by David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing, like Jill Lepore's über-arresting The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity earlier in the year, is a timely reminder of just what I've been missing out on by doing so little history reading these days. I intend to rectify that in 2012. A superb narrative history of the New York and New Jersey campaigns in winter 1776-1777 when the fate of the young American republic was hanging in the balance, Fischer's Pulitzer Prize-winning work breathes frigid, lifelike life into Emanuel Leutze's famous Washington Crossing the Delaware portrait by combining a meticulously detailed battle chronicle with some marvelously understated writing about the American, British, and Hessian forces. The result is a reading experience which, while often rousing due to the story that's being told, succeeds as a result of a careful marshalling of the sources rather than a reliance on sensationalistic anecdotes. In a book that Fischer himself contends in his conclusion "is mainly about contingency, in the sense of people making choices, and choices making a difference in the world" (364), I'd like to single out a couple of notable examples of how the historian's own storytelling choices served him particularly well in this effort. First, I was delighted by Fischer's careful attention to regional differences among the American army and various state militias. In recounting a battle scene where a dense fog suddenly arose to provide unexpected cover for a U.S. retreat, for example, Fischer wryly notes: "New Englanders received this event as a 'providential occurrence.' Virginians regarded it as a stroke of fortune" (101). Secondly, Fischer's unobtrusiveness as a narrator makes you really take note on the infrequent occasions when he does command center stage. On Thomas Paine's publication of The American Crisis: "The first sentence had the cadence of a drumbeat. Even after two hundred years, its opening phrases still have the power to lift a reader out of his seat. 'These are the times that try men's souls,' Paine began. 'The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman'" (140). Having not yet even said anything about the complex but essentially favorable portrait of General George Washington that eventually emerges here, I'll merely confess that even this cynic was moved by one of the teachable moments that Fischer, a longtime professor at nearby Brandeis University, produced about the tribulations of Washington and his army near the end: "We celebrate 1776 as the most glorious year in American history. They remembered it as an agony, especially the 'dark days' of autumn" (363). Great stuff--and yet another resounding victory for real history over its watered-down progeny, historical fiction. (www.oup.com)
David Hackett Fischer
I'm not one for historical fiction but I just finished Cold Mountain and think there really are exceptions, when they are as well written and well crafted as that. And they can open up new doors.ResponderBorrar
It was a project of yours this year to read more about American history, right?
DHF is my total favorite historian, and this book of his is particularly readable. Washington's Crossing is also fabulous. But truly I think everyone should read Albion's Seed for an understanding of America. It's not as readable, but just seminal. (and yes, that pun was intended, as well as true!)ResponderBorrar
Thanks for mentioning this book. My first detailed exposure to these campaigns came in David McCullough's 1776. Remarkable events, in defeat and victory.ResponderBorrar
I'll need to go back and read your post on the book on King Philip's War. I've seen several books about it come out in the past few years and have wondered which one to start with.
*Caroline: I agree that historical fiction includes a standout title or two here and there. I'd much rather read history or other nonfiction in general, though. In regard to your question, my history-related desires for 2011 were to read more about Native Americans and the settling of the U.S. West, which I did OK on quality-wise but not really quantity-wise. My hope for 2012 is to include a more balanced mix of U.S. and world history reading and more history titles overall.ResponderBorrar
*Jill: I was trying to decide between the "seminal" Albion's Seed and that cool-sounding book on Champlain for my next read by Fischer, so your punning advice comes in handy once again! LOL. Anyway, thanks for the rec about Albion--I think it'll make a fine addition to the reading lineup in 2012.
*Dwight: Not a problem--it was a fine end of the year read, for sure, and the Lepore title, which presents a completely different approach to history-writing, is another one I just loved to no end! I'm sorry to say that I've not yet read anything by McCullogh, though, despite hearing almost nothing but raves about his works. You're a big inspiration with the amount of history stuff you cover on your blog, by the way.