Thursday, October 04, 2007

Reading "early" American History.

Although I generally enjoy reading about history, I've never been particularly drawn toward the "early American" period. For one thing, I'm not completely sold on the categorization of what's referred to as "early American". Some would consider that terminology to refer to the history of early indigenous populations of the Americas. That seems to me to be the most appropriate definition. But more commonly people use the words to refer to the settlements of European colonists, and the subsequent independence of the United States as a nation. Perhaps this is simply another confirmation of the truth of the old saying- "History is written by the victorious". Yet it seems to me to be an essentially misleading way to understand the past in this region of the world.

There's also an accompanying conceit that teaches that the United States is somehow the most divinely favored among nations. According to this perspective, the European interlopers that formed the country had been destined to expand across the continent. Of course it is also assumed that it was only natural that the original populations of the land would be either displaced or exterminated. The philosophies and documents that justified this campaign of dominance are given an almost sacred sheen. It's an ugly reality that the founding fathers were filled with a sense of entitlement and a hubris that made them believe that they were God's Chosen People. All of this does not have the effect of compelling me to study them. So much of the work published has a self-congratulatory tone. And much of it is idealized to the point that it tells us little of the realities of the time.

So when I spotted Andrew Burstein's America's Jubilee: How in 1826 a generation remembered fifty years of independence (2001), it was with a complex feeling of obligation and hope that I purchased it. At some level I believe that my association requires that I learn as much as I can about what it means to be an "American". I also thought that I might get some special insights into a time and place that I haven't explored very much. It seemed to me from the title that Burstein might present information about the way most Americans lived in the early 1800's. Perhaps the book would defy the conventional historical approach and reach past the lives of the political aristocrats and power elites. Maybe the author would humanize the era in a way that might capture and sustain my interest. Unfortunately this wasn't the case.

From the very first page, reading American Jubilee felt like a chore. I realized quickly that (while I was going to be introduced to some lesser figures) Burstein was more interested in veneration than illumination. It was moderately interesting to read about early Attorney General William Wirt, who was considered to be one of the most talented orators of his day. The section regarding the return of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette for a late-life tour of his adopted country was generally engaging. An examination of the complex political relationships of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay was informative. Facts about the descendants of early presidents broadened my understanding of the legacy of the "first families". Still I got very little feel for the way that ordinary Americans were affected by all the pomp and circumstance of patriotic memory.

To make matters worse, there's an entire chapter focused on the writings of mother and daughter pair, Hannah and Eliza Foster. I'm sure that this analysis was included because there weren't many female authors around back then. These two wrote melodramatic romance novels in a Revolutionary War setting. For some godforsaken reason, Burstein decides to burden his readers with a multi-page plot synopsis of one of these works. It is one of the most patently uninteresting sections I have ever read. Not only do we get a blow-by-blow recap, but we get an in depth look at the characterization of the role of women during this time. However, the lead figures are so idealized that they couldn't possibly transcend the treacle of what passed for literary fiction during the time. Even Burstein admits that these examples aren't very well written.

Perhaps I should let Burstein off the hook due to what could well be a dearth in material about the rank-and-file of society. In the first quarter of the 19th century, the US wasn't a very democratic place. There was still a lot of condescension directed at the "masses". Women, African-Americans, and poor white men still awaited the vote. Senators were chosen by state legislators. And there was a distinct lack of variety in media options. Newspapers and pamphlets (by necessity) would cover only the activities of the most prominent citizens. So it could be that there wasn't much choice- and thus we get forty pages detailing the last words of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the occasion of their coincidental death (they both expired on July 4th, fifty years after the passage of the Declaration of Independence). My guess would be that you'd have to be a bit of a fetishist for early American history to care.

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