Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #229: My American Revolution by Robert Sullivan

Sometimes authors get off on a wild hair: they love a subject so much that they want to throw in everything they learned about it, even if that overwhelms their structure and leaves them writing three-page-long footnotes on something that isn't actually anywhere near their ostensible topic.

Robert Sullivan's My American Revolution is -- and I say this with love and a certain admiration -- entirely a wild-hair book, supposedly on the subject of the Revolutionary War in the middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania) but really a brain-dump of Sullivan's reading and thinking and walking over a period of several years, during which he was obsessed with the local history of the Revolutionary War.

Sullivan is a seasoned author of nonfiction, with a definite tropism for the New York area -- he's previously written books about Rats and The Meadowlands (and, not unrelated to go-go finance hub NYC, How Not to Get Rich). He's a former reporter, and his instinct is to get out there and do things: the great joys of his prior books were from reading about him crouching in alleyways watching rats, or boating through the swamps of Jersey in search of Jimmy Hoffa's corpse. In My American Revolution, Sullivan is trying to combine a run through the history of the Revolution in his area with various shoe-leather excursions to the places where that history happened -- in practice, this means mostly Greater New York, with an side excursion to the site of the Crossing of the Delaware.

There are some indications that My American Revolution is a book Sullivan worked on for a number of years -- or maybe it's just that he long had an interest in the Revolution, and only organized that into a book proposal after a decade or two of research. So there's a lot of thinking and living and writing that went into it: that may help explain why it hares off in so many directions. And My American Revolution sprawls quite impressively for something relatively short -- it's only about two hundred and fifty pages long -- and it also manages to sprawl fractally, digressing from the Revolution to Sullivan's life, to historians of the Revolution, to their other works, and on and on and on. It's divided into four loosely-defined sections of very different lengths, each of which is broken into smaller, semi-related sub-sections with short headers -- the effect is close to a stream of consciousness, though with more footnotes and with a clear depth of research behind it.

I found it a difficult book to get into: I nearly gave up on it several times in the first fifty pages. To really enjoy My American Revolution, you have to treat it like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: there's no there there, just a swarm of loosely related thoughts that bounce off each other as they collectively circle the idea of the Revolution in New York. The closest Sullivan comes to a chronology is in the third and longest section of the book, which is organized by the seasons of the year -- and, even there, he's more likely to be writing about the history of a ceremony at the monument for POWs from prison ships as he is to cover Washington's first inauguration, or about the career of a minor poet of the early 1800s, and even more likely to be writing about a long walk in the Watchung Mountains and his subsequent back trouble.

This is not a conventional history, and I didn't find it as easy and relaxing a read as Sullivan's wonderful Cross Country -- if anyone out there wants to check him out, I'd suggest that or Rats. But for fans of New Yorkiana, or Revolutionary buffs, it could be just the thing -- as long as you don't expect a traditional straight-line narrative, or a book that moves only in one direction.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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