Monthly Archives: May 2013

Tea, that false god of luxury

Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots, The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.

Pr. Carp’s book stands as an exemplary piece of social, political, and economic history.  Using strong, compelling writing, Carp has crafted a highly readable book about the origins and consequences of the Boston Tea Party.  The book offers readers a different angle on this crucial Revolutionary era event, specifically focusing on a concise history of the British East India Company (EIC), finances of the British Empire, and origins of the term ‘boycott.’  Carp gives readers a deeply considered portrait of who protested the tea, why, and identifies some immediate and long term effects of the incident.

Throughout the text, Carp successfully addresses interesting questions.  Why would the EIC be considered so important by British government and merchants alike?  Why was tea of such interest to colonial consumers?  Why use disguises generally when attacking the ship in December 1773 and why dress as Native Americans specifically?  Could different choices have resulted in alternative outcomes in what ultimately became the deadly conflict of revolution?

Defiance is amply sourced and illustrated.  The citations are clear, and in many cases refer to important works in the field ranging from long ago to recent historiography.  Carp, associate professor of history at the Tufts University, also recently worked with my old professor Richard Brown to edit the newest version of Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791.  Carp’s sources reveal deep research into what can be a somewhat challenging aspect of history in that he is describing and event with which many Americans are both familiar and ignorant.  We “know” the story of the Tea Party, but while ‘revolution is coming’, Carp would tell us, ‘we know nothing.’  (props to Ygritte and George R.R. Martin here)

One of the many strengths of Carp’s book is that he does not shy away from the myths surrounding his focused event.  Good examples include the discussion of secrecy in the years after the event, the idea of relationship between how well you disguised yourself and your closeness to the ‘inner circle’ of party organizers, and the ways in which the event has “enshrined the idea of taking matters into one’s own hands” (231).

Carp’s fluid writing and links between the Tea Party and other events in American history are important reasons to examine the text.  The book benefits from his stated goal of taking a ‘localized’ Boston story and making it global.

ps – tomorrow is my anniversary – 15 years of fantastic marriage to JRSA, so I might take a mini-break from reading to spend some time with the woman who makes it all possible. Love you J.


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Differences and grumpiness?

Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters, What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

Dear readers will forgive me for indulging in some author repetition in the early going of this project.  Professor emeritus Wood will be called up on at least one more time after this piece, though we might take a break from his work for awhile afterwards, if memory of the bookshelves serves.

This text is largely a collection of essays, nearly all of which have been previously printed, though Wood points out that he has expanded and revised the material  for the book (ix).  Wood’s purpose is to create a “written collection of…American worthies,” (ix) a concept he bases loosely on an interesting anecdote about Thomas Jefferson’s collecting portraits and busts of people ranging from George Washington to Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones.  Jefferson began this work in 1784 prior to leaving for France.  Wood is exploring and defining what made these men so ‘different’ from the bulk of Americans in the late 18th century.

Wood begins the series by explaining the connections between the founders and the enlightenment era and he acknowledges a unique nature in the way Americans celebrate these important figures from our early history.  Wood wonders why Americans want to know and understand what Jefferson or Washington or Madison may have thought about such disparate events as September 11, 2001, the current presidential administration (whomever this may be), etc.  Wood provides explanations of his own and from other scholars in the introduction which is a wide-ranging, if at times ‘grumpy-sounding’ historiographical essay (3-28).  Of particular disdain for Wood appears to be the scholars and historians of the Progressive Era who often wrote about the undemocratic nature of the Constitution.  Almost begrudgingly here, Wood allows that at least Charles Beard’s “underlying assumption that people’s consciousness and ultimately their behavior were the products of their social and economic circumstances had a lasting effect on American historical scholarship” (6-7).

Wood is perhaps protective of the founders, I might argue unnecessarily, in this introduction.  Wood is, and this is neither a scientific nor sophisticated observation, sounding a bit like a ‘get off my lawn with your ball you kids’ kind of neighbor.  Newer historians, argues Wood, are bordering on disrespectful, perhaps “because our present-day culture has lost a great deal of its former respect for absolute values and timeless truths” (8).  I’m not certain I agree with this point, nor Wood’s idea that debunking (a word whose origin is briefly explained on page 7) is more common because several generations have been “raised on reading about J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and his condemnation of adult phoniness” (8).  Perhaps I have misread Wood’s intent with this remark, but it seems a bit of an overstatement on the influence of Salinger’s protagonist.

At the very least, Wood answers a question I raised in reviewing The American Revolution.  Remember last week when I wrote:

“Wood is perhaps a little snippy with a “young historian” in his preface, suggesting that their complaints about certain failures of the revolution (failure to free slaves, failure to offer political equality to women, etc) are anachronistic.  Perhaps Wood has a  point, though my larger concern in this case is who was this historian?  In what context did they make this statement?  I wish I knew, but alas, there are no citations in this text so I can’t go back to the source of the offensive observation and check it out for myself.”

