[7 November 2013]
In the vein of Bill Bryson or a less overtly humorous Tim Moore, Robert Sullivan presents in My American Revolution: A Modern Expedition Through History’s Forgotten Battlegrounds an account of his shambolic odyssey through the modern day landscape of the American Revolution, mostly through New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The journey is born of a desire to find the vestigial traces of the American Revolution beneath the paved, subdivided, strip-mall cluttered surface of modern America, a venture that Sullivan describes thus: “Like my father before me, I was born in this country, and even now continue to bang around in the vast but forgotten battlefield, a no-longer-so-hallowed ground.”
In other words, it’s easy to forget the heroic feats and tremendous sacrifice that catalyzed the creation of the United States when everywhere one looks there is the infrastructure of a nation dedicated to the considerably more mundane business of everyday life: shopping, recreation, driving to and from work. For this reason, the proprietary “my” of Sullivan’s title is not a casual inclusion, but a definition of the work’s scope and interests.
The volume doesn’t present a comprehensive or sequential account of the war, or even of part of it. Rather, Sullivan recounts episodes from the war—some famous, some obscure—that are of particular interest to him. His interests are decidedly eclectic, seemingly endlessly so and they take Sullivan down some pretty obscure alleys of history and its modern representations, including war reenactment camps, performances of George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and what might be described as the crown jewel of the narrative: Duke Wilson’s attempt to recreate the attack of the American submarine the Turtle on a British warship. (Wilson, it should be noted, directed his efforts toward gaining proximity to the passenger ship the Queen Elizabeth 2 in the post-9/11 era, with the attendant security issues that one might expect.)
Indeed, at least part of Sullivan’s point seems to be that history and our commemoration of it, in whatever form, are really one in the same. Personal idiosyncrasy and curiosity are part of living history, not something that can or should be avoided. The “revolution” of the title is, then, a sly reference to Sullivan’s journey from his home in New York City out to various points of interest and back again. Presumably anyone who undertook a similar journey would come with his or her own American revolution, literal and figurative.
As noted above, one of the primary sources of the volume’s understated humor is what the landscape of the Revolutionary War looks like in its current state, both in commemorations and the environments that encompass it. Where once men died for the principles of liberty and representative government, there now exist convenience stores and golf courses and power plants. Such things are the price of progress, of course, but why does progress seem so shabby, Sullivan seems to be asking: “The Revolutionary landscape is today not so much neglected as forgotten, or rushed by, its founding details mostly lost to constant inspection, trammeled by the machinations of business and real estate.”
Along with its understated documentation of the oddball ways in which historical events are preserved in contemporary America, one of the significant achievements of Sullivan’s book is the reminder that the American Revolution—so often swathed in a kind of gauzy romanticism concerning abstractions like love of freedom and stout yeomanry—was a brutal conflict, indeed. The suffering endured by Continental soldiers, particularly the deprivations of horrifically cold winters, get the lion’s share of attention, but Sullivan forthrightly recounts some of the terrible abuses, including rape, assault, and seizure of property, endured by continental citizens, as well.
As effective as these passages generally are, it must be noted that Sullivan’s attempt to capture some of the profundity of the war works at cross-purposes with the tone of his observational format. Sullivan’s affect is so flat, so determined to steer clear of any grand conclusions, that it largely leaves to the reader the task of making any conclusions at all. Here, for example, is a passage that comes after a traveling companion of Sullivan’s recounts learning that his father shot dead a prisoner-of-war who refused an order to retrieve water for a concentration camp inmate:
When we went inside the shop at Battlefield Orchards, we were both immediately in heaven, as they made doughnuts on the premises—we both love donuts.
“Were these doughnuts made today?” Brian asked excitedly.
“Yes,” a woman answered. I bought a coffee and some doughnuts and began to eat the doughnuts. They were delicious.
Doubtless, the eschewal of sweeping statements is no accident. Sullivan is far too genial a guide to hit the reader over the head with moralizing or heavy-handed paeans to past generations. And, for the most part, Sullivan’s low-key enthusiasm keeps the whole enterprise moving along (as in his rather nice meditation on the varied career and rather bland work of the now largely forgotten poet Philip Freneau).
The pace in these passages is, if not brisk, at least meanderingly engaging. In other passages, though, it feels like the narrative has gotten bogged down in one of the water hazards that seem to stall Sullivan’s own journey at inopportune times. These moments don’t swamp the volume, but getting through them does feel a little like extrication.
In any case, it’s difficult to judge the overall success of My American Revolution because it’s unclear what success for such an unconventional work would look like. Perhaps it’s best to say that it’s generally quite interesting and quite amusing and quite edifying. That’s not meant as half-hearted praise, but as an indication of somewhat befuddled appreciation for a book that may want to achieve a lot more than it lets on, or may not.