Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book Review: Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation

My mom has taken to clipping articles she thinks I will like. We make fun of her often for this habit, but on one particular occasion, she skipped the clipping and went straight to buying me the book reviewed in the article. Turns out the New York Times has pretty good suggestions, or at least very well educated ones anyway. This book is the latest collaboration between many well known scholars in the Revolutionary America field. Gary Nash, one of the editors, is particularly well known for his study of the lesser known revolutionaries who contributed to winning independence and their subsequent determination to preserve the ideals of the war.

As a project, it's particularly impressive that they were able to get so many scholars to participate. Furthermore, the essays, 22 in all, do a great job of following the central theme: demonstrating the important, and oft forgotten role that radicals played in making the  Revolution a success and changing the future of America. The organization around a single topic provides the book focus and makes the book seem more like one large story, rather that a collection of short stories. 

That being said, the structure of the book did have a few setbacks, at least from my perspective. Despite the great job that the editors did in pulling together separate essays, the truth is that each chapter was written by a different author who didn't really know what the others were saying. I'm sure there was a great deal of consultation, but due to publishing limitations and time lines, it would have been impossible to start the next chapter after the previous one was concluded. As a result, there were overlaps in information- particularly in the introductions. Several chapters introduce and explain the Alien and Sedition Acts and several analyze the formation of the Democratic Republican societies. While this information is critical to the development of the characters and the events discussed in the chapters, at times it does get a bit repetitive. The book is clearly written for well-educated, or at least audiences knowledgeable about the subject. Perhaps that focus highlights the repetitive information. I'm not sure there is a way to structure a book like this one without encountering that problem. 

Finally, because the chapters don't follow one particular group of people or one specific line of events, I came away feeling as though there wasn't really a central "plot". Not that I expect non-fiction books to have a plot line like the ones I would find in a novel, but there is usually at least one story you follow. As I mentioned before, there is a central theme, but it's really not the same. There are some pros and cons to this setup. It's really easy to read a chapter, set the book down, and pick it up again later. Jumping in and out isn't really a problem. However, it does make the book less...driving. I can't quite think of a word to describe what I mean, so I will settle for driving. There isn't that same sense of push that inevitably calls me towards the last page. So readers less focused, like Winston, have trouble focusing....
and instead end up napping while I read. Yes he is my reading buddy. He tends to smudge my glasses way too often and nods off occasionally, but he provides company and a snuggliness and I don't mind if a stray cat hair or two lodges itself in the binding of my books.

Anyway, back to the review. The content is excellent and I really enjoyed being able to analyze and compare different writing styles side by side in one book. As a future scholar (hopefully), it gives me an amazing opportunity to take note of what tricks, styles and tools I'd like to make my own and what things I'd like to leave behind. I particular enjoyed the chapters on Phillis Wheatley by Davis Waldstreicher, Abigail Adams by Woody Holton, and the chapter on Revolutionary Black Founders by Richard S. Newman. I always enjoy writing that really dives into the characters and makes them come alive. I find the story is so much more enjoyable and really tells itself if the person feels real, rather than just words on a page.

There was one particular chapter that I took special note of, mostly to share with you. Remember when I reviewed Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When American Became Independent by William Hogeland last week and I said how I hadn't really heard much about the topic? Well, evidently the literary gods anticipated this statement and worked through my mother to send me this book. Because low and behold, I turn to chapter 4 and what do I see, "Philadelphia's Radical Caucus That Propelled Pennsylvania to Independence and Democracy" written by Gary B. Nash. So not only was it the topic I called for, but written by one of the most highly respected historians in the community. Double win. Needless the say, this evaluation of the events was much better written. I did find it interesting that the same group of characters Hogeland chose to discuss, were also contained in this chapter. Obviously, the intentions of the pieces were different. Nash's intention is to show that this group of motley individuals contributed to the Declaration of Independence and the future path of the United States. He certainly succeeds in this goal. Hogeland's goal is similar, but really focused on the minute details, conversations and behind-the-door political wranglings that produced the radical caucus in Philadelphia. Hogeland fails to fully connect how these events contribute in the long run to history, unlike Nash, who excels at this skill.

Good lord that's a long-winded review post! I really wasn't expecting to write that much! One last thing, the picture of Winston above is altered using Instagram. It's a new obsession. I love how you can make your favorite photos look old and share them on facebook or with friends. My only complaint is I can't seem to figure out how to save the image or export it to my computer! I finally figured how to save a tiny copy, but if I tried to make it any bigger on the blog, it looked super fuzzy. Anyone have any suggestions or thoughts?

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