Now, through the miracle of footnoting (thankfully included in Revolutionary Characters specifically in this case, #8 on page 9), I understand to whom Wood was referring (Peter Mancall).  While I grasp what Wood is trying to do in this opening essay – arguing that we critique the founders in this manner because we fail to judge them in their own historical timeframe – I find his approach a bit intense and hypercritical at times.  Do most academic historians truly not realize that the founders are of vital importance, “an extraordinary elite” (9) whose work and very existence was crucial to the success of this great republic?

A key idea to much of Wood’s thought process on these giants is summed up on the last pages of the George Washington section.  “He [Washington] was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule” (63).  This statement, combined with those in the introduction and conclusion, argue that men such as Washington, Franklin, etc. will never be seen again because in promoting democracy and the ideas of an egalitarian society, common people came to the fore and they “overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being” (28).  This same notion is repeated and reinforced on pages 272-274.  Did these founders truly contribute to their own demise and the impossibility of their powers being replicated (28, 274)?  I’m not fully convinced that the founders were hoisted on their own petard.

Now that I have removed Wood’s ball from my lawn, I’ll point out that I’m most grateful for his having pulled together this collection.  I’m not in complete agreement with some of the points, but the portrayals of these revolutionary characters are nicely drawn.  As always, Wood’s writing is smooth and worthy of praise.  His discussion of figures like Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr in the collection are interesting, even if Burr is included because his very actions stand in opposition to those of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams.  Revolutionary Characters is a book worth exploring and the concepts are those with which we as Americans and historians, should wrestle.

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There goes a big slide of snow…

Gavin Mortimer, Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, The Civil War’s Most Daring Spy. New York: Walker and Company, 2010.

Gavin Mortimer has crafted an interesting, though ironically unexciting, tale of Pryce Lewis, the British national who worked for the United States and Allan Pinkerton as a detective and spy during the American Civil War.  The narrative is written clearly moves at a fair pace.  Mortimer describes for readers information on the origins of the Pinkerton agency as well quick, concise background sections on various aspects of the Civil War era (eg, the importance of John Brown, abolitionists’ positions, the nature of Union generalship, etc.)

As with many histories of obscure figures, some of Mortimer’s most fascinating sections deal with how the story of Lewis survived, surfaced, went underground, and resurfaced.  I’m always intrigued by how certain stories make it through to the present day.  As Mortimer says in his acknowledgments, “it’s taken 122 years to get your story into print.”  Partially this is because there was little interest in Lewis’ memoirs during his lifetime and the fact that elements of the spy’s life story resided in the hands of an unsuccessful editor, his daughter, a history graduate student at Columbia, an unknown apartment cleaner, and the History Society of St. Lawrence County, New York.  Historical narratives are often the result of such accidents, though I’ve rarely encountered one quite so odd in its path to publisher’s house.

When Pryce Lewis leapt to his death from New York’s World Building in 1911 (mistaken for snow sliding to the ground), he was described in the papers as a ‘famous war spy.’  Mortimer insists that his subject, Lewis, was the most ‘daring’ of these largely civilian spies that dominated the intelligence gathering through the first couple years of the war.  I don’t know that I’m convinced as to Lewis’ daring.  It seems that if the majority of your time during the war is spent having been caught and therefore in a cell, there isn’t much time left to be daring?  Granted, some of Lewis’ decisions and ‘tall tales’ as he was seeking information in western Virginia in 1861 were on the bold side, but these actions also seem like necessities given his career choice at the time.

There are several strong points to Mortimer’s work besides the writing itself, though there are some issues in which I wish he had either delved in more deeply or taken more care.  Mortimer is effective at presenting Lewis and the other spies and their actions in the greater context of both the war and the international political drama of the time period.  This fact is particularly true given Lewis’ nationality as an Englishman (technically Welsh) and in details about various officers and generals involved in giving and receiving information (the grandfather of George Patton and George McClellan for example).  McClellan though is portrayed in a bit too standard a fashion of the hesitant commander – there was, arguably, a bit more nuance to him.

Finally, and this is often the case in popularly written non fiction books, there is the issue of the research and citations.  While much of the text is pulled from the documents rescued by the historical society in St. Lawrence county, there are bits of other information pulled from both primary and secondary sources.  While there are footnotes of a sort at the back of the text, a reader is left examining pages to see where the information might fit in, assuming that various quotes will be cited (they are by the way).  More to the point, when analyzing issues of Great Britain’s relationship to the Confederate States, Mortimer is relying on books that are upwards of 90 years old and there have been more recent studies on this question.

I was given the book about three years ago as a gift by a college roommate and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.  As interesting in some ways that Pryce Lewis and his experiences are, I wish that Mortimer had found a slightly more ‘daring’ figure to explore.


