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July 2005 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

The war is going badly.

Every day more American soldiers die and there is no end in sight. The public's support for the war, once in the majority, is draining away day by day. There seems to be no exit strategy and certainly no clear strategy for victory. The reasons we went to war are under constant political assault and it does no good that the commander-in-chief - according to one journalist's count - keeps using the words "persevere" and "perseverance" more frequently than any other terms in both his addresses to Congress and in his public statements. His famous "resolve," his political opponents point out, is just a fancy word for pigheaded stubbornness and a pathological refusal to face facts.

His political enemies - and most of the news media from the beginning of this war and now a majority of Americans -- consider him a hopeless fool.

At best, only a third of the population now supports the conflict. Another third has been totally opposed to it since before the first shot was fired. A middle third wavered, first supporting the war and the establishment of a new democracy, then swinging back and forth as reports of fiercer fighting and atrocities continue to flow in. Now, with casualties rising and no end of the insurgency in sight, with the optimistic statements and perceived military victories of just a year ago fading under the onslaught of a remorseless enemy (and an equally remorseless critical news media headquartered in New York), that wavering middle third of Americans is tilting toward opposing the war and sending the troops home.

The time, of course, is late autumn of 1776.

A recent book that shows just how terrible the prospects were for the American patriots that year, how repeatedly beaten we were on the battlefield that summer and fall, how unpopular the war had become, and how stubborn and removed from reality General George Washington - our commander-in-chief by act of Congress - seemed to so many, is David McCullough's 1776.

This is the most recent book about the American Revolution that I've read in a long series of such histories going back to when I first fell in love with reading history - especially American history - in the autumn months of Mrs. Shives's fifth-grade class in Brimfield, Illinois, in 1959.

I can remember almost to the day when the impact of reading history hit me - reading out of a social studies textbook at first and later devouring every history book that the tiny Brimfield Public Library would yield. It was an early October day when the force of history struck me. The leaves on the huge elm trees surrounding the giant old school building in Brimfield were beginning to turn glorious colors. And there on the pages of the social studies' text were the flat, awkwardly written stories of Lexington and Concord and Emerson's "shot heard round the world." There was a reprint of Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" - one if by land, two if by sea - and the description of the fracas on the Concord Commons followed by the British redcoats' long march back to Boston with American militiamen shooting at them from behind every tree and stone wall.

There weren't many stone walls in central Illinois in 1959 - and I doubt if there are more now - but there were plenty of trees, and before long I had every one of my friends - brother Wayne, Mike, Kevin, Jim, all of them - playing Revolutionary War out in the fields and woods, using the green expanse of the schoolyard block itself as the Concord and Lexington Commons, the hill two miles away out beyond Calvary Cemetery serving as Bunker Hill. I tended to provide the imaginative underpinning for much of our kid-play in those days, and that fall and winter and spring of fifth-grade, it was Revolutionary War time until the other kids sickened of it. (Especially when I had them spending long hours out in the snowy woods reenacting "Valley Forge.")

I remember giving sound-effects tutorials to the other kids on the proper sound of a muzzle-loading musket being fired - the ka-chooo-kuh-uh noise that I'd cribbed from the Disney Johnny Tremain movie and the old Davy Crockett shows on Disneyland.

The love affair with reading history that began in the autumn of my fifth-grade has never faded. I confess that I read several books a week on average (for pleasure, that is, in addition to books consumed for research for my own writing), and to this day history and biographies of historical personages fill the majority of that reading.

On my shelves and bedside tables right now are quite a few recently read books on the Revolution. The last few years have been a treasure trove of both scholarship and fine writing on the subject. Included in my stacks, in no special order here, besides McCullough's 1776, are -

McCullough's other recent biography, John Adams, which almost singlehandedly rescued that fascinating Founding Father from his long-held image of being a curmudgeonly grouch and mere foil to Thomas Jefferson's brilliance. (Jefferson's reputation has been on the wane the last years, which is the fate of those whose too-human behavior is so disconnected from their high-toned writings and statements. But Jefferson was still the best writer of the Revolutionary and Constitutional era. Without him as our pre-eminent post-Enlightenment philosophe, we in America simply would not think of ourselves in the same way today.)

Other books about John Adams stacked here include Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis. Other fine books by Joseph Ellis are American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and the wonderful Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (which consists of marvelous vignettes - such as the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr - guaranteed to suck readers into that era) and His Excellency: George Washington.

Perhaps my favorite book about John Adams is The Book of Abigail & John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family 1762-1784, which reveals in their own words the near lifelong love affair between John and Abigail, shows their deep friendship as equals, and gives us Abigail Adams's usually insightful comments on the current events of their world which shaped our world. Another primary-source book that shows the complex character of John Adams is The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams edited by Lester J. Cappon. Most of us know how the two political enemies of so many years became, through their correspondence, dear friends in their last years.

