Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saturday Review Post, 2/11/2012

The packing continues. By the end of the weekend, we will probably have packed all of the books. Probably.

Only one book this week:

William Fowler, Jr. - An American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783

Non-fiction. More or less what it says on the box - a historical analysis of the end of the American War of Independence. The crisis in question is the lack of public interest in the war after Yorktown.  Throughout the war, Congress had trouble convincing the various states to pay taxes, and thus struggled with paying the army, especially the officers. The British army was trying to leave the US, but didn't want to do it in such a way that they might get ambushed by the American army.  The American army needed to stay in the field to make sure that the British didn't launch any further attacks. The army teetered on the edge of mutiny, as it was forced to sit around upstate New York not actually doing anything, but not getting paid. The country teetered on the edge of flying into pieces. Congress, increasingly, looked useless. All exciting stuff. So how did Fowler make the whole thing dry and boring?

Ok, dry and boring is a little harsh - the book wasn't that bad. I finished it after all. But it was a little dry. And a little circuitous. For instance, in the last chapter, Fowler tells us how Washington hired his personal secretary. But the secretary was hired in 1779, long before the events at the end of the book. Why wait until the end to introduce us to this guy, when it would work so much better at the beginning? As an historian, I felt inclined to "gut" the book (although I didn't). A lay reader might find the work a little dense. There's a lot of good stuff in there, but it's a little hard to get at.

As an historian, I'd like to have seen a little more "history from the bottom." Fowler focuses fairly heavily on Washington. This makes sense. Washington was prominent. He stood between Congress and the army, both calming the troops and trying to twist Congress' arms into paying for the army. He was also key in the negotiations with the British. At the same time, from my point of view, the story is really about the soldiers who have struggled through the war, and now demand, quite reasonably that they get paid for the work they've done. To be fair, the records on the soldiers are a little hard to pin down - soldiers involved in mutinies, or even proto-mutinies, are not inclined to sign their names on things. Still, a little more balance would have been nice.

So. There was, as I say, lots of good stuff in the book. I even pulled a reading for my students out of it. At the same time, it was dry, circuitous, and dangerously close to a "great man" history. Maybe dip into it, find the interesting bits, and ignore the rest - ie, gut it.