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Weekends and life

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed week one of this reading and writing project though I’m thoroughly aware that its ambitious scope is probably in need of a reassessment.  First, other folks who have done similar work – 365 days of reading, quest to read a book a day, etc. – don’t always write about everything.  Second, as anyone who has tried, writing can be difficult.  I don’t mean the kind of writing I do here – this style is not particularly elegant nor, frankly, difficult.  It’s when I sit and scrunch up my face, purse my lips a bit and think about what I want to say about a text that I run into problems, blocks etc.

Then there’s life.  I’ve been able to work through a lot of these texts this week because my daily grind of advising and grading has been slashed, but that doesn’t stop graduation ceremonies, t-ball, first communions, dates with my wife, eating, etc. from getting “in the way” of the book or pen/computer screen.

Also, I did not set any parameters for this project – no rules about how many or how few pages or style of texts.  I fell into a pattern this week of every other book being pulled from the bookshelf while the others emerged from the library collection of potential source books for courses I’m teaching or research.  This decision means a wide range of lengths and styles, some heavy with citations and others completely absent of footnotes.   The Breen text was the longest thus far and was a push at some 326 or so pages.  As a result, I decided that Sundays might be a good day to collect myself, edit or add material to the previous week’s posts, and prep for the next week’s round of books.

Then there’s my preferred writing style which I’m not sure is going to work for this project and, frankly, which I have yet to employ.  I like to grasp a nice flowing pen, preferably some kind of gel ink type, a legal pad, and simply write.  Whatever words come down on the page are fine by me, even if they have nothing to do with the books I’m reading and reviewing.  It’s in the typing that the real edits start, and even then I’m not always that conscientious.  We’ll see if I can get back into this style at some point during the summer months.

A final thought or two should be offered on reading I suppose.  Years ago, when preparing for either grading undergraduate papers or my graduate level comprehensive exams, I got in the habit of constantly reading material whether it be fiction or non-fiction alongside coursework assignments and necessary historiographies, book reviews, and research articles.  The fiction particularly, but some non-fiction news articles, aided me immensely, though on more than one occasion a professor looked askance at me and said “How can you possible have time for that?”  What worked for me was what I called ‘priming the pump.’  I read, say an Agatha Christie novel, while preparing for my comprehensive exams in the history of the American west.  I might read a chapter or two of Christie and then drop it, switching to Patty Limerick or Richard White or Donald Worster.  These books, perhaps challenging in many ways for style, content, etc. almost opened themselves to me – there’s no other way to describe it.  The texts became light and swift to my eyes and I could both read quickly and retain information better, having read the novel(s) first.  Here’s hoping that this summer this old strategy works once more, and that I’ll finally dig into research on reading enough to find out what to officially call my habit.

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Enter the market

T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Years ago, I was assigned a reading by Pr Breen that was either “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America,” Journal of British Studies or “Persistent Localism: English Social Change and the Shaping of New England Institutions,” William and Mary Quarterly, or both. Or neither, though I am fairly confident the answer is the former.  At any rate, the author’s name and import in the field of colonial America and the revolutionary period is such that readers of the period should make the point of reading through Breen’s catalogue.

Pr. Breen’s Marketplace of Revolution won the Colonial War Society prize for best book on the American Revolution, a well deserved award for the Yale Ph.D. who has worked for most of his professional career in Evanston, IL at Northwestern University.  Breen’s argument in Marketplace is that English colonists, often from very difference backgrounds (ethnic, religious, etc.) were able to create a commonality and joint purpose based largely on consumption.  Because these individuals possessed shared knowledge and understanding of the greater British economy, they were able to stage political protests against the imperial government.  While the term boycott, as Breen points out, is anachronistic to the 18th century (the word evolved in the 1800s), the effect of colonial actions was the same.   A political movement galvanized English colonists in the context of disrupting economic markets.

Breen argues clearly, throughout this well researched text, that English colonists found their voices through the process of boycotting products.  These goods, ranging from silk patterns for waistcoats to cord and looking glasses among others were all to be found in a variety of shops along the Atlantic coast.  As colonists began putting off the purchase of such goods and the importation of products from the hands of the English a common purpose emerged, joining together colonists who might have otherwise remained disconnected and unaware of shared frustrations.  Long before the Declaration of Independence, argues Breen, Americans were “busily pursuing happiness, a personal quest for comfort and pleasure that assumed that all free colonists had a right to spend their money however they pleased.”  I’ve been well served pursuing this text, and interested readers in the American Revolutionary period would do well to examine it likewise.


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165-87, 2.76, 2324.1, 2396

Jane Leavy, Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Full disclosure, I am left-handed and enjoy pitching a ball at an opposing person holding a bat.  Second point?  I do not have a particularly strong ability to do that task well.

