Robert Sullivan has written a series of books contrasting the built and natural landscapes in and around New York City, including the “Rats” (2005) whose subtitle is “Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.” That’s a great book, full of relevant history and pithy observations. Mr. Sullivan brings the same quirky and personal approach to his new book “My American Revolution” in which he mines what he can see of the Revolutionary War in New Jersey and New York City. The Battle of Brooklyn is included, but the book is not limited to battles – Mr. Sullivan spends time thinking about, and walking to and around, the Continental Army’s winter campsite in Morristown, New Jersey, the Delaware crossing, and the evacuation from New York City.
Mr. Sullivan’s theme is the geography of the Revolutionary War in New York City and New Jersey. He starts his book from the top of the Empire State Building, a whimsical choice, though that vantage point gives him a commanding view of much of the area he’s interested in. That’s useful, because modern construction means that not all of it is visible from ground level. So he also uses a schematic structure of the Revolution, thinking about what happened through the seasons of a year. Sometimes that works. When it doesn’t, he describes the weather.
Weather, of course, is deeply important to human life, including wars, and one of Mr. Sullivan’s successful digressions is into the work of a New Jersey native and weather historian named David Ludlum. Ludlum became a meteorologist serving in the US Army during World War II, and he was a historian of weather, researching newspaper reports and diaries to establish a history of US weather prior to 1870 when record-keeping began. Ludlum, Sullivan reports:
has a special appreciation for people in history who have not just tracked the weather but become aware of patterns who view a given day’s weather in the context of previous weather. He refers to these people as ‘weatherwise.’
Ludlum thought George Washington was weatherwise – perhaps not a surprise as Washington was a farmer.
This discursive style is one that has been used with consistent success by Ian Frazier and Sarah Vowell. It’s intermittently successful here. Mr. Sullivan is at his best when he describes a long and unnecessarily difficult (his own fault) march from Washington Crossing to Morristown. Sometimes the whimsy is compelling. Here’s one example: William Carlos Williams, a New Jersey resident, was a mentor to Allen Ginsburg and wrote an introduction to “Howl.” William Carlos Williams, who was also a doctor, delivered Robert Smithson, the artist who created “Spiral Jetty” and other works of landscape art.
On the other hand, Mr. Sullivan’s coverage of the history of reenactments of crucial Revolutionary War events, like Washington’s Crossing the Delaware, doesn’t bear the weight that it gets in the book. Mr. Sullivan goes far afield, into the iconic paintings of Washington’s Crossing and Larry Rivers’ 1950s effort (not to mention the two state parks, one in New Jersey and the other in Pennsylvania). He describes the history of the reenactments but not why individuals might want to take part – which is odd, given how much reenactment Mr. Sullivan is himself doing. Mr. Sullivan’s reenactment of Washington’s later crossing, of New York Harbor from Elizabeth New Jersey to New York on the way to be inaugurated, is less successful.
It’s an interesting attempt by a talented writer, but the book too often feels more personal than quirky, more rushed than polished. Sullivan’s main topic appears to be himself, not history, and that’s just not as interesting as it might have been. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
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