David McCullough reminds us of the story - highly improbable but wonderfully true - of the two old friends, Jefferson and Adams, turned bitter enemies for so many years, reconciled as friends once again, dying a few hours apart on the same day. It was July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day of the proclamation of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The most surprising popular biography of a Revoutionary-era person to appear in recent years is, I think, Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. The first Secretary of the Treasury (and foreign-born bastard, and artillery captain under Washington, and . . .you name it ) not only had his reputation renewed and solidified for the public through this large and well-written book, but came so alive in the pages that Hamilton is now my favorite Founding Fathers' personality. (Perhaps because the man's faults and strengths seem so strangely familiar to me.)

George Washington has also made a comeback in recent years - moving beyond the Gilbert Stuart portait and jokes about wooden false teeth. (Actually, they were made of ivory . . . when Washington was elected president, he had precisely one real tooth left in his mouth. No wonder his portraits looked so serious and thin-lipped.) Some of the Washington books on my shelves at the moment include Bruce Chadwick's George Washington's War and The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West by Joel Achenbach. This last book, while scattered a bit in focus, is a revelation in terms of showing us Washington's private dreams for using (and profiting from) the Potomac - after building suitable canals and locks - as the main highway to the Ohio Valley and beyond.

His generation's obsession with the future of rivers as modes of transportation - even while railroads were then in their infancy but soon to supplant much of the river traffic in Washington's area - reminds all of us science-fiction writers that linear extrapolation into the future is a mug's game. There will always be some unthought-of technology lurking in the shadows of time that will change your grandchildren's world almost beyond recognition.

Two years ago at the Colorado Center for the Book's "Colorado Book Awards" gala, I had the pleasure of hearing Walter Isaacson speak and now I'm having the even greater pleasure of finishing his book Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. This biography, even while showing how central Franklin was to our national birth and early life, also serves as a sort of cautionary tale about a figure whose public persona was one of avuncular amusement, wry wit, wisdom, patience, and tolerance, but who was in life rather lunar in the sense that he, like the moon, had a dark side which he kept permanently turned away from us.

Franklin once said, "Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly," and this biography, while affectionate toward him, shows us why he might have said that. Benjamin Franklin could be a cold, calculating, almost inhuman character at times - especially toward those closest to him, such as his common-law wife whom he left behind during his decades in England, not even returning for her final illness and death. Also, Franklin's obsession with practicality over theory, community over spiritual life, and the need always to make money and to focus on profit, quite possibly has helped many other countries to misunderstand us and some to hate us. The reality of America, of course, is as complex as the hidden reality of Ben Franklin.

Which leads us to some books on my shelf that go beyond the Revolutionary Era but which help to illuminate it.

One of these is Walter R. Borneman's 1812: The War That Forged A Nation, another example of the precept that "just wars" and "necessary wars" are often disasters for the nations which fight them, while "optional wars" and even "unjustified wars" - such as the War of 1812, the War with Mexico, and the Spanish-American War in 1898 - frequently have great benefits.

Another fascinating book is John James Audubon: The Making of An American. The man now famous for his bird illlustrations was born French and always spoke English with a thick accent, but the artist soon came to travel, know, and represent the new United States as few others in his time had. (One interesting side note in this book is the devastating economic effect of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, where the government's borrowing of money for the purchase ended up forcing many new American banks either to call in their loans or to go belly up - thus throwing the new nation into its first and one of its deepest financial crises.)

Another book that throws a powerful light on the times is Brian Hall's novel (a brilliant exercise in multiple viewpoints and varying perspectives) I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company. More than just a novel about Lewis and Clark, the book is a fascinating character study of Meriwether Lewis's lifelong battle with depression and includes a wonderful novelistic glimpse of Thomas Jefferson. (It's easy to forget that Lewis was Jefferson's neighbor in Virginia and then his only secretary when Mr. J took office as president. Imagine a president of the United States today funding a mission to Mars and then tapping his young White House secretary to lead the expedition.) The chapters from Sacajawea's viewpoint in this novel show a more alien psychology than anything I have ever written or read in science fiction.

Books on my stack that range further beyond the year 1776 include Ronald C. White's two books about Lincoln, The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words and Lincoln's Greatest Speech.

Over the years I've read scores of books about Lincoln and come to believe that Lincoln is to American history what Hamlet is to all of literature - i.e. a consciousness so complex that it can never be fully explained nor contained, merely encountered and enjoyed. White's two books also confirm what I've believed and maintained for three decades - i.e. that Abraham Lincoln was one of the finest writers ever to work in the English language. As a purely political writer, Lincoln bests even such geniuses as Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill in terms of the historical impact of his powerful and world-shaping political rhetoric.