Jane Leavy’s book on Sandy Koufax is less biography and more commentary on the man and his position in the game and the time period in which he excelled.  Her text has been sitting on my bookshelf for about a decade but I had yet to open the pages – I’ve missed out.

The narrative is as smooth and powerful as Koufax’s pitching.  Leavy has constructed a strong portrait of a man who was often reticent to discuss his abilities and his fame.  In her preface, Leavy outlines not only why Koufax appealed to so many fans of baseball and people in general, but the difficulties she faced in constructing the book in the first place.  The opening pages are filled with examples of people who were fans or whom she interviewed in the process of pursuing the project, including poet laureate Robert Pinsky.  Pinksy had a poster of Koufax in his office years ago – he used it to emphasize for his students what he wanted them to know about writing: “balance and concentration; a supremely synchronized effort; the transfer of energy toward a single, elusive goal.” (p x)

One of the most effective organizational tools used by Leavy is her presentation of Koufax’s perfect game in 1965.  The game is both bookend and framework for the chapters to the entire book.  Copies of the box score to the game appear at the front and back of the text and Leavy gives readers pregame and inning by inning chapters interspersed with her story of Koufax’s life.  There are critics who have complained that this idea is lifted from the novel and film For the Love of the Game, but I found this organizational tool interesting and effective.  If nothing else, the reader learns how quirky baseball can be as this particular game featured two very good performances by the starting pitchers as Koufax’s opponent Bob Hendley surrendered only one hit and one run in eight innings.

A very good basketball player, Koufax became one of the single best pitchers in the history of baseball, then retired at age 30.  My father insists that Warren Spahn was probably better in many ways, including, obviously, longevity, but few players can lay claim to Koufax’s records and virtually no others can say they walked away from their profession on top.  Even retiring so young, Koufax was a lock for the baseball Hall of Fame, to which he became the youngest player elected.  Leavy’s treatment of Koufax the man, Koufax the player, Koufax the mystic (his use of heat/ice treatments was both legendary and inspirational), and Koufax the enigma is consistent, clear, and revealing.  The legacy of Koufax is strong enough on its own – Leavy helps readers see why.

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Livre, part deux

I don’t believe I’ll be numbering each one of these posts in this manner, but for the first few, why not a little levity?  Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution, A History, from Modern Library Editions in 2002, is the next text for review.  Full disclosure, this book is under consideration for my fall course on Revolutionary America and the Early Republic.  If Wood’s work is compelling, it would replace Edward Countryman’s The American Revolution.  Notice the similarity in titles?

Gordon Wood, now professor emeritus of Brown University, who has won a litany of awards in his long, distinguished career, is perhaps most highly regarded for The Creation of the American Republic and Radicalism of the American Revolution.  The former, I read years ago riding to work on the red line from Davis Square to Quincy.  Creation is also famous because of this classic scene from Good Will Hunting ( you can forward to about 2:20 mark to get the full effect), in which a graduate student is taken to task for his critique of Gordon Wood (semi-stolen from historian Daniel Vickers).

ANYWAY, The American Revolution is a slim, clearly written text that weighs in at 190 pages including the bibliographic essay and index.  In it, Wood outlines the origins of the American Revolution and efforts by the British empire to prevent its birth, the revolution itself, the creation of state and ‘federal’ government systems, and the overall importance of republicanism and a society that embraced republican values.

Wood argues that the origins of the revolution are deep indeed.  The relationship between Britain and its colonies, the physical distance between ‘home’ and the colonies, and the growth of British imperial power all played a role in fomenting revolution.  Further, Wood states that this independence movement “was also an integral part of the great transforming process that carried America into the liberal democratic society of the modern world.” (p 3-4).  The prose is smooth and the pace almost breakneck in some ways, but even familiar events like the Coercive Acts, discussion of transitions in British strategy, or the nature of constitution creation read freshly and clearly.

If there are any complaints, they are minor – Wood is perhaps a little snippy with a “young historian” in his preface, suggesting that their complaints about certain failures of the revolution (failure to free slaves, failure to offer political equality to women, etc) are anachronistic.  Perhaps Wood has a  point, though my larger concern in this case is who was this historian?  In what context did they make this statement?  I wish I knew, but alas, there are no citations in this text so I can’t go back to the source of the offensive observation and check it out for myself.  Other than the few maps at the outset of the text, there are no additional images.  The maps at the outset of the book are helpful, but perhaps a few additional carefully chosen pieces at the outset of each chapter might have been appropriate.

In the end, Wood’s work has accomplished its goal.  The American Revolution clearly discusses how the revolution occurred, its character, and the consequences.  For Wood’s concise handling of this topic, historians should be grateful as this book is reminiscent of Oxford University Press’s excellent “very short introduction” series.

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