Rather, it skims the surface of the revolution, touching down on of the year 1776, the winter at Valley Forge, the Treaty of Paris, the Federalist/Anti-Federalist fights, and the Louisiana Purchase. 

From the outset, Ellis bothered me as a historian and a history writer.  In the prologue, he points out that our history has been boiled down to a fairy story of good vs. evil, heroes vs. villians.  That we have created demigods of the founders, the facades of which have only recently begun to crumble as historians have chipped away at the legends to reveal truth.  As such he introduces the reader to Douglass Adair, Gordon Wood, and Bernard Bailyn (as well as himself) - historians who have decided to analyze the mindset of the founders (through the extensive written records) to draw conclusions about their motivation, the impetus for their participation, and (to some degree) their success.  He argues these historians' various points of view "contribute to a discernably adult conversation about the sources and causes of the American founding as a significant political triumph." 

What bothers me about this is the psycho-analysis approach to history writing.  It smacks of judgment and not fact-telling.  As the reader later discovers in the book, Ellis uses the last half of the points of focus as a none-too-subtle attack on the character of Thomas Jefferson.  This approach to history writing leans heavily on hindsight as the "judge" instead of a just the facts ma'am approach I prefer.  Perhaps, it is easier to begin judging the subjects of one's  history when one is fully immersed in the time period. so to speak.  It is not the lack of facts and stories Ellis suffers, it is the over-abundance.  He has so reanimated these characters in his mind, it is almost as if he is living alongside them.  Thus the attacks Hamilton throws at Jefferson, are almost audibly followed by a hearty "here! here!" by Ellis. 

This type of history writing also feels disconnected.  The reader just gets to the "good stuff" and is snapped back to present day by the mention of "hindsight being 20/20" and lessons on what impact the events of the revolution had on the later American narrative.  I would have preferred a simple story-telling narrative, with any footnotes to history properly footnoted (I think that is why they call them that). 

Overall, interesting read.  Not a reread.

Rating: 3.5 out of 7


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