For a contemporary - and often amusing - look at where the revolutionary ardor of the Republic's early years may have gone after two hundred years, I can recommend David Brooks's On Paradise Drive How We Live Now (And Always Have) In The Future. A mixture of sociology and satire, Brooks's book is one of the few to take an honest look at our suburbs - an important topic since the vast majority of Americans now live in one form of suburb or another. Long the whipping boy of intellectuals and movie makers (see "American Beauty") the suburbs so long sneered at for being enclaves of white, straight, Republican Leave-It-To-Beaver families all from the same mold, turn out to be as wildly diverse as the rest of this wonderfully and uniquely mongrel nation.

Critics - including ourselves - attack the United States for being the newest of a long line of empires, but if we're an empire, Brooks points out, we're a Suburban Empire since the average American has very little interest in world politics and foreign countries and every interest in living with some dignity in a nice house on a nice patch of well-mowed grass somewhere close to good schools. (The chapter where Patio Man goes to Home Depot to buy his new barbecue grill - with all the socio-political-philosophical- gender implications of that - is worth the price of the book.)

Finally, I'd like to recommend Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, a book by a particular guru of mine for many years, Neil Postman. Published in 1999 and dealing with an alternate way of looking at the Millennium and the future, the book is more pertinent now than ever. Postman takes a campaign phrase of the not-too-distant past ("Let Us Build a Bridge to the Future" . . . I can't quite recall whose campaign it was) and shows us how absurd that concept really is. There is no future out there - it doesn't exist yet. And we don't need a bridge to it, since we're all going to get there (if we do at all) at precisely the same time.

But a bridge to the 18th Century - to the Enlightenment thinking of Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Jefferson, Adam Smith, Diderot, Edward Gibbon, and Thomas Paine on such issues as education, science, religious and political freedom, rational commerce, the nature of the nation-state, and the entire idea of progress and happiness . . . that sort of bridge might have some value.

"I am loathe to close . . ." Lincoln would say here, but I'm overdue in doing so, so I'll just return us for a minute to the late autumn of the year 1776 A.D.:

After the promising victories of Bunker Hill and the lucky siege of Boston (the Brits neglected to occupy a hill, Washington took it, put guns on it, and the Brits evacuated the city) . . . the redcoats have been kicking our butts ever since. General Washington vowed to defend New York City - persevere, persevere, persevere - but General Howe landed more than 30,000 Hessians and British Regulars on Long Island in a textbook perfect military maneuver (in stark contrast to Washington's bumbling, undisciplined ranks of rabble) and clobbered us at the Battle of Brooklyn. If it hadn't been for a weird fog and a hundred unlikely events that allowed Washington and his men to flee back across the river on the night after our total defeat, Howe would have rounded up Washington, the American Army would have been forced to surrender, and that - as they say - would have been that.

Here we are in early winter 1776 and since that drubbing at Brooklyn, there has been nothing but retreats and the hasty abandonment of American forts, artillery, and dug-in positions ever since. Winter is setting in and most of the American army's enlistments are up in the next few weeks, the entire Army's enlistment will run out on January 1, and the men want to leave.

Polls show that the majority of Americans no longer support the struggle and the media's barrage of derision - the newspapers never thought we should have started this war nor that we can win it - is ceaseless and increasingly strident.

By November 22, one officer on Washington's staff - Colonel Samuel Webb, recovering from his wounds at White Plains - announces, "I can only say that no lads ever showed greater activity in retreating than we have . . . Our soldiers are the best fellows in the world at this business."

One of those retreating is a young, unprepossessing civilian aide on General Nathanial Greene's staff named Thomas Paine. An impoverished English immigrant who, like his general, was raised a Quaker, Paine just recently published a pamphlet called Common Sense - a defense of freedom that has become the most widely read booklet in America's history.

General Greene has nicknamed the young man "Common Sense" and often refers to him in letters to his wife, such as last summer when he wrote - "Common Sense and Col. Snarl, or Cornell, are perpetually wrangling about mathematical problems." More recently, there's been neither time nor humor for such trifles.

While retreating day and night with a cold, discouraged, and disintegrating American Army, young Paine has just begun making notes on a slim volume he will soon finish and publish in Philadelphia. Called The Crisis, the pamplet's opening lines will become so well known that - like much of Shakespeare's writing - they will sound like clichés to a future generation far removed from the urgency, confusion, and doubts of the day:

These are times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the services of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

On November 24, a member of the British Command, Lord Rawdon (and a relative of the main character in The Terror, the novel, set in 1845-48, which I'm writing now) writes confidently of the Americans - "The fact is, their army is broken all to pieces and the spirit of their leaders and their abettors is all broken . . . I think one may venture to pronounce that it is well nigh over with them."

Well, not quite. History never repeats itself and drawing parallels between the present and past is always dangerous, but it is safe to say, as Mark Twain once did, that the announcement of our death is premature.

I wish you all a joyous 4th of July and a fun, family-filled, and confident summer. And much good reading.

Sincerely,

 

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