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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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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.